Posts tagged with "computers"

This Little Chip

Thumbnail: BIOS chip

This tiny chip almost had me without my computer for at least a week.

It stores the BIOS, or Basic Input / Output System, in flash memory on my motherboard. The very first thing that happens when a computer is booted is the decompressing of the BIOS into main memory, which then initializes the computers hardware components, including critical devices such as disk drives and I/O ports. This allows a user to recieve feedback (through video), input commands (through a mouse or keyboard), and install or run operating systems (from a hard drive).

Without a BIOS, none of this would be possible. In the past, motherboard manufacturers have made it a hassle to fool around with the program burned onto the small chip, because improper steps in the reprogramming process could potentially render the chip useless. To update the BIOS, one would have to boot to DOS with a floppy and run a flash program off the disk. Modern motherboards now offer the flexibility to update through special software in Windows, although this process is nowhere near as stable as running through DOS.

Which is something I had to learn the hard way last night.

Recent random rebootings had given me reason to start running the latest BIOS version. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a floppy drive (I opted not to buy one with my new computer because I haven’t used a floppy in years), which meant that I was stuck with the Windows flash software. The software happened to crash at a very early part of the flashing process, which meant that I didn’t even have basic bootup code to get a drive running. At next boot — nothing. No BIOS POST beep, no screen signal, no response from the keyboard. I quickly purchased a floppy drive at the nearest dealer, scrambled to find a disk, put a boot sector on it, but to no avail. There wasn’t even enough code burned onto the chip to get power to the floppy drive.

Normally, when something like this happens, such as the power going out or the floppy being removed during a flash, the BIOS gets corrupted and the chip is dead. The options are to get the motherboard RMA‘d, which means sending the board back to the manufacturer before they send a new one back, or purchasing a new BIOS chip with a good BIOS image on it, which means spending more money and waiting for a replacement. Both choices would take at least a week, if lucky.

Neither option was satisfactory. I couldn’t wait until who-knows-how-long for something to be sent back to me. Being without my computer is like being without my comfort zone, the place where I can listen to music and write, play games to get away, communicate with the rest of the world, or even work on my business with Aaron when I feel so inclined. I looked around the net for a faster solution, and discovered something called hot flashing.

Unfortunately, faster also means riskier. Hot flashing involves swapping two BIOS chips while the computer is running. All that’s needed is a healthy chip, an identical motherboard (which I have at work), a boot disk with appropriate flashing software/image, and naturally, the corrupted chip. A computer is booted to floppy with a good BIOS chip, and after getting to a DOS prompt where a BIOS flash can be performed, the corrupted chip is swapped and re-flashed. As a person who’s already squeamish about running a computer with just a side panel missing (in case water may happen to splash into the case and cause a short, or a foreign object falls in and jams a fan), this was an extremely daunting process. Playing around with chips while a computer is hot means that there’s the risk of electrocution, or short circut that could permanently damage the other components. Theoretically, after the BIOS is finished running, the board stops supplying power to the chip since it’s no longer needed.

I decided to my faith in such a theory. Going on this faith meant that I could pry the chip out with a pair of modified paper clips without having to worry too much about causing a short (special PLCC-socket tongs are available, but rare, and would probably take just as long to arrive after purchase as getting a new board). After a few practice pulls, which, I discovered, loosens the socket and gets progressively easier, I seated the good chip with just enough pressure to make the connections in the socket. After booting successfully, I pried the chip off the board and ran the flash.

The first attempt was unsuccessful, and after trying to boot with a corrupted BIOS, something unexplainable happened. The LED on the motherboard that shows that there’s a connected power supply wouldn’t go out. I pulled the power plug, turned off the ATX switch, undid both the 24-pin EATX and 4-pin 12-volt connectors, and even pulled out the CMOS battery, but the light refused to turn off. My only guess was that the capacitors still had enough energy stored to keep the light on. After resetting the CMOS, and another hot flash attempt, the computer booted with the corrupted chip running the latest BIOS. My Windows installation was fucked (it wouldn’t even boot into safe mode), but after a recovery install, everything was up and running again.

I was down for less than 24 hours.

New Computer '05

I finally got my computer, and have the weekend to spend setting everything up.

Let’s talk geek.

Processor: AMD Athlon 64 X2 (Dual-Core) 4400+

Thumbnail: Large CPU heatsink

The sexiest stock heatsink I’ve ever seen. Notice the dense fins, and the symmetrical copper heat pipes. I didn’t dare take it off the cpu for a picture. One time, after I pulled the heatsink off a P4, I noticed that the processor was stuck to the bottom while the processor lock was still in place. The thermal paste had caked and turned to glue. The edges of the cpu were chipped and a few pins were bent, but I carefully put them back in place and it still worked.

This one is an AMD though. It’s clocked at 2.2 GHz, with two megs of level 2 cache (one per core). Even though it can almost be considered unreasonably expensive, I went with a dual-core processor because I wanted something that could handle both single-threaded and multi-threaded apps. All the reviews I read said that the Pentium Extreme Edition chips were slightly better for the latter but much worse for the former, so this marks my first foray into the use of an Advanced Micro Devices processor, at work or at home.

Continue reading “New Computer ’05″…

I Bought A New Computer

The last part came in from back order today and they’re running the burn overnight, so it’ll be ready for me to pick up before the weekend.

It’s the most expensive system that I’ve ever bought, but also the most guilt-free. At home, I spend the majority of my time at the computer — I use it to write, manipulate photos, render video, play games, communicate with friends, watch movies, listen to music. I could survive on my current system, but I could also take advantage of an even better setup.

Some of the parts may be a little excessive, but why not go all out? I only know a few people, such as Trolley, who could appreciate a top-of-the-line system in the same way. Ever since Intel announced their lineup of dual-core processors in the first quarter, I’ve been saving my money, keeping track of the parts I’ve wanted. By the time AMD announced their own dual-core architecture, I had a complete list of components for my dream system. Most stores couldn’t even get their hands on the chips, so for two months I would periodically check for availability. Eventually, I ended up going through a corporate contact, who has his own direct contact to AMD. To boot, he gave me a discount (ranging on 15%, which is insane, considering the tiny margin on computer systems) since I’m a business client as well.

The kicker is that my work just happens to need a computer capable of handling some heavy graphics editing. The computer most adequate to handle this usage is mine, since it’s also the fastest in the office, so I get to give up my already adequate system for a better one. I got approval to order the same system that I bought myself personally. The same system that I’ve been dreaming of, planning for, and drooling over since February.

New Parts, New Mattress, New Restaurant, New Marks

I bought a second ATA133 60GB hard-drive and installed it today. It feels good to get into my case and fool around with the cables and parts. I feel like I’m souping up a car with NOX, where I should be saying stuff like, “My secondary cable is too short, so I had to put both drives on the primary, so my backup drive is running as a slave now”. I bought it to keep as a backup of all my data that I don’t want to constantly burn to back it up; stuff like my current mp3’s, my temporary mp3’s, my tv episodes, my webpages, and my movies. I got some software called Second Copy which backs up all the information automatically. I’ve been getting freaked out from all the reports of hard-drive failures, and hard-drive formatting webcode, so I thought I should find a solution. After all, I wouldn’t want to have to remember every mp3 I downloaded, and try downloading them all again. Although neither of my drives are Fujitsu’s, there have been lots of reports on huge warranty reductions of the major manufacturers in the last few months. Better safe than sorry.

My mattress arrived today, and it feels amazing. I was so used to a crappy, old mattress, that I guess I forgot what good support felt like.

I went to a restaurant called La Gondola for lunch yesterday, to see Melissa Kenny off for her new job, and the service sucked. The food was alright, but I could probably have made most of the stuff at my home. The waitress rushed everyone to get their bills, and didn’t ask a single time how the meal was going. I ordered a decanter of white wine with Natalie, and it tasted watery. I left a $1.00 tip.

I’m not sure if I’m going to look for a job for next term or not. I’m still a full-time student, if my final project is considered as a full course. I’m not really sure where I would work, but I know that I’d be okay with a shit job. I love money too much.

I finally got back a passing mark in my algorithms course, which still means that I’m failing on the whole, with only two weeks left. I’m pleased, I guess.