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Systems Software: Utility Software, Device Drivers and Firmware

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  • 0:06 System Software
  • 0:51 Utility Software
  • 3:11 Device Driver
  • 4:16 Firmware
  • 6:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Paul Zandbergen

Paul has a PhD from the University of British Columbia and has taught Geographic Information Systems, statistics and computer programming for 15 years.

System software coordinates the activities and functions of hardware and software, and it controls the operations of computer hardware. Learn about different types of system software, including utility software, device drivers and firmware.

System Software

Software is a generic term for an organized collection of computer data and instructions. There are two types of software: application software and system software. Application software helps users solve a particular problem or carry out a specific task. A word processor is an example of application software.

System software coordinates the activities and functions of hardware and software, and it controls the operations of computer hardware. A computer's operating system is an example of system software. Operating systems control the computer hardware and act as an interface with application programs. System software also includes utility software, device drivers and firmware, which we will be looking at in this lesson.

Utility Software

Utility software helps to manage, maintain and control computer resources. Operating systems typically contain the necessary tools for this, but separate utility programs can provide improved functionality. Utility software is often somewhat technical and targeted at users with a solid knowledge of computers. If you use a computer mostly for e-mail, some Internet browsing and typing up a report, you may not have much need for these utilities. However, if you are an avid computer user, these utilities can help make sure your computer stays in tip-top shape.

Examples of utility programs are antivirus software, backup software and disk tools. Let's look at each of these in a bit more detail.

Antivirus software, as the name suggests, helps to protect a computer system from viruses and other harmful programs. A computer virus is a computer program that can cause damage to a computer's software, hardware or data. It is referred to as a virus because it has the capability to replicate itself and hide inside other computer files.

One of the most common ways to get a virus is to download a file from the Internet. Antivirus software scans your online activity to make sure you are not downloading infected files. New viruses are coming out all the time, so antivirus software needs to be updated very frequently.

Backup software helps in the creation of a backup of the files on your computer. Most computer systems use a hard disk drive for storage. While these are generally very robust, they can fail or crash, resulting in costly data loss. Backup software helps you copy the most important files to another storage device, such as an external hard disk. You can also make an exact copy of your hard disk.

Increasingly, backup software uses cloud storage to create backups. This typically means you pay a fee to use the storage space of a third party and use their backup software to manage which files are going to be backed up.

Disk tools include a range of different tools to manage hard disk drives and other storage devices. This includes utilities to scan the hard disks for any potential problems, disk cleaners to remove any unnecessary files, and disk defragmenters to re-organize file fragments on a hard disk drive to increase performance. Disk tools are important because a failure of a hard disk drive can have disastrous consequences. Keeping disks running efficiently is an important part of overall computer maintenance.

Device Drivers

A device driver is a computer program that controls a particular device that is connected to your computer. Typical devices are keyboards, printers, scanners, digital cameras and external storage devices. Each of these need a driver in order to work properly.

Device drivers act as a translator between the operating system of the computer and the device connected to it. For many types of devices, the necessary drivers are built into the operating system. When you plug in a device, the operating system starts looking for the right driver, installs it and you are ready to start using the device. This is referred to as plug-and-play and is much preferred over having to manually install the correct drivers.

There are so many different devices, however, that not all of them are built into the operating system. As an alternative, the operating system can look online to find the right driver to install. Many hardware devices, however, come with the necessary drivers. For example, if you buy a printer, it may come with a CD that typically will include the correct driver. The advantage of this is that the hardware manufacturer can make sure you have the right driver for the printer.

Firmware

Firmware is a combination of software and hardware. It includes the instructions to control hardware, which is just like software. It also includes hardware in the form of the actual memory chip where the instructions are stored. Technically, firmware consists of permanent software stored into read-only memory.

Computer systems use a special type of firmware known as BIOS, or Basic Input/Output System. It represents the basic code to get the computer started. You can think of BIOS as the firmware for the motherboard of your computer.

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