BIOS Flashing

The Potentially Fatal Upgrade


DISCLAIMER:
This document is intended as a primer - an introduction - to BIOS flashing. For the correct flash procedure and precautionary measures consult the documentation that came with your motherboard, or visit the motherboard manufacturer's Web site for documentation on your motherboard. The author can accept no responsibility for machine failure arising from mis-use of the information given in this document.

Upgrading the BIOS is not something to be taken lightly. It is important that you fully understand the potential dangers involved, how to avoid them, and how to take remedial action should the worst happen. But before this, you must first have a reason to upgrade the BIOS. Always ask yourself: "What benefits does an upgrade give? And do I really need those benefits?". As with most things, if it isn't broke - why fix it.

The BIOS itself is a small software program (usually only around 64K) which is responsible for booting the machine and supplying an interface with which the OS and the hardware can communicate. If the BIOS doesn't support a particular hardware device (such as ACPI, or large drives) Windows® can't use it. The only way to make use of such hardware is to upgrade the BIOS or upgrade the motherboard - which is far more expensive, especially if additional hardware is required, such as new RAM.

When you discover a need for a BIOS upgrade, the first step is to check the availability of such an upgrade. Most people seem to think the BIOS manufacturer provides upgrades. Not so - BIOS manufacturers (such as AMI, or Award) do not sell BIOS'. Each motherboard manufacturer chooses a BIOS and modifies it to suit the hardware fitted to the board, or to add support to any non-standard hardware. Therefore, it is the motherboard manufacturer who will provide the upgrades, as well as the documentation and program(s) required to carry out the flash.

Whether or not they have an upgrade available for your motherboard depends on the version they supplied with the board - if it is already the latest, there will be no upgrade. However, keep checking their Web site every month or so - they may have one available, eventually.

Make sure you look for upgrades to your specific motherboard - each board has different features and requires a different version of the BIOS. This is why there is a lack of consistency between one machine's BIOS and another - even when using the same BIOS (AMI, or Award, for example).

Before looking for a BIOS upgrade, take a note of the numbers that (usually) appear at the bottom of the screen in the first stages of bootup. This is the BIOS identification string and tells you precisely what BIOS you are using. The actual BIOS version number is usually displayed somewhere near the top of the screen. You will also need the exact model number of your motherboard and the manufacturers web address.

Armed with this info, your first port of call is your motherboard manufacturer's Web site. Normally, the manufacturer will keep a stock of older BIOS' as well as later releases for each motherboard it makes. It should also provide information on each upgrade - what enhancements it offers, etc.. Choose the latest version which fulfils your need for the upgrade.

There are usually two items to download (excluding documentation).

  1. The Flash program itself
  2. The ROM data file

The documentation (which you should print since you can't read it while flashing) should provide instructions on how to backup your present ROM, how to perform the actual flash, and what not to do (like switch off during the flash). Usually, the backup is performed by the flash program just prior to the actual flash routine.

You should also examine your current BIOS settings and take note of them. Flashing the BIOS will wipe out those settings since they will no longer apply to the new BIOS.

Naturally, backing up all your personal data is also an essential requirement prior to performing any potentially risky maintenance such as this.


IMPORTANT:

Loss of power during the flash can render your machine unbootable and can be costly to repair. If you do not have access to a BPS (backup power supply) then you should not perform the flash yourself. Take your machine to an expert, instead. Power can fail for any number of reasons out with your control. Obviously, you wouldn't want to perform a flash during an electrical storm, but many factors can contribute to power failure (a blown fuse, for instance).


The actual flash procedure is simplicity itself. The normal procedure is to create a bootable floppy disk and to copy the extracted flash program and ROM data file to it. You would then reboot the machine with the floppy (which will leave you at an A:\> prompt), then execute the flash program. The normal syntax is:

program_filename data_filename

So, if the flash program is called FLASHROM.COM, and the data file were BIOS123.DAT, you would enter:

FLASHROM BIOS123.DAT

However, you should check the documentation for the correct syntax. Ensure you supply the correct ROM data filename.

Unless there is a separate backup program (which you should run prior to the flash program), the first thing the flash will do is to offer you the chance to create a backup of your current BIOS. The destination for the backup should be the floppy. If the upgrade doesn't work you can't access the hard-drive but you may still be able to access the floppy. The backup will be in the same format as the ROM data file you want to upgrade with, but will have a name reflecting the BIOS version it represents.

The most important time is during the flash itself. If you lose power during this process you may not be able to recover. The documentation should include instructions on possible solutions, but if you can't recover, then your system is probably as dead as a dodo and you'll most likely need to buy a new motherboard. Good job you backed up all that data, eh? ;-)

The flash procedure should only take a few minutes to perform, but when done, you should have the new BIOS configuration options you were seeking. Also, with most upgrades, non-essential (older) options are usually removed. Keyboard repeat rate is just one such option because the OS can now configure this feature.

When the flash is complete, the first thing to do is set it up because your old settings may be lost. Re-autodetect your hard-drive(s) and ensure the memory count is correct. Load the BIOS defaults (guaranteed to work regardless of the hardware), then step through each screenful and change the options you know about. If in doubt, leave the option to its BIOS default and consult expert advice.

When done, save your settings and exit the BIOS configuration. When Windows® loads, it will redetect your hardware and reboot. Hopefully, you'll then have a fully working system, with all the new hardware settings the BIOS now provides added to the Device Manager (such as ACPI support).