Software vs Firmware: What’s the Difference?

Updated Mar 2, 2023.
Software vs Firmware

You are probably familiar with computer hardware and software. But the word ‘firmware' gets you a little confused. Is it hardware with a unique function or a type of software?

Well, let's just say it is a bit of both. A firmware is a software program stored on a hardware device that controls how it operates.

I know what you are thinking…

If the firmware is a software program, then firmware and software mean the same thing, right? Get ready for a pleasant surprise. This article will show you the key differences between these two computer components. 

Remember to test your understanding with a short firmware vs. software quiz!

Software and Firmware: What are the Differences? 

The main difference between firmware and software  

Comparison CriteriaFirmwareSoftware
DefinitionFirmware refers to computer programs that give low-level control over a device’s specific hardware.Software is a set of programs or instructions that tells your computer system to perform specific tasks.
How it OperatesFirmware bridges the gap between your hardware components and operating system. It lives and runs on the hardware. Software interacts with the operating system.
User FriendlinessFirmware uses low-level machine codes that humans can’t easily understand.The software uses developer-friendly and readable code that is easy for humans to understand.
InstallationFirmware installation takes place during manufacturing. You can’t reprogram it.The software is easy to install and uninstall.
SizeFirmware is smaller in size compared to software. It is generally around a few KB (kilobytes).The software is bigger in size. It ranges from kilobytes (KB) to gigabytes (GB). 
Programming LanguagesWritten using low-level languages (C or Assembly language).Written using either a low-level language or a high-level language. For example, software engineers can use high-level languages like Python to design video editing software.
UpdatesFirmware updates, especially low-level firmware, require a special procedure from an expert or the manufacturer.Updating software is doable by the end user.
Memory Users can not easily access or tamper with the firmware’s memory.Users can access and modify the software’s memory.
Storage LocationThe storage location of the firmware is in the hardware’s flash storage.The storage location of the software is in the computer system’s secondary storage device.
PortabilityFirmware is hardware specific. It can mostly run on one hardware design.The software has portability in mind. It can run on different devices. 
Runs OnSmaller processors.CPU and main processors.
Development TimeFirmware requires less time to create than software.Software development is a more time-consuming process.
CategoriesApplication software, system software, middleware, programming software, and driver software.Low-level firmware, high-level firmware, and subsystem firmware.
ExamplesWindows, MacOS, VLC Media Player, Microsoft Word, Google Sheets, and Google ChromeBIOs, routers, sensors, Extensible Firmware Interface (EFi), and other embedded systems

What is Software in Simple Terms?

Software refers to programs or instructions running the computer system and different tasks you can not touch or feel. You can only interact with the software through hardware tools like a keyboard or mouse. It instructs the computer or device to perform specific tasks.

Every computer system or electronic device has two main components: the hardware and the software. The difference between them is that the hardware is physical components while the software is computer programs or applications. 

Your computer’s music player is an example of software. The music player performs the specific task of playing your audio files.

Examples of Software Programs

There are different software types like middleware, device drivers, programming, open source, freeware, shareware, and utility software. 

However, the two main computer software types are system software and application software. 

1. Application Software

Application Software Examples
Source: Founderjar

Application software is the most common software type developed for end-users. It performs specific functions like entertainment, personal, business, record keeping, and education.

The apps that fall under this category are called non-essential software because their absence doesn’t stop the computer from functioning. For example, if you don’t have Microsoft PowerPoint on your system, it doesn’t affect its performance. 

There are different application software types: 

  • Mobile Applications: Application software designed to function on mobile devices.
  • Desktop Applications: Application software designed to function on computers and uses system resources. 
  • Web Applications: Application software designed to run in your web browsers.

Although different application software comes with varying features and functions, their main purpose is to make life easier for the end-users. 

Microsoft Word is an application software that creates documents or letters with text. Adobe Photoshop helps users create and edit images. Google Chrome helps users browse the internet.

2. System Software

System Software Examples
Source: Founderjar

System software is the essential program that runs computer programs and hardware. It serves as the link between the hardware and the end users. Unlike application software, users don’t interact directly with system software. 

Many consider it the heartbeat of other software. Without the system software, the application software does not have a platform to run and operate. 

Your computer system depends on system software to run properly. If you take away the system software, your device will immediately become useless. Your hardware and other applications will not function.  

While the application software performs a certain task for the end-user, the system software focuses on keeping the computer system running. 

System software always runs in the background as soon as you boot the system. It keeps running until you turn off the system.

Differences Between Application Software and System Software

Differences Between Application Software and System Software
Source: Founderjar

There are different system software types:

  • Operating Systems: System software designed to run hardware, computer programs, and application software. Examples of operating systems (OS) include Windows, Mac, and Ubuntu.
  • Device Drivers: System software that enables devices and peripherals to interact with the computer’s operating system. Examples include software that allows hardware devices like keyboards and printers to perform their specific tasks.
  • Programming Language Translators: System softwares are computer programs that translate high-level languages (easy for humans to understand) to low-level machine codes (only understood by the processor). Examples are compilers, assemblers, and interpreters. 
  • System Utilities: System software that ensures devices and applications work properly. Examples include firewalls, disk partitions, and disk drive defragmentation software.

Did you know that Firmware also falls into the system software category?

What is Firmware in Simple Terms?

Firmware is the software program permanently stored on a device’s chipset (within a ROM and flash memory chip). 

This computer component provides instructions on how the device interacts with other hardware and software. For example, it tells the computer’s hard drive when to start and stop. 

Many call the firmware the `middleman” because it serves as the platform that allows the operating system to interact with and control the hardware. 

Device makers install the firmware directly into the device’s non-volatile memory chip or microprocessor during manufacturing. You can only see the firmware if you open up the device and check its chipset or motherboard. 

Unlike other software types, users can’t easily tamper with it. Your device will not work properly without firmware. 

The primary purpose of firmware is to ensure the computer system or device is working properly. On simple devices, the firmware can work as an operating system. 

A firmware manages and dictates the activities of any single hardware. Gadgets like your smartphone, washing machine, TV remote control, and other embedded systems function according to the preprogrammed firmware’s instructions. 

Differences between a Firmware and an Embedded Software

Examples of Firmware Programs

1. Low-Level Firmware

A low-level firmware is a software program stored in non-volatile memory chips such as ROM and PROM on the device’s hardware. You can not update or rewrite this firmware type except if you want to change the entire chipset. 

Examples of low-level firmware include BIOS (Basic Input Output System) and UEFI (Unified Extended Firmware Interface) in PCs. 

BIOS (Basic Input Output System) 

BIOS (Basic Input Output System)
Source: How-To-Geek

2. High-Level or Advanced Firmware

A high-level firmware supports updates. Compared to low-level firmware, it gives out more complex instructions. You can find this firmware type on flash memory chips. 

3. Subsystem Firmware

A subsystem firmware is a semi-independent part of a more extensive system. Any firmware that falls into this category can function on its own. It has its own microcode built into flash chips and CPUs.  

The similarities between the subsystem and high-level firmware are striking. You can update them, and their instructions are more complex than low-level firmware. 

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Martin Luenendonk

Editor at FounderJar

Martin loves entrepreneurship and has helped dozens of entrepreneurs by validating the business idea, finding scalable customer acquisition channels, and building a data-driven organization. During his time working in investment banking, tech startups, and industry-leading companies he gained extensive knowledge in using different software tools to optimize business processes.

This insights and his love for researching SaaS products enables him to provide in-depth, fact-based software reviews to enable software buyers make better decisions.