"Updating Personal Computer (PC) Firmware and Software"
1 September 2009
Summary: personal computers (PC) require firmware, device driver, operating system and software application updates to ensure trouble-free operation.
Some number of years ago, computer hardware manufacturers realized that is was too expensive to completely debug a new product before shipping it out to customers and thus instead of fixing the logic of a specific hardware piece, they incorporated a special programmable integrated circuit or circuits. These special chips hold a form of software about the hardware and can be updated to correct logic errors or to accommodate unforeseen changes. Simple devices such as a local area network (LAN) or Ethernet cards do not have programmable logic or firmware but all computer motherboards and more complex boards such as video, audio, CD-DVD burners, etc do. Also wireless routers and other networking hardware have firmware.
Before performing any other computer update, you need to update any and all computer firmware. Now I know what you are thinking and that is as long as I do a Microsoft update from Microsoft's website, all needed firmware updates will be accomplished automatically. Wrong. Microsoft's update website deals with their operating system and some device drivers but not firmware. To get firmware updates, you must go to the PC's manufacturer's website and with the model number of your PC or laptop, search for and download all applicable firmware updates.
Of all firmware updates, updating the computer motherboard is the most critical and must be done absolutely according to the instructions provided by the manufacturer. When motherboard firmware updates first became available, they were not easy to install and I did "brick" or make totally useless a motherboard because I did not follow the update instructions to the letter. Now, these days, motherboard firmware updating is easier but still you must follow the instructions carefully.
In most cases, you will be able to find all firmware updates for your specific PC or laptop on the manufacture's website but if you have added third party boards, you will have to check the website for those manufactures for possible firmware updates.
A CD-DVD burner or reader can be a special case. You may find firmware updates on your PC's or laptop's manufacturer's website or you may not. In this case, you will have to determine exactly who manufactured the drive in your system and check that manufacture's website. For example, HP does not build CD-DVD devices and buys them from LG or some other supplier. HP may have their own model number or even name for the drive but it actually is an LG or other. So determine who made your CD-DVD drive and check their website.
Finally, just because you have updated all applicable firmware does not mean that you can then simply forget it. I have seen a manufacturer release 2 or even 3 firmware updates for a device and thus periodically you will have to check to see there is a new update for your system's firmware.
Device Driver Updates.
For definition, a device driver is a special piece of software, which "sets" between an operating system and a piece of hardware. All devices such as a video card, Ethernet card, audio board, CD-DVD, etc, have a device driver. As is the case with firmware, manufacturers ship devices before they are fully debugged for a specific operating system and thus changes to device drivers are not all that uncommon, especially a couple months after a new PC or laptop is released for sale. Now unlike firmware, which usually is not available for automatic download from Microsoft's update website, you will often see new device drivers listed in a Microsoft update. BUT, not all manufactures supply device driver updates to Microsoft for automatic download and install. For example, Sony does not provide any device drive updates to Microsoft and thus you must go to the Sony website and using your model number, download and install any applicable device drivers.
Operating System Updates.
For definition, the operating system is the software, which deals with a computer's motherboard, all attached devices and controls memory and the central processing unit such that programs or applications can be started by a user or the system itself and the system does useful work. As with any computer product, fully debugging an operating system before it is released to the public is expensive and so the product is released and the public does the debugging. Microsoft is no different. In their defense, the most complicated component of a computer system is the operating system. To Microsoft's credit, they continually are making their operating system update website more robust and easier to use.
One feature Microsoft built into later versions of Windows XP and then Vista was that a user could define he or she wanted the operating system to automatically update itself or at least check for updates off the Microsoft website each day. I have all my computer systems set up to do this BUT this only works if you have set the automatic update for a time when your computer system is actually powered on and connected to the Internet. I think, by default, automatic updates are checked for around midnight and many folks turn their computers off before they go to bed and thus Microsoft's update website is never checked automatically!
And just because you have gone to Microsoft's website and downloaded a ton of updates, does not mean that once these updates are installed you do not have to recheck Microsoft's website. For example, Microsoft's website might find your system needs "X" or "Y" update, you download and install. If you do not check Microsoft's website again, you will not know that "X" or "Y" now needs another update. So you must keep checking Microsoft's website over and over again until the site says there are no more updates applicable to your system.
Application Software Update.
A computer system without applications such as Microsoft's "Word" or Adobe's "Photoshop" would be rather limited and thus every system except those designed as web surfers and email access points has all sorts of application software. Already been repeated too many times, but like everything else, applications are released to the public before they are completely debugged and thus the manufacturer must release "patches" or updates to fix various problems found by users with their product.
If an application is from Microsoft, such as "Word", then Microsoft's update website will detect "Word" as being installed and provide any or all applicable "patches" or updates. I say this but to be sure, check Microsoft's main website for application updates.
In general, software applications from other than Microsoft will not be found on Microsoft's update website. You will have to go to the manufacturer's website to see if an update is available. Here, I advise checking often and downloading every update or patch found as software application manufacturers like to quickly discontinue support for a specific revision or version of an application and more or less force you to buy the next release or version. I do not think there is any sort of law about how long an application manufacturer must supply updates or patches to a released application.
When Microsoft released Vista, some applications ran fine but other required one or more patches. In some cases, application manufacturer's simply did not do a Vista-required patch for older software making it useless under Vista. Such is the "throw-away" world these days. But the point being that you should check your applications often for updates.
Dialup. If you still have dialup, have no idea how you maintain your system. Some updates from Microsoft can be greater than 40, 50 or even 90 megabytes, which is an impossible download over a dialup line. Some updates are available via a bought CD or DVD Rom from the device or software manufacturer. I think all Microsoft updates, such as the update from version 1.0 of Windows XP to version 3.0 or whatever it is currently, is available as a purchase option from Microsoft.
"Save" or "Run?" Some updates ask you if you want to "Save" or "Run". I prefer to do a save to hard disk operation and then run. I do this as I have had systems completely crash to the point that hardware or an operating system had to be replaced and a "Save" saved me the time from having to download an update all over again and in some cases, especially with application software, an update is no longer available for download. It is just me, but I save all updates that can be "Saved" in a folder under "Programs" on my hard disk. The folder name is AAA-Downloaded off the Web. With this name, it is the first folder listed if you do a "details" view of the Programs folder. Download file names: software updates carry some crazy names like 123-qq.exe, which tells you nothing about what device or application the update is for, so I create a folder under "AAA-Downloaded off the Web" for each specific update and the name of the folder defines what the update is for. For example, I have a download for the audio chips on my Intel motherboard, which I hold in a folder labeled "Driver - Intel Motherboard Audio." Use whatever you want as folder names and store updates where ever you want but I recommend you "Save" rather than "Run". Finally, it is advisable to periodically make a CD or DVD of all downloaded updates. As I said, a system crash can happen at anytime and you would hate to lose all your updates stored only on a bad hard drive.