Firmware Updates for Your Home Theater
Firmware updates are relatively new to the world of living-room electronics. After all, you don't typically think of "booting your TV"--you just turn it on.
But as consumer electronics gear becomes smarter and more capable, it also has a greater need for firmware updates. The two primary candidates for upgrades are Blu-ray players and HDTVs; but as other gear (such as A/V receivers) become networkable devices, firmware updates become available for them, too.
For example, I recently updated the firmware in my Onkyo TX-NR3007 A/V receiver, which solved an HDMI sync problem the unit was having. Such updates sometimes even fix problems you might have assumed were just a quirk of your HDTV set--problems with audio/video on certain ports cutting out, unexpected freezing and power cycling, image-processing errors, and more.
Most consumer electronics equipment is updated in one of the three following ways (though other techniques, such as updating through a serial port, also exist).
ISO file burned to CD: Some older Blu-ray players didn't have a network capability and lacked USB ports. The only way to update them was to burn the downloaded firmware file to a CD and then install them via either a menu selection or a combination of remote-control button presses. Even some premium DVD players from a few years ago required this type of updating.
Despite talk (as the standard was being fleshed out) of using actual Blu-ray content discs to automatically install firmware updates, this feature seems not to have been realized in actual products.
Firmware copied to USB flash drive: This updating method is most common in situations where a network connection is unavailable or unreliable. I have updated several HDTVs via flash drive.
Firmware directly downloaded from the Internet: This is an increasingly prevalent method for updating firmware. Let's look at a couple of examples.
You can set up a Panasonic DMP-BD85 Blu-ray player to automatically inform you of new firmware updates, as long as it's connected to the Internet. However, the actual update screen is buried in the menus inside of the 'others' main menu selection--it's not in the 'network' menu selection.
In the case of the Onkyo TX-NR3007 receiver, the update firmware menu is appropriately listed in the 'Hardware Setup' part of the setup menu.
Quite a few users have game consoles as part of their home theater setups. Updating the firmware on current-generation units is simple, because it's required. For example, the Xbox 360 needs to have an always-on connection to the Internet in order to make available most of its services, though you can play single-player games without a connection. When the console detects a new system update, a dialog box pops up and informs you that you'll be logged off the network if you don't install it.
These updates can add some fairly significant features--Microsoft revamped the whole user interface with the New Xbox Experience patch, and Sony added 3D gaming support to the PS3 (with 3D Blu-ray support coming in September)--so it's a good idea to stay on top of them.
If you're at all concerned about updating the firmware on your device, it's worth cruising some key online forums to see whether the updates are working--or are useful. With devices such as smartphones, you might want to take a wait-and-see attitude. Apple supports iOS 4 on the iPhone 3G, for example, but users have reported significant performance decreases following the firmware update.
As we've seen, the process of updating your gear's firmware can be easy or complicated, depending on the age and design of the hardware. Nevertheless, it's usually worthwhile to perform the update, because you'll get bug fixes and, often, new features. So the next time a message pops up on your Blu-ray player or handheld device prompting you to update your firmware, give serious consideration to saying yes.