17.3. Replacing Firmware
You've read a lot about drivers in this book, mostly because manufacturers constantly tinker with them. Manufacturers try to speed up a video card, for instance, squash a new bug, or perhaps add a new feature. Since drivers are only software, they're fairly easy to change, distribute, and install.
For information that's not supposed to change, manufacturers rely on something different, called firmware a tiny chunk of software stored on a ROM (Read Only Memory) chip embedded inside the part's circuitry. The firmware talks to nearby circuitry on a base level, routing signals to send video to your monitor, carry on network conversations, restrict your DVD drive to play only Region 1 and 2 movies (see Section 10.16.2), control your broadband router, or tell your iPod which menus to display on the screen.
That system worked fine for years , until devices started growing so complicated that firmware couldn't keep up. Somebody would discover a bug before shipping, for instance, or a new networking standard arrived unexpectedly. In either case, the obsolete firmware left the manufacturers stuck with a warehouse of old parts .
Eventually, manufacturers wised up. They wrote the firmware to an EPROM (Erasable Programmable Read-Only Memory) chip, a relative of the memory cards used by digital cameras . When faced with unexpected changes, manufacturers simply overwrote the old firmware with the new, instantly updating the product.
Here's the beauty of updatable firmware: if you're stuck with an electronic device that has an outdated version of its firmware, updating the firmware yourself lets you fix bugs , add new powers, and bring your digital doohickey back up to par with newer models.
Most people discover a firmware problem when they read a notice on a Web site, receive an email from a customer support desk, or hear a friendly technician say they can fix a bug by "updating the firmware."
To find the latest firmware for your partbe it a DVD drive, iPod, video card, or video game consoledrop by the manufacturer's Web site and enter the Support or Downloads area. Some firmware updates come packaged as an easy-to-run program; others come stuffed inside an ISO image, a special file (see Section 10.9) that lets you create a CD containing the program.
If you're upgrading firmware of an iPod or something else that connects to a PC, make sure it's connected and turned on. Then run the program or restart your PC with your newly created CD in the drive. The program "flashes" the firmware, overwriting the old with the new. It's a simple way to avoid having to upgrade yet another part.
One caution: should your power fail before the firmware finishes updating, the item you're upgrading may end up on the scrap heap. It won't be smart enough to accept the update when you try again, and the old firmware may no longer work. If this happens, hey, you needed a new part anyway. And while you're shopping, pick up an Uninterruptible Power Supply (see Section A.3.3), a handy box giving your PC an extra 5 or 10 minutes of life during a power outage .