Firmware 101

This month I would like to discuss what firmware is and why it is so critical to the operation of your printer. Firmware is something that our printers can’t work without. In fact, many of the devices we use today rely on firmware, like TVs, video recorders, DVD players and phones. Even my iRobot vacuum cleaner uses firmware. I will discuss how firmware relates to your printer, how it affects your printer’s performance and how you might improve your printer’s functionality through firmware.

Firmware is the internal computer code (or instructions) within a device that dictates how it should behave. On your printer, it controls everything from how your print heads fire (timing, voltage, etc.) to what menu options are displayed on the front panel. In fact, firmware also can be updated or changed to improve the way your printer behaves or fix features that are bugged or not working properly, but more on this later.

It’s easy to think of firmware as software that runs on the printer like Windows runs on a PC computer. The operating system (Windows) tells the computer how to handle a request to open the CD ROM drive, write to the hard drive, or open your e-mail or Web browser. All of these critical, yet basic functions, are controlled by Windows (Operating System) similar to how the printer’s critical functions are controlled by firmware. Obviously, the software you use to print with is controlling the printer, as well, but all of the information being sent from your RIP or print software is being interpreted by the firmware so that the printer behaves correctly and consistently.

NOTE: If you are curious but not sure what version of firmware your printer is currently using, simply restart the printer and note the display as it powers up. You should see a firmware version displayed sometimes very briefly. This is the easiest and fastest way to determine firmware revision; although, a service technician can also print a report that usually includes the information.

Many manufacturers will generate updated firmware for their products as issues with the old firmware are discovered or as new functions or capabilities are developed. However, sometimes programmers other than the manufacturer will develop firmware independently of the manufacturer. This is done to add features perhaps the manufacturer left out on purpose or maybe to add features that the manufacturer has not considered. I have seen this backfire on some, however, and an excellent example is the earlier Apple iPhone and iPods. Apple created firmware that would detect if the code was made by Apple; if not, it would render the product useless. “Bricking” is the coined word to describe this practice, meaning that the product is basically a brick and useless now. Sounds funny perhaps but I give this example to show how critical the firmware is to a product and to urge caution when attempting firmware updates without understanding all the steps involved.

In almost all cases, firmware code is written to a chip within the printer that acts very similar to how a thumb drive or portable flash drive works. Many electronic devices require the user to send the product in for service in order to update the firmware. Some manufacturers whose product is having serious issues might replace firmware at no cost but only if there is a problem. On the other hand, more and more manufacturers are allowing end users to update firmware themselves. Lucky for us, most printers allow the firmware to be updated on-site without the need to send your printer in, which is not practical if you consider the cost and logistics of sending a printer out for service. Many manufacturers in the printer business have created the ability to update the firmware on your printer right on the spot. Most printer firmware can be updated, provided you do it correctly. Again, firmware can add major functionality or address serious problems with your printer. But if not done correctly, failed firmware updates can render the printer into a brick, if I may, unusable until a service technician is able to replace or repair the firmware.

I have seen printer models undergo many updates and revisions to firmware code throughout its life. When new firmware is released and I am asked if it is a good idea to upgrade to it, my initial response is, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” I say this mainly because I find that using brand new firmware code can come with unforeseen issues, and I usually caution my clients to wait or hold off a while until updating. But this might be an overly caution mindset on my part and I acknowledge that there will be times when you should upgrade. Let’s discuss some of the reasons.

Sometimes updating the firmware is required because the manufacturer has switched its ink formula, requiring the printer to have updated code to understand the chips that will ship on the new ink cartridges. In this case, there really is no question that you should update the firmware if you want to use the new ink. These situations usually require someone to flush the ink out of your printer during the “upgrade” or “change-over” process. Perhaps this is an example of where you may want an authorized service technician to do the firmware update as part of the service call. But whether you do it yourself or not, this is a good example of where you should upgrade the firmware.

In other cases, firmware is updated to tell the printer how to behave differently as a result of updated hardware. For example, Roland recently updated the pump assemblies on its printers; however, older printers need to be upgraded both with new pumps (hardware) as well as updated firmware code, so that it knows how to operate with the new pumps. The printer would not be able to use the new pumps without this code, so it is necessary, and you have to upgrade to the new firmware if you want to use the new pumps.

As we discussed earlier, some firmware updates are also elective; that is, they are optional but not required. What if you have an old printer, the same as your competitor or buddy but his or her printer is newer with added functionality-like improved print quality or faster print speed-but there is no difference physically? Why not update to the new firmware if it will give you a faster machine with better quality output?

In these cases, it’s probably worth considering updating the printer yourself. Again, I want to urge caution that if you proceed with updating firmware yourself and are not completely familiar with your printers firmware update procedures, you run the risk of damaging the printer. Having said that, many people have done this successfully. If you have the correct firmware code, uploading software (if necessary), detailed instructions and a correct printer connection, you can do this yourself. We will discuss how to do this in the next section.

Some printer manufacturers have added a laundry list of features to their printers as they evolve. Some of these features include the previously mentioned faster print speeds or improved quality but also updated cleaning procedures; the ability to change feed adjust, distance adjust “on-the-fly” or as the printer is printing (which can be especially helpful in eliminating banding in challenging environments); improved test patterns and many other very creative and helpful features that just were not available when your printer was manufactured.

Some printers require you to download a software application that will communicate with the printer and manage the update process. It’s usually as simple as running the software, opening the firmware file and then allowing the software to do the rest. The “gotchas” here are making sure you have the correct firmware code along with the corresponding instructions on how to upload it to the printer correctly. Check the version of firmware you’re currently using. Make sure you don’t already have the firmware you are upgrading to (or above) in the printer. Once you are sure you have located the correct version of the firmware, download it.

Next, make sure you read any associated documentation with the firmware, usually a file named INSTRUCTIONS or README.TXT. Make sure you read everything included with the download. (Also, make sure you know how to correctly unzip or decompress the file if it is zipped.)

Then you will need to make sure you have the printer connected correctly. Usually the printer’s existing connection is used to make the transfer. However, sometimes the process requires you to have the printer connected through a different connection, like a parallel cable... again, check the documentation included with the firmware download and make sure you have the correct connection method.

Finally, the printer may need you to put it into a special mode to receive the firmware data before you can send it from your computer. You will need to check with the documentation again, the instructions included with the firmware download but usually you are required to turn the printer on while holding down certain buttons on the control panel. Only once this is done will the printer “listen” for the update being sent. Only send the firmware once the printer is ready to receive it.

When the printer is updating, it’s critical that you do not interrupt the process in any way. Don’t turn the printer off, cancel the update, unplug the printer cable (from the updating PC) or basically touch anything on either the computer or printer until the printer is finished updating. Doing this usually damages the flash memory that the firmware is stored on and renders the printer useless until the firmware is physically replaced.

Damage to the printer because of failed updates is really the biggest issue to keep in mind when considering to do this yourself. But as I have stated, if you follow the update instructions carefully, that can be avoided. To recap: Make sure you download the correct update, instructions and any corresponding software that might be indicated by the instructions. Updating the firmware with the wrong model or versions might “brick” your printer. Firmware updates will include instructions with it, so make sure to read it over and over until you are sure you understand each step. Once you have that in order, make sure your printer is connected and ready to receive the firmware update. Once you have all this done, the rest is pretty automatic.