Friday, November 28, 2008

Firmware Problems or My (Fairly) New Laptop, Desktop, Router, or ??? Does Not Work Right! It Did Once ... Or, It Never Did! Can I Make It Work?

Maybe you can. Unless it's REALLY broken. Maybe it's just your firmware (or driver).

This article is addressed to those whose equipment is NOT working the way they want it to; if your systems are working perfectly, you can go away now.

We think of our machines as hardware, and they are, but they are more than that. The hardware is frozen pretty much, but controlling all that fairly unchangeable hardware is a lot of hardware specific software, sometimes called firmware when it is written to a machine's stable memory. Usually that's what is broken. Along with computer related drivers and stuff. This software can be fixed, and often needs to be.

It is a sad fact that a lot of beautiful new equipment (including laptops and desktop computers, routers, wireless and otherwise, network adapters, and peripherals) doesn't work the way it should, even though it is or was the latest and greatest whizbang stuff when we got it..


Well, one reason is often that that beautiful piece of hardware got rushed to the customer so quickly, that the supporting software, that is to say, drivers, configuration utilities, and firmware, was never quite ready for prime time, BUT got shipped out like that ANYWAY.

Many people have their Vista and XP computers set to download Microsoft's updates to their computers and automatically install them, as they should, and many have anti-virus software set to do the same, but most of those people DO NOT have their computers set to automatically update the proprietary, system specific software for that manufacturer's computer, or router, or whatever, most often, because they can't. IT'S A MANUAL JOB.

At this time of year, when we travel to see family, and I am pressed into computer repair and maintenance, I confront laptops that won't connect reliably with Wireless-G or "N", printers that skip pages or revert to older drivers ( !!! ), desktops that will not recognize new peripheral equipment ... and so on.

Most of the time, these machines can be made to work the WAY THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO by upgrading the firmware, driver, config utility, or some piece of manufacturer's software, that postdates the release of that equipment to the marketplace, that is to you and me.

Laptops, for example, those most proprietary of personal computers, have a lot more vendor specific software than other machines. My wife's laptop, the brand of which shall remain nameless to protect the guilty (a first tier, well-respected maker), never would connect reliably with Wireless-G, which was built into the machine. Also the maker-supplied update utility didn't work.

We had to go to the maker's support/download website, pick out her machine, and see what was available for it. Finally, 15 months after this machine hit the market, we found a newly released wireless driver for her computer, which fixed the problem.

Oh, and they also had an update for the update utility so we updated the update utility and now that works, too. It's UPDATED, don't you see?

The hardware-specific software updates for my wife's laptop are still not PUSHED out to her, the way a Microsoft OS update is, and we have to manually run the update utility, which we do, but now at least, we can.

It's really useless to get angry, I suppose, since this is a problem with all of the equipment out there. But, it's hard not to be mad when you're in the middle of a problem you didn't make. And you paid good money for your equipment.

What you can do is go to the router maker's website and update the firmware, do the same for the firewall, the same for the laptop, the same for your printer, update any software for all of that equipment, and so on.

The well-respected maker of one popular wireless router is up to version 8 of their firmware for that device. VERSION 8 over a 4 year period! And there were multiple incremental releases in between major version numbers! OK, the router worked, mostly, with version 1, BUT ... there were problems, all of them documented in the Release Notes for the firmware. I know, I read those Notes and discovered in them quite a few of the problems that had bitten me.

At one point, we had to reboot the router every couple of days, just to resurrect the wireless connections. Just started happening out of the blue. New firmware fixed that. That might have been Version 6...

OK, before I let you all go to check your various Firmware and driver updates, let us recall all of those things that need updating:

1) OS software -- XP and Vista must be set to download and advise you of the availability of all updates. You must manually run the update utility, that is Microsoft or Windows Update occasionally to make sure you are not missing some hardware or application update you may need, which will not otherwise be automatically pushed out to you.

2) Peripheral or Add-on hardware drivers and software, such as graphics cards, network cards, USB to network adapters, printers, and so on. Make sure you connect with the support and download websites for the makers of your equipment every couple of months to see what they have released for your equipment.

3) Computers themselves, that is, laptops, desktops, servers, etc.

4) Network equipment, such as routers, wireless and otherwise, firewalls, managed switches, whatever.

Gee, sounds like a lot! Of course, I guess it depends on how much hardware you have!

Now, remember, if all of your computer equipment is working perfectly, you don't have to update your firmware, BUT that's not why you're here, is it?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Merry Christmas!

OOps, not just yet.

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