Firmware... If it Isn't Broken, Should You Fix it?
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?
Commonly, smartphones will nag you to update your device's operating system. Windows Phone is awful for this with a daily nag on the handset and another nag whenever you plug the handset into your computer. Should the smartphone makers back off and allow us to use the device as it was originally programmed?
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?Advertisement