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Firmware 101: What is it, why do I need it, and when should I update it?

You may or may not have heard the term "firmware" before. However, if you own any modern electronic device, you use firmware. But what does this term mean?

What is firmware?

In lay terms, firmware is software embedded in hardware. The term firmware is not technically interchangeable with software; still, we are using this analogy here since it is easy to view it as software for hardware.

Firmware consists of programs written by software developers to make a hardware device work. Firmware is developed and installed by the manufacturer before you purchase a device. Without firmware, most modern electronic devices would cease to function, and would not be able to do anything.

What is a firmware update?

Firmware updates are a way to change the functionality of your device. Firmware updates are as necessary as software updates, and are an integral part of the digital world. Firmware updates are done for several distinct reasons:

  1. To fix defects or bugs found in existing firmware.
  2. To add or rewrite existing software on your device to improve performance and efficiency.
  3. To add new features

Firmware updates are device-dependent. Updates may be infrequent (once every few years) or more frequent.

Do I need to update the firmware?

Firmware updates are important, but are they necessary? A firmware update is necessary when a defect or bug needs to be fixed, and the application is no longer supported by the firmware already installed. Firmware updates also optimize performance and potentially improve processor performance. Firmware updates may allow an enhanced user experience when interacting with a device, or provide new features to the device. Some firmware updates combine bug fixes with new features.

When it comes to Nippon Pulse products, our Commander core motion controller utilizes firmware, and updates to the firmware change the way the Commander works. Most critical industrial applications standardize on a firmware version and change versions only after extensive testing. Be sure to review the notes on changes from one version of firmware to the next, and what features you are giving up or adding by applying the update.

How to update firmware

Not all firmware updates are compatible with all controller products, even within a single product family. To avoid applying the wrong update, always follow the instructions in the product’s user manual when installing firmware. Ensure that the power supplied and the USB communication are stable before beginning an update, and confirm that the new firmware is compatible with your specific controller model. Otherwise, the firmware update may overwrite the old microcode with a new program that may not be compatible with your model.

Incorrectly installing (or installing the wrong firmware update) can damage your device or completely kill it. If this occurs when using Nippon Pulse controller products, return the bricked product to Nippon Pulse to have the firmware reinstalled. Especially with the Commander core, please update your Commander carefully, as it may not be possible to recover it.

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