Are Those New Features Really Worth It?
By Craig Anderton
Updates are great, right? You get new features and fixes, often for free. But updating a product can include some pitfalls that are at best an annoyance but at worst, could leave you with a non-functioning device. As you probably don't want that, let's cover how to avoid the various issues that could cause problems during the update process.
THE THREE TYPES OF UPDATES
There are three main types of updates:
- Chip updates. This is a physical process, where you remove one or more chips and replace them with updated chips.
- Firmware update. You don't need to take off the cover for this one; you may need to run a program while the device is connected to a computer (e.g., via USB), or load firmware in from a CD if the device has a CD drive. In this case, you're generally rearranging the memory of a chip deep within your product's innards.
- Software revision update. With this type of update, you upgrade an existing version of a software application with new features or bug fixes by running an executable program.
For each of these types, the first and most important rule is to read any documentation that came with the update (piece of paper, "read me" file, whatever). One wrong move during an update could lead to real problems! For example, if you're updating the software for a USB device, you may need to have the device connected before the update, or connect it only after the software has been installed. If there's something you don't understand in the instructions, contact the company's tech support and make sure you know what you're doing before you proceed.
CHIP UPDATE ISSUES
- Chips are sensitive to static electricity. Wear a grounding strap (available at electronic supply stores) and connect it to a metal part of the device being updated.
- Make a special 3-conductor IEC line cord that has the hot and neutral prongs cut off, but the ground prong intact. With AC-powered gear, use this so that the unit is grounded to the wall socket ground but doesn't have power going to it.
- The chip will likely come in a protective package. Leave it in there until the very last moment. When you pull out the old chip, rest its pins on a metal surface (e.g., a piece of aluminum foil), then after removing the new chip from its packaging, put the old chip in it. You may need to reinstall the old chip at some point, so keep it protected.
- Line up the pins on the chip before inserting it into its associated socket. One of the biggest problems with chip updates occurs when a pin gets folded under the chip instead of getting into the socket.
- If the chip doesn't show update information, put a removable label either on the chip or in the unit itself. Write the update revision and date of installation on the label.
- When inserting a chip, apply even pressure all the way around as you work the chip into its socket. Make sure that the pins remain straight at all times.
FIRMWARE UPDATE ISSUES
Of the various update options, this one is by far the most dangerous. If the chip update fails, you can just put the old one back in, and if a software revision update fails, you can re-install the program (or use something like Windows' System Restore function or the Mac's Time Machine program). But if a firmware update fails, the device may be left in a state where it is not only non-functional, but can't even "boot" to attempt another update or reinstall the old firmware.
Fig. 1: This installation routine from Echo Electronics for one of their interfaces advises you not to turn off or disconnect your hardware...and it's advice well worth heeding.
Reading any instructions is, once again, crucial. But re-read them as well. Then, make sure that the device being updated and whatever is doing the updating (e.g., your computer running a program) are both running from an uninterruptible power supply (Fig. 1). The most common causes of a firmware update failing are not reading the instructions, or having a power failure occur in the middle of the updating process. Also make sure that if a cable is involved (like a USB cable that shuttles date to the unit), it's not intermittent and is plugged in firmly.
If the firmware update involves loading data from a CD, do not use a rewritable one, and burn at a relatively slow speed "just in case."
SOFTWARE REVISION ISSUES
- Do "due diligence." Check the company's forums for discussions about updates. Sometimes there will be incompatibility issues that mostly likely won't affect you...but they might. Also, use an internet search on the update, like " known issues update." That might also uncover some incompatibility issues.
- It's prudent to wait a month or so before installing an update just to make sure no important issues arise. You then need to judge whether the updated features are worth the potential pitfalls. However, bear in mind that some internet forums do not always have accurate information - the problem might be that someone didn't read the instructions.
- If you are updating a Windows program, use System Restore. Most updates set a system restore point. But not all do, so before making any changes, set a system restore point (Fig. 2). (Go Start > Control Panel > System, then click on System Protection.)
Fig. 2: Setting a system restore point in Windows can help your computer "get back to where it once belonged" if a problem arises while updating.
- It may be necessary to uninstall the previous version of a program for the update to "stick." The documentation should tell you whether this is necessary.
- When updating a software program, always copy any custom patches, files, etc. to a separate location. Usually you'll be warned if an update will modify these, but it doesn't hurt to make sure.
- With downloadable updates, create a folder that contains all updates. If you later need to reinstall a program from scratch (e.g., hard drive crash), you may need to install the original program then follow the "update path" through the various revisions - you can't always update a version 1.0 to a version 1.2 without going through version 1.1 first. In that same folder, keep any serial number or activation info.
Okay...now you'll have a successful update. Enjoy the new features!
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.