Firmware... If it Isn't Broken, Should You Fix it?

Mike Halsey MVP
Nov 17, 2011
Updated • Dec 27, 2012

It's an issue that polarises opinion and that splits people, those who even know about it anyway, straight down the middle.  Should you update the OS or firmware on your device or hardware?  Recently there has been considerable criticism levelled against Apple for problems the update to their latest version 5 of their iOS operating system for the iPhone has brought.  But what about the firmware and OS on your computer's motherboard or the firmware in your NAS drive or router?

With smartphone's and other similar computing devices there are usually tangible benefits to updating.  These commonly include new features, extra functionality for existing hardware such as cameras and most crucially, bug fixes and security patches.  It can be difficult to argue against these types of software updates then, but given the recent update problems with iOS (and it's far from the only smartphone platform to experience problems) the question still needs to be asked if it's really necessary to do?

So what are advantages?  With smartphones it's a simple case of just having less hassle and less chance that something will go wrong and either 'bricking' the handset or losing all your data.  This happening can at its best cause you to lose text messages, files and photographs, but at worst can result in having to send you phone away for reprogramming.  If you're not being nagged then, security issues aside and I'll explain why in a minute, you should ask the question does the phone do everything you currently need it to do?  If this is the case then it's likely you won't be a prolific downloader of apps or a heavy user of the phone's features.  If you are a casual user who will use a phone for a year or two and then get a new one why bother with an upgrade that may not change anything for you.

While it's difficult to avoid operating system upgrades for your smartphone though, it's much easier to avoid them for other hardware.  I'm a fan of saying that firmware should only be upgraded if it's really necessary and as the author of Troubleshooting Windows 7 Inside Out I've seen many of the problems that firmware updates bring.

If you have a faulty update to your router's firmware you could bee offline for a fortnight.  If you have a bad update to your NAS drive's firmware you could lose all access to your files and data for weeks and if you have a bad firmware experience with your PC you could, at the very worst, have to dismantle the entire innards of the machine to send the motherboard back.

So why do I advise so strongly against upgrading the firmware of devices?  Frankly it's because unlike the updating of smartphones, the upgrading of firmware is still not a user-friendly and user-serviceable task.  Things are getting better, my new NAS drive can download and install firmware automatically, but I've learned over the years not to trust the software updaters supplied with PC motherboards.

As I said at the beginning of this article, this is an issue that tends to polarise opinion.  It can easily be argued that the new features and greater stability that firmware updates often bring makes it well worth updating the firmware on a device on at least a semi-regular basis.  My argument though would be not to do so unless it's strictly necessary, for instance if you have a stability issue or a hardware feature needs an update to switch it on, such as USB3 on a motherboard or a card slot on a tablet.

It would be very interesting to hear how you feel about firmware and embedded OS updating.  Is it something you do regularly or perhaps something that, like me, you leave and forget about unless it becomes necessary?


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  1. Anonymous said on November 19, 2011 at 8:50 pm


  2. TechLogon said on November 18, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    I’m also in the ‘if it aint broke’ camp – some skepticism required, considering the possible risks of bricking the device. For motherboards I’d only do it if really necessary (e.g. new cpu) or to fix a known issue – that affected me too. Also depends on type of device – my digital TV recorder gets new firmware every quarter but to me they are worthwhile improvements/new features.

    Read the changelog carefully then decide if worth it. If firmware updates address problems you don’t have – why take the risk for no reward?

  3. John said on November 18, 2011 at 6:29 am

    I usually make it a habit to go about doing something that involves a risk, only if I need to. Senseless risk usually only indicates how little I care about the entities involved. This is kind of a universal philosophy I apply to everything.

  4. aftermath said on November 17, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    If the source is closed, then you don’t know if it is broken or not. Anybody who claims “if it’s not broken then don’t fix it” when it comes to closed firmware isn’t very smart. If you’re going to “trust” a vendor with closed firmware, then it seems (at least more) reasonable to “trust” that a new release of firmware is an improvement. Otherwise, you are likely sticking with something unstable, insecure, and feature poor compared to what you could otherwise have.

    1. Robert Palmar said on November 18, 2011 at 4:54 am

      The “if it is not broken don’t fix it” is NOT in reference to the update.
      It is the existing firmware that is operating well on your system
      that yes you indeed do know it is not broken by experience.

  5. tommy2rs said on November 17, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    I’m from the “if it’s not broken don’t fix it” school. If a firmware update is needed than yeah I go for it. Otherwise I have better things to do with my time than chase the bleeding edge.

    Thing to remember is it’s your equipment, do what you want with it and to hell with what anybody else says or thinks.

  6. Chris said on November 17, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    I consider that firmware is designed to be less user friendly for this very purpose. It adds an forces users to weigh for themselves the benefits vs risk. If you are unable to use desired features with existing firmware and a stable upgrade to address this is available, typically most would go ahead with upgrading. However if your goal is undefined, proceeding with a firmware change makes little sense unless it is made clear to resolve unknown problems. I see this as a bit of a central argument that can apply to a broad selection of computer related topics. For example, while one of your earlier posts does indicate Windows XP has a slightly higher risk of malware infection, do the benefits of Vista and 7 warrant an upgrade? Aside from simply ease of installation and apparant compatibility, there is rarely something that later versions of windows actually offer (me) in terms of features which don’t already exist in the 10 plus year old Windows XP. I think that this in part plays on traditional businesses unwillingness to “upgrade”.

  7. Robert Palmar said on November 17, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    I totally agree with everything you said, Mike.

    Unless and update is absolutely critical for security reasons
    or if indeed you need a new feature that requires the update
    the classic adage “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” still applies.

    Before any update is applied though it is best to research
    if there have been issues with your particular hardware
    configuration as well solutions to problems caused.
    So even if you want it it is best to wait a while
    to see how any update has affected others.

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