Drivers and Firmware
Operating system software controls the hardware of the computer. However, in order to do this, additional software is necessary: drivers and firmware.
- Drivers are installed into the operating system and "teach" it how to use hardware
- Firmware is stored in a hardware device (usually on a chip) and helps operate the device
An operating system will not automatically know how to use every device which is connected to the computer.
Some devices (such as hard disk drives) are so standard that an OS can use it without special setup. However, many devices cannot be used until drivers are installed.
Drivers are software installed directly into the operating system to control hardware devices.
For example, if you add to your computer a blu-ray burner, a gaming mouse, a printer, or a scanner, your operating system may not know how to use it. Often these devices come with software which allows you to install the device drivers necessary. If you do not have the driver for a device, you cannot use it.
After you install a driver, your computer should be able to use the new device smoothly. In addition, you may find new controls available for your device in the control panels, preferences, or even in menus.
A good example of what a driver is can be found in the movie The Matrix. In that movie, if a person wants to learn a new skill, they just get a "training program" for the skill uploaded to their brain. This is similar to how a driver works.
Today, operating systems often include a large number of printer drivers pre-installed, so you can quickly connect to and use almost any printer.
One problem with drivers is that they are usually designed for a specific operating system version. For example, a driver made for a scanner on Windows XP may not work using Windows 7. Upgrading the operating system may require upgrading the driver.
Points to remember:
- Drivers are needed to run most hardware devices
- Drivers are installed into an operating system
- Drivers are designed for specific operating system versions
- Some drivers may be found in store-bought operating system software, but most need to be downloaded from a manufacturer's site and then installed
The OEM / Restore Partition
- Each new computer comes with an operating system installed (except DYI computers)
- In case the operating system is damaged, a "restore" software installer is provided
- With older computers, it was called an "OEM" and came on a DVD
- With newer computers, it is stored on the hard drive in a "partition"
- The restore installer only has drivers for the original hardware
- All hardware added after purchase must be installed separately
- Apple operating systems (in the restore software or store-bought) always have all the original drivers
- Windows operating systems in the restore installer have all the original drivers
- Windows operating systems bought from Microsoft or a store might not have the needed installers
- Most computers that run Windows have download web pages for any model's drivers
Computers using the Windows operating system might be made by any of a few dozen different companies. Each company uses different hardware, and often every model has different hardware.
Every piece of hardware needs a specific driver. Therefore, a computer made by Sony and a computer made by Dell will need different drivers—even if they have the same features.
Microsoft tries to include as many drivers as it can in the operating system, but it cannot include every driver for every model.
As a result, each computer maker takes the Microsoft Windows operating system, adds their own drivers and special software, and presents them to the user as a special restore installer. When provided on a DVD, this is called the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) disc. Most new computers include this as a "Recovery" or "Restore" drive, which is part of the hard disk drive.
This causes problems when you upgrade your operating system. For example, let's say you bought a Toshiba laptop running Windows XP. You want to upgrade to Windows 7. That upgrade requires you to erase the hard drive and completely reinstall the operating system. However, if you buy Windows 7, it will not have the specific drivers for your computer. The drivers used for Windows XP will not work in Windows 7.
In short, you suddenly discover that you do not have the necessary drivers to operate many devices within your computer. The sound might not play, the webcam could stop working, even the monitor might not be able to work properly. You need new drivers!
In order to get the drivers, you will have to visit the Toshiba web site, look up your model, and hope that they have Windows 7 drivers available for download for your computer. Most device makers have such a driver download page, although it may not always be very easy to find. In some cases, makers will not make up-to-date drivers for the latest operating system. All of these points can cause difficulties for people trying to upgrade the OS.
See the image at right; it is for a Toshiba laptop released in 2006. In 2009, Windows 7 was released—but this page does not include any drivers for Windows 7. Sometimes computer makers will not update drivers for older computers.
In contrast, Apple computers do not have the same problem. Only Apple makes Apple computers, and they make the OS as well; therefore, they are always able to include all drivers for hardware built into their new operating systems, making it much easier to upgrade.
One disadvantage for Apple's computers is that many third-party device makers (e.g., scanners, optical drives) do not make drivers for Apple devices. This is because it takes effort and expense to create drivers and keep them up to date, and Apple computers make up only about 5% to 10% of the market. If you have an Apple computer, you should check the packaging of any new peripheral you buy to make sure it can be used on a Mac. Sometimes, Macs can use a device even when it is not claimed on the package—but you can only find that out by asking others who have tried, or by trying it yourself.
Firmware is software stored on a device which helps operate the device. Firmware is kept on a ROM (or programmable ROM) chip inside the device. Most electronic devices have firmware. For example, your TV's remote control has firmware. Your DVD player has firmware. Your refrigerator probably has firmware.
Firmware is used directly by the device itself, in the absence of an OS or other software. Firmware tells the device how to work. For example, your printer can work even when your computer is not connected to it; it uses its firmware to operate independently. That firmware will work together with your computer (often via the device driver) when they are connected and the computer uses the device. Even when the device is always connected to a computer (as with an optical drive), the firmware could perform much faster than the OS using driver software.
Devices used with computers often have firmware on Flash ROM. "ROM" (read-only memory) often cannot be updated, but Flash ROM can be. You may find that your computer's update center alerts you to update the firmware of certain devices, like your WiFi base station, your printer, or your optical drive. Your digital camera might take a firmware upgrade.
Firmware is not updated very frequently. Firmware is considered more "permanent," and is updated only when necessary for issues such as security or performance.