Hardware vs. Software vs. Firmware: What’s the difference?

Hardware vs. Software vs. Firmware: What's the difference?
Hardware vs. Software vs. Firmware: What's the difference?

When you’re trying to solve a computer problem, the first thing you should try to do is determine whether the problem is hardware-related or software-related. How you make that determination depends on the problem you’re facing, but it often involves ruling out one or the other through testing.

Regardless of how you get that answer, there is often a lot of confusion when it comes to hardware and software. It gets even more confusing when firmware gets involved.

Hardware vs. Software vs. Firmware: What’s the difference?

Here’s more on what makes each of these “products” different, what you need to know to troubleshoot either of your tech devices..:

Hardware is Physical: It’s “real,” it sometimes breaks down, and it eventually wears out
Hardware is a “real thing” that you can see with your eyes and touch with your fingers. And, being a physical object, you can also sometimes smell it as it dies a fiery death, or hear it physically decompose in its final movements.

Since the hardware is part of the “real” world, it all eventually wears out. Because it is a physical thing, it can also be broken, drowned, overheated, and otherwise exposed to the elements.

Hardware vs. Software vs. Firmware: What's the difference?
Hardware vs. Software vs. Firmware: What’s the difference?

Here are some examples of hardware:

  • Smartphone
  • Tablet
  • Laptop
  • Desktop computer
  • Printer
  • USB flash drive
  • Router

Although a smartphone is a piece of hardware, it also contains software and firmware (more on this below). Hardware devices are also made up of other hardware devices; for example, a tablet or computer contains individual components such as a motherboard, processor, memory cards, and more.

While it’s not always that easy, using one of your five senses — other than taste; please don’t taste any part of your computer system — is often the best way to determine if the hardware is causing the problem. Is it smoking? Is it cracked? Is it missing some part? If so, the hardware is probably the source of the concern.

No matter how sensitive the hardware described in what you just read, one great thing about hardware is that it can usually be easily replaced. The software you lose may be irreplaceable, but most hardware is “dumb”-replacement is often just as valuable as the original.

See this list of computer hardware devices for more information on some common parts of a computer system and what they are used for.

Software Is Virtual: It Can Be Copied, Modified, and Destroyed
Software is everything about your computer except the hardware.

Here are some examples of software:

  • Operating systems, such as Windows 11 or iOS
  • Web browsers
  • Antivirus tools
  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Mobile apps

Because software is information, not a physical thing, there are few obstacles for it. For example, it might take two pounds of materials to create one physical hard drive, which means that it would take 6,000 pounds of materials to create 3,000 hard drives. On the other hand, a single program can be duplicated 3,000 or 300,000 times on as many devices and still take up virtually no more physical resources.

The software interacts with you, the equipment you use, and the equipment that exists elsewhere. For example, the photo-sharing software on your computer or phone works with you and your equipment to take a picture, and then interacts with servers and other devices on the Internet to show that picture on your friend’s devices.

The software is also extremely flexible, allowing it to be constantly updated and modified. While you certainly don’t expect your wireless router to “grow” another antenna or your smartphone to get a bigger screen when it charges on your nightstand, expect your software to regularly expand its capabilities and grow in size as it is updated.

Another great thing about software is its ability to last indefinitely. While the software is copied onto newer hardware before the current device fails, the information itself can exist for as long as the universe exists. Equally surprising is that the software can be destroyed. If there are no copies and the software is deleted, it is gone forever. You can’t run to the store and buy a replacement for information that doesn’t exist anywhere else.

Software troubleshooting is usually more difficult than hardware troubleshooting. Hardware failures are often simple – something is broken or not, and may need to be replaced. The steps required to resolve a software problem depend on what information you are given about the error, what other software is running, what hardware the software is running on, etc.

Most software problems start with an error message or other indication. This is where you should begin the troubleshooting process. Find the bug or symptom online and find a good troubleshooting guide to help you solve the problem.

Firmware Is Virtual: This is software specifically designed for a piece of equipment.
Although it’s not as common a term as hardware or software, firmware is everywhere – on your smartphone, your PC motherboard, your camera, your headphones, and even your TV remote control.

Firmware is simply a special kind of software that serves a very narrow purpose for a piece of hardware. While you can regularly install and uninstall software on your computer or smartphone, you may only occasionally, if ever, update the firmware on your device, and you will probably only do so at the request of the manufacturer, perhaps to fix a problem.

You can update your router’s firmware, for example, if you need new Wi-Fi-related features or new security enhancements recommended by the manufacturer.

What about Wetware?

Wetware refers to life — you, me, dogs, cats, cows, trees — and is usually only used in reference to “goods” related to the technologies we’ve talked about, such as hardware and software.

The term is still most commonly used in science fiction, but it is becoming increasingly popular, especially as human-machine interface technology develops.

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