Bits & P.C.s: Firmware

One of the items that is most often overlooked on a computer is a “firmware” upgrade. Let’s take a look at what they are and whether you should be concerned about them.

When you first turn on your computer, a program is run, not from your hard drive or floppy drive, but rather from special memory called ROM. ROM is Read Only Memory, that is, it has been manufactured so that it cannot be changed. This ROM works in conjunction with the computer’s BIOS (Basic Input-Output System) to make the computer run. The BIOS works with the hard drives, video card, and everything else installed in the computer, including the programs. It is the master program that determines whether the computer runs.

As new products are introduced, such as larger hard drives, it may be necessary to update the BIOS. The computer manufacturer may also issue a BIOS update as they discover glitches in the computer. This may include such things as memory timing problems that cause the computer to freeze.

Many other items attached to your computer may also have a form of BIOS. If you have a CD or DVD writer, the firmware is often upgraded to increase compatibility with discs or to make the drive more reliable.

Firmware upgrades may also be available for hard drives, scanners, digital cameras; in fact, almost anything that is computerized anymore, including your car, may have an upgrade available.

Companies such as Dell and HP have the firmware upgrades available for download from their Web site. Upgrades for the other items are usually available from the manufacturers Web site. It will be necessary to have the exact model number for the device that you are updating; one size does not fit all.

As to whether you should do an upgrade, the answer is “it depends.” If everything appears to be working correctly, or you can live with whatever the little problems are, you should probably not upgrade. If you are having problems with lock-ups, the computer not shutting down or a CD writer that makes a lot of “coasters,” then a firmware upgrade may correct the problem.

While you are on the manufacturer’s Web page, you may also want to look for driver and program upgrades. When a program is written, it is usually beta tested; that is, the program is checked to see that it functions as it should. The problem is, they cannot check the program 100 percent so it will usually have “bugs.” The upgrade should correct the problems and may offer additional features.

As new games and other graphic intensive programs are introduced, the company that manufactured the video card in the computer will issue driver updates. These updates usually correct corrupted display problems or as updated as Microsoft updates their DirectX program.

If you decide to do the updates, be sure to follow all directions carefully. If you don’t, you may render the computer or other component unusable.

Richard Heller is an independent computer specialist who specializes in repairs, installation, upgrades, technical support, Internet sharing, data recovery and diagnostics. If you have any computer or service-related questions, please send them to The Rock River Times, e-mail or call 243-1162.

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