Does Your Hard Drive Need A Firmware Update?

Firmware Update Many thousands of hard drives enter the market with any given version of firmware in common.

Thousands of drives have the same firmware version when they are sold.
External, SATA, and ATA drives that are used in PCs and for personal storage pass through extensive testing before they leave the factory.  Therefore, they are not designed for firmware updates in the field.

Firmware updates

Performing a firmware update can be risky by itself even in the best of situations.  For example, a power outage during a firmware update carries a very good possibility of ruining the drive.  External, Serial ATA, and ATA drives are not designed for field firmware updates by end users.

Very often, system or device driver issues cause symptoms that are incorrectly called “firmware problems.”

What is firmware?

Firmware is defined as a computer program that is hard-coded into the hard drive and contains its basic operational storage programming.  Another way to think of it is that firmware is a software middleman that allows your hardware to talk to software (i.e., Windows operating systems, etc).  For a hard drive, firmware is a program that governs the behavior and factory settings, even the identity, of that drive.  Any drive that comes out of the factory and is in use in a computer or server has firmware installed on it from the factory.

What is the relationship between firmware and drivers?

Drivers tell the operating system how to behave. Firmware tells the drive how to behave. Seagate provides no drivers for most products in any modern Windows or MacOS operating system – the drivers must come from Microsoft, Apple, or the motherboard.

Why not just put firmware updates online with public links?

There are four main reasons:

  1. Field support for firmware updates involves robust and compatible tools, backwards compatibility and data safety.  These features are designed into Enterprise class SAS, Fibre Channel and SAS interface disc drives.Desktop and Mobile SATA and PATA drives are not designed for firmware updates in the field in the vast majority of cases.  Very often what looks like a newer version of firmware, by the number, may actually be incompatible with previous versions.  If incompatible firmware is copied to an earlier version of the same model, data loss or drive ruin will result.  Performing a firmware update can be risky by itself even in the best of situations.  For example, a power outage during a firmware update carries a very good possibility of ruining the drive.  This is why Seagate uses a warranty exchange process, if necessary, to update SATA and PATA drive firmware.
  2. In most cases, when a hard drive is thought to be malfunctioning, it is an operating system (i.e. Windows) issue or a problem with a software program.  Firmware is easy to blame when a hard drive does not perform as a user expects, when its installation does not proceed exactly as expected, or a myriad of other situations, or even when a drive diagnostic reports bad sectors.  In order to protect the user, Seagate restricts access to firmware updates.
  3. Some drives that still bear the Seagate name on the label but are actually the property of an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) (such as Dell or Hewlett-Packard [HP]) might have unique firmware on them.  OEMs purchase large amounts of bare drives from Seagate and put their own firmware on them, at which point the drive is sold as part of a larger piece of equipment, such as a server or a personal or notebook computer.  Often the OEMs load specialized firmware in order to be able to build in performance enhancements that are specific to their product.However, sometimes these servers or computers are disassembled and the hard drives end up being sold separately from a third-party technology reseller or even on eBay, and because these drives have “Seagate” on the label and sometimes even the same model number (the “ST” number) as standard drives sold in a retail store, it can be easy to confuse the two.  The specialized firmware on some of these drives sometimes works outside of their original equipment and sometimes does not.  In very many cases, performing a firmware update with “standard” firmware would violate Seagate’s legal agreements with the OEM, thus voiding both the OEM and Seagate warranty, and carries a good possibility of ruining the OEM drive.
  4. Very seldom does a firmware update increase the drive’s performance. Most firmware updates are made available in order to solve a problem with timing, in order to synchronize with the timing of the system’s communication lines.

In summary, it is always best to seek other avenues of troubleshooting the hard drive and the surrounding system before resorting to questions of firmware.  If you suspect a drive may be defective, test it using Seatools.

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