Firmware vs software: what’s the difference?

Many elements go into the manufacture of modern technological devices. Countless hardware components, various types of software, and of course essential firmware. Although we know that hardware is an umbrella term for the physical parts of a device, the waters get a little murkier when it comes to differentiating between firmware and software.

So what is the difference between firmware and software?


What is firmware?

First of all, it is important to note that firmware is a type of software, but it is called something else because it is not the same as the software you probably imagine.

The term “firmware” refers to software programmed on hardware, often a motherboard, but also routers, smartphones, and many other pieces of technology that use an integrated circuit. Firmware basically consists of an instruction set or code that determines the operation of a piece of hardware. This type of software uses a low-level coding language (especially C language) and usually does not occupy much memory on the device.

Unlike software, firmware is not designed for human engagement or user experience. It is more convenient and essential and works in the background to ensure that the physical elements of your device are working properly. Firmware is much more permanent than software, and some devices last their lifetime without ever receiving a firmware update.

However, the nature of firmware has changed over the years and it is now easier to update your firmware than before. Although software updates are generally much easier to perform, it is possible to update your firmware, although you will rarely need to do so on a given device. People usually update their firmware to fix bugs affecting the performance of their device. Wi-Fi routers are a great example of a device that can benefit greatly from a firmware update.

What is software?

“Software” is a generic term covering a very, very large group of programs. As mentioned earlier, firmware is technically software, but it differs so much from common software that it has its own term.

Software is used to tell a device how to perform tasks and determine how the user interface looks. There are two broad categories of software: application software and system software.

Unlike firmware, software uses both low-level and high-level coding language. The most popular high-level languages ​​used in software design are C++, Python, and Java. Some types of software are essential to the operation of a device, while others are not. System software, for example, is very important, while application software is often not essential. You couldn’t use your phone without your operating system, but you could without your social media apps or games.

If you’re using a laptop or smartphone, chances are you’ve already performed a software update. Software updates are very common because software is designed to be changed and improved. You can perform one or two software updates per month on a given device, while firmware updates are rare.

Another key difference between firmware and software is that firmware is stored on non-volatile memory. Non-volatile memory refers to types of storage that retain data even when a device is not turned on. Examples include flash memory and phase change memory (PCM). Volatile memory, on the other hand, needs a power source to store data. Software programs can use both volatile and non-volatile memory.

Firmware and software are both integrated in different ways

Although there are many differences between software and firmware, both provide crucial instructions that allow a device to function properly. You use software and firmware every day every time you check your phone, update your settings, stream a movie on your laptop, or download a social media post. So it’s safe to say that these two technologies play a huge role in the daily activities we do on our trusted devices.

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