Firmware and You: A Comprehensive Guide to Updating Your Hardware

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Flashing Your Firmware

How easy it is to flash the firmware depends on the type of device and the kindness of the manufacturer. A few scenarios are illustrated here, but the specific technique you'll use depends on what your device’s creator provides to you.

The easiest way to update your motherboard's firmware is to use the manufacturer’s Windows-based software-flashing application, which handles the process for you. If your manufacturer offers such a program (and that's a big if), just follow its instructions.

ImgBurn is a free app that burns ISO files to disc.
If the device maker doesn't offer such a program, instead it might provide a bootable CD in the form of a downloadable .iso file (a CD or DVD image). There's a good chance that double-clicking that file will launch your disc-authoring software and prompt you to insert a CD. On the other hand, if Windows doesn't know what to do with the .iso file, download and install the freeware application ImgBurn, and then double-click the file. Reboot your computer with the newly burned CD in the optical drive; the firmware-flashing process should start immediately.

Unfortunately, not all manufacturers give you something that easy to use. Some offer only a DOS-based flashing utility that you're supposed to run from a bootable floppy disk. Once you prepare the floppy, you reboot your PC with the disk in your floppy drive, run the flash utility, and then remove the floppy and reboot again. If your computer is less than a few years old, you're probably asking, "What floppy drive?" If spending money on an external floppy drive for a single firmware update isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll have to get creative if you want that update to work.

In place of a floppy drive, you'll have to create a bootable flash drive. To do so, grab a utility called USB Disk Storage Format. You'll also need the archive. You might be able to find it at 4shared; if you can't, track it down by typing the file name in a search engine.

The USB Disk Storage Format utility will help you create a bootable flash drive to run your firmware update.
Unzip and run the USB Disk Storage Format utility (if Windows refuses to run this program because it requires administrator rights--even though you're logged on as the administrator--right-click the file and select Run as administrator). Select your flash drive as the device and pick the option to format it as a FAT32 file system. Click the check box that says Create a DOS Bootable Disk and select the folder containing the unzipped files of the archive. Once the utility is done, drag and drop whatever files the manufacturer of your device wants you to put on the "floppy.”

The flash drive is ready to boot, but is your PC ready to boot it? To find out, leave the flash drive plugged in while you reboot your PC. If Windows comes up normally, you'll have to tell your PC to boot from the flash drive. To do so, restart your PC and watch for an on-screen message (it will be one of the first things to appear) telling you which key to press for your computer’s boot menu, or which key to press for setup. Press that key immediately. (If you see both, immediately press the boot-menu key.) If you get a boot menu, set it to boot from your PC's USB ports. If you press the key that calls up the setup screen, hunt in the resulting menu for a section called Boot Options or Boot Order; there, you want to make sure that USB devices are listed before your hard drive in the boot order. Save the settings and reboot your PC.

When you boot from the flash drive, watch the screen--you might have to press a button on your keyboard to activate the boot from your USB device.

Fortunately, NAS boxes, routers, and mobile devices are much easier to update than motherboards. On most network devices, for example, you’ll just have to access your device’s configuration screen by typing its IP address into your Web browser. Once there, you should be able to locate the screen's built-in firmware-updating option; it’ll probably be accompanied by a large browse button. Click that, select the firmware file you downloaded, and click to update. It couldn’t be simpler.

We could fill an entire PC World print issue full of instructions were we to try listing the exact means for flashing half the devices open to firmware updates. Though they all follow the same general principles, each manufacturer can support different methods. What’s more important is the safety of your devices. Remember to save your settings and, whenever possible, follow your manufacturer’s instructions to the letter, using the correct firmware for your device. Take these steps to prevent anything unfortunate from occurring, and you’ll quickly find that updating firmware can be one of the easiest--and best--upgrades you could possibly make.

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