Firmware – it has advantages, and disadvantages

One of the interesting side effects of digital home entertainment equipment is that products are no longer set in concrete. It used to be that you’d buy some gadget or other and what you purchased you were stuck with. If there were things you didn’t like about it, then you simply had to cope, or sell the item off and buy something else.

But these days the operating logic of much home entertainment equipment resides in (I think) EPROM (electronically programmable read only memory, although they may simply use some form of flash memory these days). So your device is no longer static, but can improve over time — if you install the firmware updates.

Take, for example, the Samsung BDP-P1400 Blu-ray player. This is remarkably cheap for a Blu-ray player ($769 RRP in Australia), yet it can deliver 1080p24 and all the different audio standards as bitstreams over HDMI. It has worked well on the eight or ten Blu-ray discs I’ve used it with.

Except that at 1080p24 it skipped the odd frame, seemingly randomly. Sometimes you’d go twenty minutes without any problems, but then you’d have a jerk in the video happen several times within a few minutes.

So I upgraded the firmware. With the Samsung you can plug it into your home network and have it do the upgrade itself, or you can download the new firmware from Samsung, burn it to a CD and load it that way. I actually did both.

When I had finished, the jerk had gone away. Samsung had corrected it with programming improved firmware.

This kind of thing happens with most new generation digital devices. Toshiba regularly issues updates for its HD DVD players. I recently reviewed a Sony Blu-ray player and for it to work properly with some discs, it also needed a firmware update. Ditto for Pioneer. Also for many digital TV receivers and personal video recorders. I’ve even done it with three different DVD players.

Disadvantages? Well, there must be a temptation to get products out the door sooner, before they are fully debugged, since they can fix them as time goes on.

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