Firmware vs Software vs Hardware Explained

When you’re using a device, it pays to know exactly what the technical terms mean. With a lot of different terms like software, firmware and hardware, it can be pretty difficult to keep up.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s your laptop, router or phone, you should really keep things up to date. So when you need to complete a firmware update, you should probably do it.

But you probably want to know what firmware is, and how it’s different to software. So, we’re going to run through the difference very quickly so you can clearly understand the difference.

Firmware vs Software vs Hardware

The answer is that firmware is actually just a specific type of software. It is essentially the basic low level code on your device that is crucial for your device’s functionality. Software refers to a code or program that you use on your device to complete a specific task.

And hardware is quite different to both firmware and software. Hardware is the term that we used for the device itself and any of the physical things that you can touch with your hands. Your firmware makes up part of your software, and you use your software on your hardware.

Hopefully that makes sense. Though this is the basic difference between them, it doesn’t really go in depth enough to explain the definition of each of these different parts of your computer, laptop or other device. So, let’s start out by looking at the simplest of them all to explain; your hardware.

Hardware Explained

hardware

When we’re talking about the hardware of a device, we’re literally just referring to the physical electrical parts that make it work. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about a phone, router or your laptop – they’re all made up of several pieces of hardware working together.

Take your laptop for example. The internal components, like your RAM and CPU processor, are forms of hardware. The in-built keyboard and trackpad that you use to type on are also hardware. And, the external devices like a mouse or additional storage are – yep, you guessed it – types of hardware too.

The name hardware comes from the fact that hardware itself is set as it is – it is very hard to change. And in comparison to this, we use the term software because you can change and edit programs very easily, which therefore makes them soft.

About Software

software

At its simplest, the software that you use on your device is what enables it to work properly. Your software instructs your hardware on what to do, and without it, our hardware wouldn’t work.

Software refers to pretty much everything that you use when you’re on your laptop, tablet or phone. The operating system that your device uses is a basic form of software that allows you to use the external hardware properly.

Like firmware, software such as your operating system need to be updated regularly too. Though sometimes you can encounter issues; for example, sometimes you may find that Windows won’t update properly.

Your operating system, or OS, also allows you to install other softwares (programs) onto your device. It lets your hardware communicate with the programs that you install. But, the programs that you install are also forms of software too.

We tend to refer to these programs and other processors as applications, application software or simply apps. Examples of application software range from your Microsoft Word program to your Google Chrome browser. These are intended to let you complete a task.

Now, this explains what software is and how we use it. But, that still doesn’t let us know what firmware is, which is probably the least known of the three.

What is firmware?

firmware

Firmware is a type of software, so they’re not actually different things. All firmware is software, but not all software is firmware. It is essentially a basic or low level form of software that it designed to allow us to control the electrical hardware we want to use.

Firmware is found in most of the smart devices we use on a regular basis. Your laptop, router, smart watch and mobile phone are just some of the things that rely on firmware to operate smoothly.

Like software, which you may swap in and swap out all of the time, you need to make sure that your firmware is current and updated. With new firmware you’ll likely get new features to use, as well as better security overall.

It’s held in your NVRAM (non volatile random access memory), which means that it stays put even when your device is turned off. So, firmwares main usage is to allow the software on your computer or other device to function properly.

Okay, so what is a driver then?

software-driver

If you’re still with me, then congratulations – you’re almost there. But I should also explain another very commonly misunderstood aspect of your computing setup, which is your drivers.

When problems arise with different aspects of your computer or laptop, one of the main pieces of advice is to update your drivers. Whether this be the audio driver for your speakers or the mouse driver for your wireless mouse, they all have their own driver to be updated.

To put it simply, a driver is just a component of software that is essentially a translator between your hardware (the speakers of mouse) and your software, which in this case is your operating system. It allows the two to work together properly.

This is why it’s pretty important to keep your drivers updated. Your operating system needs the ability to read the devices you’re connecting to it if it wants to perform to its best ability.

People with Macbooks won’t need to worry about drivers, and in fact, they may not have even heard of them. This is because Apple ensure that their Macbooks take care of updating your laptop’s drivers so you don’t need to do this yourself. It’s one of the advantages of switching to Apple.

Conclusion

The truth is that whilst software and firmware are very similar to one another, hardware is something completely different.

Having the second part of the name as “ware” throws people off, and they assume that hardware must be something complicated and technological. The reality is that the hardware is just the physical devices, and the software is the data and programs that you use on it.

About Jon

Hey, I'm Jon. I'm an engineer by trade, so it makes sense that I'm obsessed with anything technology related! On the weekends, you can find me playing around with my computers or fixing something around the house. Feel free to leave a comment if you want to get in touch.

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