TV on the fritz? You may need a firmware upgrade

CNET editor David Carnoy discovered that all the HDMI inputs on his Sony LCD TV were dead. Instead of phoning customer support, he looked for a firmware upgrade using Google.

Manual firmware upgrades are done via the USB port on the back of your TV. David Carnoy/CNET

About a year ago I picked up a fairly entry-level 52-inch Sony LCD TV, the KDL-52V5100 , as a second TV for a playroom. For a year, the set worked fine, then a few days ago a babysitter asked me to please fix it because it wasn't working.

At first, I figured someone had simply set the cable box to the wrong input. But a quick input assessment ruled that out as the possible culprit. I moved onto the next likely source of the problem: the cable box, which I unplugged, then waited for it to cycle through its painfully long rebooting process.

Still, nothing. No picture. Not even a menu. Conclusion: the cable box had crapped out. It had happened before, it would happen again.

I packed the thing up and the next day set off for a Time Warner Cable service center that happened to be about six blocks away from the CNET offices in Manhattan. My old cable box, a Samsung non-DVR model, was promptly chucked in a bin and I was handed a newer model Samsung box that was black instead of silver. I was happy. It matched the TV.

But upon returning home and hooking it up, the same thing happened. Nothing. Actually, for a brief second, a message flashed on the screen that said something about how the HDMI connection wasn't working and that I should switch to component video. Troubleshooting, I switched to HDMI 2 and fired up my PS3. Still nothing. So I plugged my PS3's HDMI cable into HDMI 3. Nada. I figured, That's it, Carnoy, your HDMI connectivity is shot. You're about to enter a world of pain.

I had visions of dumping the TV, selling it cheap. I'd thrown the box out, I was probably a month out of the warranty period, and I was stuck with no HDMI. Component? That was like going back to the Stone Age. My TV was almost worthless.

So I did what any CNET editor would do. I called Sony PR and said I was David Pogue of the New York Times and told them I was mad as hell.

OK, I didn't. But I thought about it. Kind of as a joke. But before I got too worked up I keyed the words "KDL-52V5100 HDMI issue" into Google. And the first search result at the top of the page had a link to this:

    Sony eSupport - KDL-52V5100 - Software Updates & Drivers

    Loading available downloads for the KDL-52V5100, please be patient. ... Resolves an issue that may intermittently cause the TV to freeze and stop ... issue where the audio may infrequently be lost while connected via an HDMI connection...Sony eSupport - KDL-52V5100 - Software Updates & Drivers Loading available downloads for the KDL-52V5100, please be patient. ... Resolves an issue that may intermittently cause the TV to freeze and stop ... issue where the audio may infrequently be lost while connected via an HDMI connection...

My problem didn't quite seem to fit the bill, but it was close enough. The magic words were "lost" and "HDMI." So what if it just said audio. I knew I was on to something. And sure enough, clicking through on the link I learned that there was a firmware upgrade available for my TV. While I'd never upgraded a TV's firmware before, I'd manually upgraded the firmware on plenty of other devices, including a Blu-ray player or two.

Truth be told, it's not all that difficult for someone who knows what they're doing, but I could certainly see how it might baffle the average consumer. Here's how it went:

I downloaded a ZIP file, which unpacked itself on my Mac. I then had to copy the files out of the folder onto a USB thumbdrive, which I stuck into the USB port on the back of my TV. About 7 tension-filled minutes later, my TV's firmware was upgraded and lo and behold, I had picture and sound again from my cable box. Why had the HDMI given out suddenly? I had no idea, but I was sure happy that my TV woes had been resolved via a software patch, not something much more tedious and time-consuming.

After the whole episode, I spoke with our resident video guru David Katzmaier about the TV firmware upgrade situation because I'd heard him discuss it before. Here are a few observations and tips we came up with:

  • Check to see whether your TV has a firmware upgrade available by simply keying in your model number and "firmware" into Google.
  • Some higher-end TVs offer Internet connections via an Ethernet port or Wi-Fi. You can upgrade your firmware over the Internet. However...
  • Unlike a PS3, XBox, or PC, which automatically let you know when it's time to upgrade your system software, many Internet-connected TVs don't notify you when there's a firmware upgrade available; you have to manually check.
  • Most firmware upgrades are designed to fix glitches like the one that happened to me or to tweak performance (usually for the better). Here's something you may not know: sometimes after David Katzmaier posts a review of a TV, the company will post a firmware upgrade that corrects (or attempts to correct) a problem he described in his review. Sometimes posters at AVS Forum also point out flaws that lead to firmware upgrades.
  • Rarely do firmware upgrades add additional features. As noted, they tend to be about bug fixes and slight performance improvements
  • Upgrading your firmware is different from upgrading an Internet service that's built into your TV, such as Samsung Apps, Panasonic's VieraCast, or LG's Netcast (see a full round-up of services here). Those services notify you when upgrades are available that add new features or apps.
  • You need to be very careful when you are upgrading your TV's firmware. This means following instructions to a T and making sure your TV doesn't lose power while it's being upgraded. Perhaps you've heard about someone messing up and "bricking" their PSP or iPhone while adding custom firmware. Well, you can brick your TV, too.
  • Sometimes manufacturers have a couple of options for downloading firmware. Katzmaier says he's run into situations where he compares the "Download via the Internet" to the "Download manually" (to thumbdrive) option and the two firmware versions will be different (usually the manual download is more current). So check the firmware versions if more than one is available.
  • Alas, sometimes firmware upgrades fix one problem but cause another. If this happens, report the problem, and wait for the company to issue another firmware upgrade.
  • If you're happy with your TV and don't have an issue, think twice before upgrading your firmware. Most experts tend to argue that if it ain't broke, don't try to fix it.
  • Finally, before you upgrade, write down your customized picture settings. They will get erased when you upgrade your firmware. The person who wrote this article forgot to do that.
If you have any suggestions or anecdotes, as always, feel free to comment. In the end, the bottom line is that TVs are a lot more advanced than they once used to be and have chips and software inside that isn't always perfect. Luckily, in some cases, companies issue fixes. You just may have to do a little digging to find them.
 

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