System76 has delivered a firmware updater that puts all others to shame.
From the office of "you may not have even known you needed this," comes a fresh new tool from System76. This time around, the gang from Denver has released a tool dubbed Firmware Update Utility. The app has one purpose and one purpose only: To update the firmware of Linux desktops and laptops, running Pop!_OS or other Ubuntu- and Debian-derived OSs.
This should come as no surprise, as System76 already had a firmware updater (available in the Pop Shop) for its Thelio and Oryx Pro systems. However, that software was a completely different beast (originally written in Python, whereas the new software was written in Rust). Had you been running a distribution other than Pop!_OS, your only option for updating firmware was the command line tool fwupd. In a world where more and more users are adopting Linux, that's not smart business. Why? As more new (non-admin) users adopt Linux, the command line will be used less and less. Without a GUI to upgrade a system's firmware, that would equate to a large number of out-of-date firmware. It doesn't take a PhD to handle that math.
Now, however, System76 has integrated that Firmware updater in to the GNOME System Settings tool, although the tool can be integrated into any distribution that uses a non-GNOME desktop. This shift should clearly delineate the updating of firmware from standard system updates. That is not to say standard system updates aren't crucial--they are. Without regular updates, your system wouldn't receive security patches, software improvements, and new features. However, without firmware patches, your systems could be vulnerable to seriously damaging and hijacking firmware malware, which is why this move should be seen as so critical for Linux.
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Because Linux firmware updating had previously been handled via the command line, the vast majority of such updates were overlooked. Think about it: When was the last time you updated firmware on a Linux machine? Why is that? Because you either had no idea there was an update available, didn't know firmware updates existed, or couldn't be bothered to take the time to do so from the command line.
The big question
I'm going to be straight up here. The big question that comes to my mind is: "Why did it take so long for Linux to get a graphical firmware updater?" The answer is simple: Because it took a forward-thinking company like System76 to create it. "Ah ha!" you proclaim. "But System76 has been around for nearly 20 years. Why did it take THEM so long?"
Yet another simple answer. Up until the Thelio, System76 was outsourcing a good amount of their hardware. With the creation of this incredible new desktop system (trust me, you need to experience the Thelio), System76 now has the ability to control nearly every aspect of the system. Thanks to those machines being built in-house, System76 is now capable of skyrocketing their capability. With that unhinged creativity (of which they have in abundance), comes the ability to generate projects such as the Firmware updater.
How the Firmware Update Utility functions
How the Firmware updater functions is quite simple. If you open the GNOME Settings tool and click Devices, you'll see the new Firmware listing (Figure A).
Should there be an update to any device firmware, you will be alerted with a green Update button. Click Update and you'll be guided through the process. I've experienced one update to the Thelio Firmware (from F11 Z5 to F14 Z5). After three decades of computer usage, that was the most seamless, user-friendly firmware update I've ever gone through on a desktop computer, bar none. Considering all previous firmware updates on Linux machines had to be done via the command line, the System76 Firmware updater is an improvement on an exponential scale.
For those that may be concerned about the security of the System76 firmware updates, they have set up the system to work with a build server to deliver the actual update and a separate signing server (used to verify the update). So when a firmware update is applied, you can be certain it has come from System76.
This one you might not have seen coming. The System76 Firmware updater not only works with System76 hardware, but for any system. According to Michael Allen Murphy, the Firmware Updater is "...not exclusive to System76 hardware, nor was it meant to be. The goal of the project is to be beneficial to all users of the Linux desktop, regardless of whether they're using our hardware or not. Any Linux distribution that wants to have accessible graphical firmware updates can distribute the firmware manager on their platform, and even if they do not distribute the system76-firmware daemon with it, they can still get the same level of support for firmware updates through fwupd."
Editor's note: This article was updated to correct the hardware-specific nature of the System76 Firmware Updater, as the tool is not dedicated to System76-only desktops and laptops.
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