April 5, 2007


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Get a newer brain
Update firmware for your safety at your peril
By John ďjaQĒ Andrews† jandrews@hippopress.com

Electronics are so complicated.

You got hardware. Thatís physical stuff you can touch, made of copper, silicon, plastic and a bunch of other stuff you donít want to inhale.

You got software, the code that runs operations on that hardware. Personal computers have very visible software, from the operating system to office suites to Web browsers to media players. You canít touch it, but itís pretty obvious itís there.

Then thereís firmware. While itís basically software at its heart, its name belies the fact that its purpose lies somewhere between that of software and hardware. Pretty much any electronic gizmo you buy these days has firmware embedded on a memory chip somewhere inside it. Itís the most basic interface between the hardware and whatever menus, buttons or screens you use to operate your device.

And as with any software, sometimes things go horribly, horribly wrong.

Take HPís R707 digital camera. Seems they didnít account for the possibility that a user might try to put the camera in its recharging dock while it was holding plain old non-rechargeable batteries. When this happens, as HPís Web page describing the issue puts it, ďthe camera can cause the battery to overheat resulting in a burn and fire hazard.Ē

Or, to paraphrase Malcolm Reynolds in Serenity, it may experience some slight turbulence, and then explode.

Fortunately, firmware can be updated. Rather than have folks send back their otherwise perfectly fine cameras, HP has made new firmware available on its Web site. (Just Google ďR707 recallĒ if you own that camera.) Once you download the firmware, you just connect your camera and run the software to update the cameraís firmware.

It wasnít always so easy. Before everything had a USB port, a firmware upgrade would require swapping out the memory chip or using highly specialized equipment to re-program it. Nowadays, HPís method is pretty standard: you download a small firmware updater program, make sure your device is connected and run the program.

Thatís important: make sure the device is firmly and securely connected. A dodgy cable or faint wireless connection (for updating the firmware on a wireless router, for example) can drop the connection when the update is half finished, which is very bad juju for devices. Firmware generally isnít modular by design ó itís all or nothing. If you get 99 percent of firmware loaded and all of a sudden your power is cut off, well, your device is likely a paperweight. So itís generally not the best activity to occupy your time in the tornado shelter, either.

For this very reason, itís a good idea not to update a gadgetís firmware unless thereís a good reason, such as, I donít know, a burning battery hazard. Just because an update is available doesnít mean itís essential.

New firmware is released for a whole panoply of reasons, from fixing minor bugs that donít affect everyone to adding new features or compatibility. Is your MP3 player working just fine for you? Yes? Do you really need to have the playlist function accessible with one click instead of two? No? If thatís all the firmware update does, leave it alone. Itís just as scared of you as you are of it.

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