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How BIOS Works

by Jeff Tyson

One of the most common uses of *lash memory is for the basic input/output system of your computer, commonly #nown as the BIOS 'pronounced ,bye-ose,). On $irtually e$ery computer a$ailable, the BIOS ma#es sure all the other chips, hard dri$es, ports and +(function together.

.$ery des#top and laptop computer in common use today contains a microprocessor as its central processing unit. The microprocessor is the hardware component. To get its wor# done, the microprocessor e"ecutes a set of instructions #nown as software 'see /ow 0icroprocessors or# for details). 1ou are probably $ery familiar with two different types of software%

The operating system - The operating system pro$ides a set of ser$ices for the applications running on your computer, and it also pro$ides the fundamental user interface for your computer. indows 23 and 4inu" are e"amples of operating systems. 'See /ow Operating Systems or# for lots of details.) The applications - &pplications are pieces of software that are programmed to perform specific tas#s. On your computer right now you probably ha$e a browser application, a word processing application, an e-mail application and so on. 1ou can also buy new applications and install them.

It turns out that the BIOS is the third type of software your computer needs to operate successfully. In this article, you'll learn all about BIOS -- what it does, how to configure it and what to do if your BIOS needs updating.

hat BIOS !oes


The BIOS software has a number of different roles, but its most important role is to load the operating system. hen you turn on your computer and the microprocessor tries to e"ecute its first instruction, it has to get that instruction from somewhere. It cannot get it from the operating system because the operating system is located on a hard dis#, and the microprocessor cannot get to it without some instructions that tell it how. The BIOS pro$ides those instructions. Some of the other common tas#s that the BIOS performs include%

& power-on self-test '(OST) for all of the different hardware components in the system to ma#e sure e$erything is wor#ing properly &cti$ating other BIOS chips on different cards installed in the computer - *or e"ample, S+SI and graphics cards often ha$e their own BIOS chips. (ro$iding a set of low-le$el routines that the operating system uses to interface to different hardware de$ices - It is these routines that gi$e the BIOS its name. They

manage things li#e the #eyboard, the screen, and the serial and parallel ports, especially when the computer is booting. 0anaging a collection of settings for the hard dis#s, cloc#, etc.

The BIOS is special software that interfaces the ma5or hardware components of your computer with the operating system. It is usually stored on a *lash memory chip on the motherboard, but sometimes the chip is another type of 6O0.

BIOS uses Flash memory, a type of O!"

hen you turn on your computer, the BIOS does se$eral things. This is its usual se7uence% 8. 9. :. <. =. >. ?. +hec# the +0OS Setup for custom settings 4oad the interrupt handlers and de$ice dri$ers Initiali;e registers and power management (erform the power-on self-test '(OST) !isplay system settings !etermine which de$ices are bootable Initiate the bootstrap se7uence

The first thing the BIOS does is chec# the information stored in a tiny '>< bytes) amount of 6&0 located on a complementary metal o#ide semiconductor '+0OS) chip. The +0OS Setup pro$ides detailed information particular to your system and can be altered as your system changes. The BIOS uses this information to modify or supplement its default programming as needed. e will tal# more about these settings later. Interrupt handlers are small pieces of software that act as translators between the hardware components and the operating system. *or e"ample, when you press a #ey on your #eyboard, the signal is sent to the #eyboard interrupt handler, which tells the +(- what it is and passes it on to the operating system. The de$ice dri$ers are other pieces of software that identify the base hardware components such as #eyboard, mouse, hard dri$e and floppy dri$e. Since the BIOS is constantly intercepting signals to and from the hardware, it is usually copied, or shadowed, into 6&0 to run faster.

Booting the +omputer


hene$er you turn on your computer, the first thing you see is the BIOS software doing its

thing. On many machines, the BIOS displays te"t describing things li#e the amount of memory installed in your computer, the type of hard dis# and so on. It turns out that, during this boot se7uence, the BIOS is doing a remar#able amount of wor# to get your computer ready to run. This section briefly describes some of those acti$ities for a typical (+. &fter chec#ing the +0OS Setup and loading the interrupt handlers, the BIOS determines whether the $ideo card is operational. 0ost $ideo cards ha$e a miniature BIOS of their own that initiali;es the memory and graphics processor on the card. If they do not, there is usually $ideo dri$er information on another 6O0 on the motherboard that the BIOS can load. @e"t, the BIOS chec#s to see if this is a cold boot or a reboot. It does this by chec#ing the $alue at memory address AAAA%A<?9. & $alue of 89:<h indicates a reboot, and the BIOS s#ips the rest of (OST. &nything else is considered a cold boot. If it is a cold boot, the BIOS $erifies 6&0 by performing a readBwrite test of each memory address. It chec#s the (SB9 ports or -SB ports for a #eyboard and a mouse. It loo#s for a peripheral component interconnect '(+I) bus and, if it finds one, chec#s all the (+I cards. If the BIOS finds any errors during the (OST, it will notify you by a series of beeps or a te"t message displayed on the screen. &n error at this point is almost always a hardware problem. The BIOS then displays some details about your system. This typically includes information about%

The processor The floppy dri$e and hard dri$e 0emory BIOS re$ision and date !isplay

&ny special dri$ers, such as the ones for small computer system interface 'S+SI) adapters, are loaded from the adapter, and the BIOS displays the information. The BIOS then loo#s at the se7uence of storage de$ices identified as boot de$ices in the +0OS Setup. ,Boot, is short for ,bootstrap,, as in the old phrase, ,4ift yourself up by your bootstraps., Boot refers to the process of launching the operating system. The BIOS will try to initiate the boot se7uence from the first de$ice. If the BIOS does not find a de$ice, it will try the ne"t de$ice in the list. If it does not find the proper files on a de$ice, the startup process will halt. If you ha$e e$er left a floppy dis# in the dri$e when you restarted your computer, you ha$e probably seen this message.

%his is the message you get if a floppy disk is in the dri$e when you restart your computer"

The BIOS has tried to boot the computer off of the floppy dis# left in the dri$e. Since it did not find the correct system files, it could not continue. Of course, this is an easy fi". Simply pop out the dis# and press a #ey to continue.

+onfiguring BIOS
In the pre$ious list, you saw that the BIOS chec#s the +0OS Setup for custom settings. /ere's what you do to change those settings. To enter the +0OS Setup, you must press a certain #ey or combination of #eys during the initial startup se&uence. 0ost systems use ,.sc,, ,!el,, ,*8,, ,*9,, ,+trl-.sc, or ,+trl-&lt.sc, to enter setup. There is usually a line of te"t at the bottom of the display that tells you ,(ress CCC to .nter Setup., Once you ha$e entered setup, you will see a set of te"t screens with a number of options. Some of these are standard, while others $ary according to the BIOS manufacturer. +ommon options include%

System %ime/'ate - Set the system time and date Boot Se&uence - The order that BIOS will try to load the operating system (lug and (lay - & standard for auto-detecting connected de$icesD should be set to ,1es, if your computer and operating system both support it !ouse/)eyboard - ,.nable @um 4oc#,, ,.nable the Eeyboard,, ,&uto-!etect 0ouse,... 'ri$e *onfiguration - +onfigure hard dri$es, +!-6O0 and floppy dri$es !emory - !irect the BIOS to shadow to a specific memory address Security - Set a password for accessing the computer (ower !anagement - Select whether to use power management, as well as set the amount of time for standby and suspend +#it - Sa$e your changes, discard your changes or restore default settings

*!OS Setup

Be $ery careful when ma#ing changes to setup. Incorrect settings may #eep your computer from booting. hen you are finished with your changes, you should choose ,Sa$e +hanges, and e"it. The BIOS will then restart your computer so that the new settings ta#e effect. The BIOS uses *!OS technology to sa$e any changes made to the computer's settings. ith this technology, a small lithium or @i-+ad battery can supply enough power to #eep the data for years. In fact, some of the newer chips ha$e a 8A-year, tiny lithium battery built right into the +0OS chipF

-pdating 1our BIOS


Occasionally, a computer will need to ha$e its BIOS updated. This is especially true of older machines. &s new de$ices and standards arise, the BIOS needs to change in order to understand the new hardware. Since the BIOS is stored in some form of 6O0, changing it is a bit harder than upgrading most other types of software. To change the BIOS itself, you'll probably need a special program from the computer or BIOS manufacturer. 4oo# at the BIOS re$ision and date information displayed on system startup or chec# with your computer manufacturer to find out what type of BIOS you ha$e. Then go to the BIOS manufacturer's eb site to see if an upgrade is a$ailable. !ownload the upgrade and the utility program needed to install it. Sometimes the utility and update are combined in a single file to download. +opy the program, along with the BIOS update, onto a floppy dis#. 6estart your computer with the floppy dis# in the dri$e, and the program erases the old BIOS and writes the new one. 1ou can find a BIOS i;ard that will chec# your BIOS at BIOS -pgrades. 0a5or BIOS manufacturers include%

&merican 0egatrends Inc. '&0I) (hoeni" Technologies &4i inbond

&s with changes to the +0OS Setup, be careful when upgrading your BIOS. 0a#e sure you are upgrading to a $ersion that is compatible with your computer system. Otherwise, you could corrupt the BIOS, which means you won't be able to boot your computer. If in doubt, chec# with your computer manufacturer to be sure you need to upgrade.