Firmware vs Software: 15 Key Differences
Technology is inextricably linked to our lives. Did you know that by 2019, 90% of global digital data was created within only the previous two years? That number has continued to grow as more people become familiar with technology. But how much do we really understand our devices?
Most of us already know what hardware and software are. What about firmware? Do you know how firmware vs software differs?
We know that hardware is the physical aspect of a device that we can touch, like the touchscreen, and we know that software sends instructions to the hardware to help it perform the necessary functions. Most software that we use today, like your computer’s operating system, is developed by the best software developers.
Now, while understanding software is easy enough, understanding firmware can be a bit tricky. Why? Because firmware is also software, but it is also connected to the hardware.
Confused? Let’s take a closer look at the major differences that firmware vs software entails and what makes them so important.
Understanding Software And Firmware
In a world that is becoming more digitized by the day, understanding widely used terms like “software” and “firmware” becomes important. But before we move on to the factors distinguishing firmware vs software, let us first understand what these terms mean.
What Is Software?
Software is the collection of data and instructions that direct the computer to accomplish specific tasks. It is a program that runs any given device and thus forms a virtual part of the device.
Think of it this way — the hardware is the physical components of the computer, but the software is the system that makes those physical parts work.
Every computer comes equipped with basic software, such as an operating system, without which it will not function. Apart from this pre-installed software, you can also add other software that will carry out specific functions like photo editing and playing videos.
Software can be further categorized into system software, application software, and programming software.
1. System Software
System software refers to a set of computer programs that work together with the hardware components to make the computer work.
An example of system software that you may be most familiar with is the operating system (OS) of your computer.
The OS helps operate a computer’s processing capabilities and manages all the other programs on a computer. The system software essentially acts as an interface between the computer’s hardware and you, the end user.
Other examples of system software include device drivers, interpreters, assemblers, computer language translators, and firmware.
2. Application Software
While system software is general-purpose software, application software is purpose-specific software designed for a specific task or user requirement. For example, a medical center may use application software to manage patient and doctor records. In contrast, a mall or a store will use it to manage employee records, product details, and product availability.
However, you should note that application software does not have direct control over the hardware. So, the system software first processes information from the application software and then conveys it to the hardware.
Some examples of application software are Word, anti-virus, spreadsheet, PowerPoint, media player, and photo/video player/editor.
3. Programming software
If you’ve ever wondered how software is developed, it’s through programming software.
Programming software is a set of programs that software developers/coders use to develop other applications. Developers use multiple programming software to create programs. For example, a developer will use a programming language such as Java or C to write code. Then, programming tools like compilers will translate this high-level language into machine code in the form of bytes and bits that the computer can interpret and execute.
While programming software is often categorized under system software, there is still some debate about this.
Examples of programming software include malware, compilers, and debuggers.
How We Use Software In Our Daily Lives
Technology is an integral part of our lives. Whether we realize it or not, software is a crucial part of our daily lives, offering convenient solutions to several important tasks. It makes our daily lives more comfortable.
Here are some of the most common applications of software:
GPS Tracking: This software has made traveling in the modern world much more accessible, making it a much more convenient solution to reach from point A to point B.
Easy Access To Information: The advent of the internet has provided us with easy access to all the knowledge of the world that we could possibly want.
Ease Of Communication: Applications like WhatsApp and Skype have made the world smaller. You can chat or send photos, audio, and videos to stay connected with someone at the other end of the globe.
Software For Companies: There is special software that is custom designed to meet the needs of various companies, such as financial services, data analysis, and project management.
Other Appliances: Some more common software we use include home security systems, printers, digital alarm clocks, and fire alarms.
What Is Firmware?
Firmware is a type of software — which can make it a little confusing to understand firmware vs software differences. So, let’s break it down.
Software is a set of instructions for the computer, while firmware is a program that directly controls the device’s hardware.
Firmware is also referred to as low-level software as it is a small program that controls only specific hardware of a device. However, in less complex devices, the firmware itself is the complete operating system that performs various fundamental tasks such as monitoring, controlling, and data manipulation.
Some common examples of firmware are TV remotes, washing machines, routers, keyboards, and smartphones, all of which have firmware embedded into them.
Firmware is embedded in the hardware device and is necessary for its functioning. It is also compatible only with the particular hardware on which it is installed. Once installed, it is hardly ever changed because any loss can disrupt the functioning of the device. This is also why firmware is stored in electrically isolated and non-volatile memory devices like EEPROM, flash memory, or ROM.
When comparing firmware vs software, it should be noted that firmware is programmed only once. If you want to update the firmware, you will need to replace ROM or reprogram EEPROM through a detailed process.
Although it is much easier to update firmware nowadays, many devices do not receive an update in their entire life. Generally, firmware is updated to fix bugs that may be affecting the device’s performance. Other times, manufacturers may do an update to add features to the device.
Types of Firmware
Firmware is divided into three main categories depending on the hardware integration level.
1. Low-level Firmware
It is an intrinsic part of a device’s hardware and is stored on non-volatile and read-only chips. So, it cannot be rewritten, updated, or changed and has a one-time programmable memory.
2. High-level Firmware
It is a little more complex than low-level firmware and accepts some level of updates using flash memory chips.
3. Subsystem Firmware
It is a unit or device that is a part of an extensive system but is semi-independent.
Why Are Firmware Updates Important, And How Do They Work?
Apart from fixing bugs and adding new features, firmware updates also help to improve security, prevent firmware hacks, and interact with new media.
Some firmware is easier to update than others, depending on the type of device it is installed on. For example, on some devices, you can install firmware updates with a click of a button. Other devices, however, involve a more complex process.
Some manufacturers provide an automatic update option so that the device automatically downloads the updated version when connected to the internet. Other manufacturers release updates on their websites and require users to visit their official site and download the latest update.
With firmware updates, there’s also a risk of system damage. For example, specific firmware updates can reset or restore your device’s factory settings, making you lose any customizations you may have made. So, unless you know your way around a device’s firmware, it’s recommended that you get expert help to install firmware updates.
A device’s complexity determines how many updates a firmware will need and how frequently they will be available. So, the firmware on a smart thermostat that is connected to a smartphone will require more frequent and periodic updates as it needs to be compatible with the phone’s update. On the other hand, a smart bulb will not require many changes and will thus have fewer updates.
How We Use Firmware In Our Daily Lives
Firmware is found in complex as well as not-so-complex devices. Here are some common examples of how we use firmware every day:
Home appliances: Various home appliances, such as washing machines and dishwashers, have firmware embedded. The firmware helps adjust the controls and settings of a machine so that you can use it conveniently.
Storage devices: Hardware and USB drives are common storage devices with firmware that enables them to connect to a computer.
Smart cards: The basic functionalities of a smart card, like encryption and authentication, are embedded in a chip which is firmware.
Automotives: Automobiles have various sensors and controls, which are all firmware, that are used to control different functions.
Mobile devices: Smartphones and other appliances like tablets have firmware that typically connects the device’s hardware and software.
Computers: Every computer’s motherboard has firmware embedded in the memory chip. It could either be a unified extensible firmware interface or BIOS. Along with these, a computer’s peripherals, such as video cards and graphics, also have firmware.
Firmware vs Software
Now that we know what software and firmware are and their different functions, take a look at some of the key differences in the firmware vs software discussion.
Firmware is permanent software that has direct control over the hardware. It functions as a link between the hardware and the operating system.
Software is a set of instructions that guide the computer to execute specific tasks. Software does not have direct control over the hardware.
2. Further Classification
Firmware can be categorized into subsystem firmware, high-level firmware, and low-level firmware.
Software includes application software, middleware, computer programming tools, driver software, shareware, etc.
Firmware is tiny, usually only a few kilobytes (KB).
Software is huge, although only virtually. In terms of firmware vs software, the size of software can range from anywhere between a hundred kilobytes to a few gigabytes (GB).
Firmware is almost always programmed only one time. The programming is never changed, and if it does need to be changed, the process can be quite complicated as it requires physically replacing ROM integrated circuits or reprogramming flash memory or EEPROM through a special procedure. You also cannot install or delete firmware whenever you want.
Software reprogramming, on the other hand, is much easier. You can also install and uninstall any software as often as you want.
Firmware is not intended to be modified, and low-level firmware found in read-only memories cannot be modified. Subsystems and high-level firmware that are found in flash memory can be modified to some extent, but it’s still quite difficult.
Software can be modified and customized according to the needs and preferences of the user.
Firmware is stored in electrically separated or non-volatile memory devices such as EEPROM, EPROM, ROM, and flash memory.
Software is stored in the computer’s secondary storage device.
7. Intended Usability
Firmware is designed for hardware. It is hidden on the device and is not for user interaction.
Software is specific to the operating system and is designed for user interaction.
8. Programing Language
Firmware only works with low-level or basic, binary language, also known as machine language. And although it can be written in a high-level programming language, it has to be translated into a low-level language or machine language before it is stored or transferred to the device or non-volatile memory.
Software can be developed by using any of the programming languages, including both low-level and high-level languages. There is also no need to translate it into any other language.
Firmware is a relatively secure part of a device and is rarely targeted by hackers. Although breaching firmware is quite tricky, it can still happen through malware programs.
Software is at a higher risk of data breach and is thus often equipped with security features that are built-in or pre-installed.
In terms of firmware vs software, all firmware is software that is permanently etched onto a device, machine, or microchip. As they only control specific hardware, they only offer low-level functionality.
Software controls the hardware as well as handles other user requirements. It thus concerns low-level as well as high-level functionality.
11. Runs On
Firmware is data and code and generally runs on the device’s memory and a processor or other small processors.
Software runs on main processes and CPU.
Firmware is etched on memory chips and is non-transferable. It is specifically designed for particular hardware and cannot be transferred to another.
Software offers more flexibility and can be copied from removable media such as USBs and DVDs and can be installed on hard disks or SSDs.
Firmware comes with advanced features like a floating point variable, perfect rotation counter support, perform all control, expanded sound features, fine motor control, and enhanced infrared messaging support.
Software features include usability, efficiency, dependability, and functionality.
14. Development Period
When comparing firmware vs software, firmware development takes much less time than software.
Examples of firmware include BIOS, UEFI, DD-WRT, etc.
Examples of software include operating systems like Windows, Android, Linux, and applications like MS PowerPoint, VLC media player, and photoshop.
So, Is Firmware The Same As Software?
As discussed above, firmware is a type of software. So, all firmware is software but not all software is firmware. It may seem confusing to understand the firmware vs software distinction.
So, to be more specific, firmware is low-level software that directly controls the device’s specific hardware. It is embedded into specific hardware and has direct control over it, whereas software does not directly interact with the hardware.
The firmware vs software comparison extends to the updates as well. Updating firmware involves making physical changes to the ROM and reprogramming flash memories and requires a special procedure. Updating software, however, is easy and does not require making physical changes.
Firmware examples include UEFI and BIOS, which computer motherboard manufacturers provide. Other open-source router firmware includes OpenWrt and DD-WRT.
Firmware vs software can be a bit tricky to understand as the firmware is also a type of software. To put it simply, firmware is software that is designed to be a permanent part of hardware and control it. On the other hand, software is a set of instructions that helps the computer perform specific tasks and has no control over the system’s hardware.