What is firmware?

Firmware is software embedded in hardware that allows it to function as intended.

When you think of the type of software that helps your hardware function, you probably picture your computer’s operating system like Windows. But there’s another kind of software found in most modern devices called firmware that’s not necessarily the same as an operating system. These files are as critical to a device’s functionality as they’re relatively small.

What does firmware do?

So, what is firmware, and what does it do? Firmware is software embedded in hardware that allows it to function as intended and provides manufacturers low-level control. Like the one found in some digital cameras, some firmware can also be the primary operating system. According to our Malwarebytes Labs firmware definition, these files are written to the hardware device’s memory.

What is the difference between firmware and software?

The difference between firmware and software is that firmware is simply a type of software. All firmware is software but not all software is firmware, much like all iPhones are mobile devices, but not all mobile devices are iPhones. Or how all computer viruses are malware, but not all malware are viruses.

What happens if you delete firmware?

If you roll back a firmware update correctly, your device’s firmware should go back to an older version. But completely deleting firmware will brick your device. It would be like wiping out its brain.

Is firmware a virus?

No, firmware from your device’s manufacturer is certainly not a virus. But hackers can take advantage of firmware vulnerabilities to hijack hardware. For example, Realtek-based routers and smart devices were being gobbled by a voracious botnet thanks to a software flaw.

Examples of devices with firmware

We've already said that firmware is essential, but how vital is firmware, really? Well, without firmware, your device would be an expensive plastic brick. Here are some common examples of devices with firmware:

  • Motherboard: Firmware for most motherboards is called BIOS (Basic Input Output System). It initializes your hardware before the operating system loads and provides some control over your computer's components.
  • Mobile device: Your smartphone, tablet, and smartwatch all have firmware that helps you get the most out of the hardware. Unlike other devices, like digital cameras, mobile device firmware isn't the primary operating system. For example, Samsung Galaxy phones have firmware from the Korean mobile firm under the Android operating system.
  • Router: A router’s firmware helps manage settings related to connectivity, security, and privacy.
  • Videogame console: You can find an update for your PS5, PS4, or PS3 firmware that enhances performance. Some console gamers also use custom firmware for greater control over their systems.  
  • Smart TV: Modern TVs are sophisticated devices that run proprietary and third-party software. Firmware updates keep them from crashing because of software conflicts. You can usually update your TV and your TV remote’s firmware through the operating system.
  • Home appliances: Your smart home appliances, like your microwave, washing machine, coffee maker, all have firmware that help them function.
  • Cars: Modern vehicles are becoming increasingly sophisticated, with some hardware controlled by firmware. Of course, modern machinery comes with modern problems. For example, a Belgian security researcher found a way to hack Tesla Model X key fob firmware and hijack the vehicles. Fortunately, Tesla quickly updated the software to prevent car hacking from becoming a widespread problem.

Is it safe to update firmware?

Updating your device's firmware is usually safe, but you must carefully follow the manufacturer's instructions. Mistakes in the update process can lead to catastrophic errors. For example, forcing a phone to turn off during a firmware update or removing the battery may render it unusable. Likewise, turning of your Xbox during a firmware update may result in glitches.

What are the benefits of updating firmware?

  • Stability: Firmware updates may enhance stability by fixing bugs and compatibility issues with other hardware or software.
  • Security: Security fixes can plug firmware vulnerabilities that hackers exploit to hijack or damage your device. Security updates don't always come from the manufacturer. For example, researchers worked with UDP Technology's vendors after the manufacturers failed to respond to IP camera firmware vulnerability concerns.
  • Performance: Sometimes, software engineers find ways to boost a device's performance through these patches.

Features: Some device features aren't ready for action when it ships. But manufacturers may unlock these features later with firmware updates. For example, a new PlayStation update may allow you to upgrade the solid-state drive.

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