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.