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Software vs. Firmware — What's the Difference?

By Maham Liaqat & Fiza Rafique — Updated on May 8, 2024
Software refers to programs and operating systems that run on hardware, easily modified and updated; firmware is specialized software programmed into a device, providing essential instructions and seldom updated.
Software vs. Firmware — What's the Difference?

Difference Between Software and Firmware


Key Differences

Software includes applications and systems that are installed on computers or devices to perform specific tasks. These programs are designed to be versatile, allowing users to install, modify, and update them as needed. Firmware, on the other hand, is a type of software that is embedded directly into the hardware of a device, typically at the factory, and is integral to the device’s basic function.
While software can be developed for a broad range of applications, from word processing to advanced computational simulations, firmware is specifically designed to be the control program for the device it lives in. This includes everything from the operating system on a smartphone to the control system in an appliance.
Software is often user-facing, with interactive elements and user interfaces that allow people to perform tasks. Firmware is generally hidden from the user and operates in the background, managing the device’s hardware functions without direct user interaction.
Updates and changes to software can be performed easily by the user or an administrator, allowing for frequent improvements and bug fixes. Firmware updates are less common, usually only necessary to fix bugs or close security holes, and often require more specialized procedures to install.
Software is essential for the functionality of modern computers and devices, providing the tools needed to perform work, entertain, and connect with others. Firmware makes it possible for all types of electronic devices to function correctly from the start, managing basic operations such as turning on and responding to initial user inputs.

Comparison Chart


Programs and systems installed on devices.
Specialized software embedded in hardware.


Performs specific, complex tasks.
Provides essential, basic instructions.

User Interaction

Often interactive and user-facing.
Operates in the background, less visible.


Highly modifiable and updatable.
Rarely updated, not meant to be modified.


Operating systems, applications.
BIOS in computers, firmware in appliances.

Compare with Definitions


System software.
Operating systems such as Windows and macOS manage computer hardware and software resources.


Basic function facilitation.
Firmware in a digital watch manages the basic functions like time display and alarms.


User-designed programs.
Custom software solutions can be tailored to meet specific business needs.


Infrequent updates.
Firmware updates are not regular and usually happen to fix serious issues.


General computing applications.
Software like Microsoft Word allows for document creation and editing.


Embedded system software.
Firmware in a printer controls how it interprets data and prints.


Varied functionality.
Software can range from simple calculators to complex database systems.


Factory-installed software.
The firmware in a router is installed at the manufacturing stage and rarely changes.


Updatable technology.
Software updates are frequently released to enhance features and security.


Hardware-specific instructions.
Firmware provides the necessary instructions for hardware to operate correctly.


Software is a collection of instructions and data that tell a computer how to work. This is in contrast to physical hardware, from which the system is built and actually performs the work.


In computing, firmware is a specific class of computer software that provides the low-level control for a device's specific hardware. Firmware, such as the BIOS of a personal computer, may contain only elementary basic functions of a device and may only provide services to higher-level software.


The programs, routines, and symbolic languages that control the functioning of the hardware and direct its operation.


Software stored in a computer's ROM.


(computing) Encoded computer instructions, usually modifiable (unless stored in some form of unalterable memory such as ROM).


(computing) Something in between hardware and software. Like software, it is created from source code, but it is closely tied to the hardware it runs on.


(military) The human beings involved in warfare, as opposed to hardware such as weapons and vehicles.


Software intended for such embedded computer applications.


(computer science) written programs or procedures or rules and associated documentation pertaining to the operation of a computer system and that are stored in read/write memory;
The market for software is expected to expand


(computer science) coded instructions that are stored permanently in read-only memory

Common Curiosities

What is the difference between software and firmware?

Software refers to the general programs used on devices, while firmware is specialized software pre-installed and essential for device operation.

How does firmware interact with hardware?

Firmware directly manages hardware operations and is crucial for the initial booting and basic function of devices.

Why is software more flexible than firmware?

Software is designed to be modified and updated to adapt to user needs, unlike firmware which is meant to provide stable foundational operations.

What happens if firmware fails?

If firmware fails, the basic operations of the hardware can be critically affected, potentially rendering the device non-operational.

Is antivirus software considered firmware?

No, antivirus software is an application that runs on top of an operating system, which itself can be considered system software but not firmware.

What types of devices use firmware?

Almost all electronic devices, from mobile phones and computers to household appliances and vehicles, use firmware.

Can I install software to replace firmware?

Software cannot replace firmware as they serve different fundamental purposes within a device’s architecture.

How do I know if my device’s firmware needs an update?

Manufacturers will generally issue advisories or automatic update notifications when firmware updates are necessary.

Can firmware be updated?

Yes, but updates for firmware are less frequent and typically require specific procedures.

What are the risks of outdated firmware?

Outdated firmware can pose security risks or cause the device to malfunction due to unresolved bugs.

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Maham Liaqat
Co-written by
Fiza Rafique
Fiza Rafique is a skilled content writer at, where she meticulously refines and enhances written pieces. Drawing from her vast editorial expertise, Fiza ensures clarity, accuracy, and precision in every article. Passionate about language, she continually seeks to elevate the quality of content for readers worldwide.

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