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Firmware vs Software

Firmware vs Software

We all have to fight with computers sometimes. When they work, they’re incredibly powerful and useful, but when they don't work, life gets frustrating in a hurry.

That leads down the rabbit hole of troubleshooting, and in that world, you're going to come across a lot of terms. Some that show up a lot include firmware and software. What do these terms really mean? Are they the same? Different?

This quick dive will tell you everything you really need to know about firmware vs software.

What Is Firmware?

Firmware is code that directly communicates or interfaces with hardware. One of the best-known examples is the case of BIOS. This stands for “basic input/output system,” and it’s the code that allows the devices in your computer to communicate with each other.

As an example, firmware is at play whenever you use your mouse or keyboard to control things on the computer. You press a button, it sends a signal, and then the firmware has to tell your computer what to do with that signal.

To be more specific about definitions, firmware is actually a type of software. Software encompasses all kinds of code, and firmware certainly exists within that umbrella. Firmware sits at the lowest level in the software hierarchy (more on that later), as it’s the software that directly controls hardware functions.

What Is Software?

Software is the collection of any programs and data that tell your computer what to do. That might sound familiar, and that’s because firmware definitely fits this mold. But, software can tell a computer what to do in indirect ways too. 

For instance, you can have a program on a computer that helps you with your budget. That software will have to ultimately interface with your computer in order to display things on a screen, take signal inputs from your mouse and keyboard, and perform other functions. 

Yet, the budgeting software itself usually doesn't include the commands that directly tell your hardware how to act. Instead, they tend to engage firmware protocols, and those then talk to the computer.

In this line of thinking, higher-level aspects of software often get the name “application” software. Think of using an app on a device. The app usually does higher-level stuff and then uses the firmware to direct the hardware components.

Key Distinctions

Let's dive a little deeper into these concepts.

If we refer to application software as just “software” for the sake of this conversation, then we can create a functional hierarchy for a computer. At the very bottom level is the hardware. It carries out the physical tasks that make your computer work.

The next level up contains firmware. This consists of lines of code, but it directly communicates and directs the hardware to then do the physical things that make a computer go.

Next up, we have software. Sitting at this higher level, it carries out a bunch of intellectual functions, like helping you to figure out your taxes, but it doesn’t ever talk directly to the hardware in your computer. The firmware exists as a middleman in the hierarchy.

The point of all of this is that computer manufacturers can create firmware that controls the devices. Software designers can then shape their code around that firmware. When they need to tell the hardware something directly, they don’t have to write those instructions and risk some kind of miscommunication. They simply invoke the existing firmware to do that, and everything works more smoothly.

In practice, this yields the modern operating system. The operating system is a nebulous point where software and firmware merge. You tend to interact with the software, and then the operating system contains all of the interchange instructions that allow the software to interact with the firmware . . . and from here we’re getting redundant.

Why It Matters

What's the point of all of this? It all comes down to design and troubleshooting. As a daily user, you don’t really need to know this distinction at all.

If you're designing software or writing code, it helps to know where you sit in the hierarchy so you can make everything more efficient.

Most of all, the distinction helps with troubleshooting. The steps you take to isolate firmware issues differ from steps that isolate higher-functioning software issues. The steps that fix such problems also differ.

To rapidly summarize that concept, software issues usually only show up within specific setups. If you use the same hardware with a different operating system, a software-level issue will disappear, and that's how you identify the root issue.

Meanwhile, a firmware issue can persist even on a whole new operating system.

Similarly, software updates can fix a lot of problems on that level, but firmware updates become necessary for firmware issues.

The rabbit hole goes a lot deeper, but that gives you an introductory idea.

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