Many elements flow into the production of modern technical devices. Countless hardware, different types of software and of course important firmware. While 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 distinguishing between firmware and software.
So what is the difference between firmware and software?
What is firmware?
First, it’s important to note that firmware is a type of software, but is called something else because it’s not the same as the software you’re probably imagining.
The term “firmware” refers to software programmed on a piece of hardware, often a motherboard, but also routers, smartphones and many other technical devices that use an integrated circuit. Firmware essentially consists of a set of instructions or code that determines how a piece of hardware works. This type of software uses a low-level coding language (specifically the C language) and typically doesn’t take up much device memory.
Unlike software, firmware is not designed for human engagement or user experience. More practical and important, it 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 go their entire lives 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 it used to be. Although software updates are generally much easier to perform, it is possible to update your firmware, although you rarely need to do this on a specific device. People generally update their firmware to fix bugs that are affecting their device’s performance. WiFi routers are a prime example of a device that can benefit significantly from a firmware update.
What is software?
“Software” is an umbrella term for a very, very large group of programs. As mentioned earlier, firmware is technically software, but it is so different from traditional software that it has its own term.
Software is used to instruct a device on how to perform tasks and to determine how the user interface presents itself. There are two main categories that software programs fall into: application software and system software.
Unlike firmware, software programs use 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. For example, system software 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 or gaming apps.
If you’re using a laptop or smartphone, chances are you’ve performed a software update at some point. Software updates are very common as software is designed to be changed and improved. You can have one or two software updates per month on a given device, while firmware updates are infrequent.
Another key difference between firmware and software is that firmware is stored in non-volatile memory. Persistent storage refers to memory types that retain data even when a device is not powered on. Flash memory and phase change memory (PCM) are examples. Volatile memory, on the other hand, requires 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 numerous differences between software and firmware, both provide important instructions that enable a device to function properly. You use software and firmware every day when you check your phone, update your settings, stream a movie on your laptop, or upload a social media post. So, it is safe to say that these two technologies play a huge role in the daily activities that we carry out on our trusty devices.