Friday, July 24, 2009

The benefits of new firmware

What can you update with new firmware? It varies. Few devices receive zero firmware updates over the course of their lifetime -- CPUs benefit from motherboard firmware updates, but are not upgradable themselves. Components such as hard drives and optical drives are open to firmware updates, but the device manufacturers tend not to release fixes unless they correct a specific, disastrous problem. At least, that’s what happened with Seagate’s launch of its Barracuda 7200.11 1.5TB hard drives: Users reported freezing and intermittent hangs when accessing the drive, and Seagate released a firmware update to correct the issue.

You’ll find the real meat of firmware upgrading in three areas: your motherboard, your networking devices and your portable media devices. But what will you get for your meddling? In all three cases, firmware upgrades can provide access to additional features and stability that don’t exist out of the box. You could potentially increase ability (and stability) for overclocking your motherboard, integrate advanced utilities such as BitTorrent downloading into your network-attached storage or, in the case of a device like Apple’s iPhone, improve the response times and signal strength of your mobile gear. Firmware updates might not revolutionize your digital experience, but they will improve it, and they're often necessary for new driver updates or additional device compatibility.

Before you hit your search engine of choice and start downloading every firmware update you can find, it’s important to consider a few points. For starters, although firmware upgrading isn’t very difficult to do, it has the potential to cause catastrophic damage if you fail to follow the instructions that the manufacturer provides. A firmware update isn’t like a device driver -- you can't just uninstall it and reinstall it at a whim. Compared with driver installation, rolling back your firmware if your initial installation gets botched is much more difficult.

Check, double-check and triple-check that you’re grabbing the correct firmware for your device. Some companies make that easy -- plug your iPhone into your computer, for instance and Apple will automate the entire process for you.

Other companies, namely motherboard manufacturers, might force you to wade through drop-down menus of their entire product line to find your product’s unique ID. Most devices won’t let you install a different product’s firmware, but in the off chance that yours does, the last thing you want to do is flash your product -- the technical term for upgrading firmware -- with the wrong file.

Finally, firmware upgrades can act as a reset switch for your devices. While some flash utilities give you the option to save and restore your settings before and after the update, a typical firmware update will cause your device to revert back to its factory-default settings. That might not be the biggest concern for the average user, but if you’ve spent a lot of time setting up custom networking configurations on your router, you’ll want to save those settings prior to a firmware update.

Unless your router offers some kind of settings-backup functionality (check the menus and the manual to find one), you should copy your pertinent settings (such as port forwards, access controls and wireless network configurations) into a text document.

From: PC World

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