Update the Firmware on Your HDTV, Camera, Smartphone, PC, and More

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These days, most of your electronics have miniature computers built-in: Home-theater gear, handheld devices, phones, and even appliances now have embedded smarts in the form of a microprocessor, memory, and software. And just like computer software, firmware--the software that runs on your gadgets--needs periodic updating.

Believe it or not, many new gadgets aren't 100 percent complete when you buy them. Though a spiffy electronic toy may perform its basic functions, some of its promised features may be absent or incomplete. And to keep up with ever-changing kinds of content, your devices may require software enhancements to give old hardware new features.

To avoid antagonizing customers who might spend hundreds of dollars on a cool piece of hardware only to find a few months later that it no longer worked, manufacturers design much of their gear to allow updates. You won't be able to get every feature of the latest and greatest product via downloadable updates, but firmware revisions can make your old equipment run faster and crash less often.

What Is Firmware?

Firmware is software stored in persistent memory--usually either flash memory or programmable, rewritable ROM (read-only memory)--that's built into the device. Unlike apps loaded into your PC's RAM, firmware doesn't get erased when you power the system down. Firmware may store just the basic software needed to start up the system--like a PC's BIOS--or it may store the entire operating system and applications suites, as with smartphones.

Why Should I Update?

Users often wonder why they should update their firmware. The real answer is "it depends." Many PC manufacturers and motherboard makers recommend that users not upgrade a system's BIOS, for example, unless an actual problem arises, such as memory compatibility issues, or unless the user is installing a new, unsupported CPU.

On the other hand, a Blu-ray player needs to be updated frequently, because new features on the content discs may render them unplayable on old firmware. So before you rush out to update your coffeemaker's firmware, check the manufacturer's recommendation first; otherwise, you might risk bricking your device (turning it into a useless assemblage of silicon and plastic) for nothing.

Of course, if you're running third-party firmware (as in the case of a "jailbroken" iPhone), all bets are off. In this article we don't consider updates that break the manufacturer's warranty, so if you're installing custom, user-created firmware, you're well beyond the scope of this story.

Let's start with PCs and laptops, and then move on to other computing gear, handheld devices (including smartphones), and other consumer electronics.

General Rules of Thumb for Updating Firmware

A few general rules for updating firmware apply to all devices. They're simple, but critical:

  • Confirm that you have reliable power. For standard PCs and other electronics that you plug into a wall, power isn't a big issue. If you're paranoid, you can connect a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) to your device before proceeding.
  • Make sure that the hardware is plugged in. Never rely on battery power when updating your laptop's BIOS or your phone's firmware.
  • Create a backup of your current firmware. Not all devices allow you to do this, but if you can, you should. If the new firmware introduces a bug, you may need to revert to an older version.
  • Log your changes. Some firmware updates will reset your device's settings to their default values, so document any adjustments you may have made before updating. That way, you can restore them properly. If the device allows it, save off settings to a file (this is common in routers, for example).
  • Warn other users before updating your router. If you're updating a network device, be sure to let all users know in advance that the network may go down briefly.

Okay, now let's move on to the updating process itself.

PCs and Laptops

Today's PC firmware falls into two categories: the traditional BIOS (Basic Input-Output System), and a newer kind called EFI (Extensible Firmware Interface). EFI is much more capable than the old BIOS routines, which are still mired in the 16-bit world. On the Windows PC side, most systems still use BIOS, while servers generally use EFI. Apple MacBooks, MacBook Pros, iMacs, and Mac Pros use EFI as well. Earlier Intel-based Macs use a firmware architecture built around the SMC (system management controller); but in recent Macs, EFI has superseded that arrangement.

Intel's version of updating the BIOS from a flash memory key.
Current PCs typically permit updating through the BIOS setup screen. Copy the BIOS update file to a USB flash memory stick, and then plug the USB stick into the system that you want to update. When you start up the system, press a key that launches the BIOS update application. Alternatively, press a keyboard key (usually Delete, but in some instances another key such as F2 or F10) to enter the BIOS setup program.

At this point, you'll need to navigate to the device that contains the firmware update. To do this (typically), select the file name and press Enter to launch the update process.

Updating the BIOS from an executable file is even easier. All Intel-built motherboards are updatable through a Windows-based application. Some other motherboard makers make this feature available, too, in which case you download the BIOS update app and launch it from the desktop.

A few motherboard makers include apps for updating the BIOS over the Internet. If the prospect of a wonky Internet connection failing in mid-update makes you nervous, don't worry: Usually the site will download the entire update before the update process starts.

Laptop and desktop systems with much older motherboards may require you to start up from a bootable floppy disk containing the BIOS update. The update may start automatically when you boot, or you may need to type a command at the command prompt; for details, print out the readme file for the update before you boot from the floppy.

To update a Mac, simply download the appropriate firmware update for you system and launch it from the Finder. The update will take a few minutes, and you must ensure uninterrupted power during that time.

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