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Upgrade shenanigans

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As every good computer owner knows, there comes a time when you have to upgrade your machine, or parts thereof. Somehow, in the PC world, this is never as straighforward as it is supposed to be. The amazing world of impenetrable and unreassemblable PC cases aside (how do they do it?), it can be hard enough just getting the right upgrades.

RAMming in the memory

When I was looking into purchasing more RAM for my PC, I made enquiries with a well-known RAM expert company as to exactly what I should buy. I could have bought what their site told me to, but it did not match what was already in my PC (a single 256 MB PC-133 DIMM in a PC-66 board), and being a complete newbie to modern PC hardware, I thought I’d better enquire before I spent lots of money on useless memory.

My first response was from a girl who knew what she was talking about with memory technology but didn’t actually answer my questions about SDRAM DIMM compatibility. So I enquired further and got this reply from a bloke there:

Hello Daniel,
Thank you for your mail,
Please note the best option would be CT211131 over the 3 slots to give you the max on your system. If however you wish to match what you have then if you could confirm the number of chips on the module and the speed?

I scratched my head on this one. I’ll forego the fact that that code bears – the CT aside – no semblance to any of their DIMM codes that I have ever seen. So even if he was talking sense I would not actually be able to order these DIMMs. A site search and I think even a Web search turned up nothing.

Now, my MicroStar MS-6117 board has three slots, and when using unbuffered non-EDO SDRAM DIMMs, takes a maximum of 512 MB. Which they knew about, as I did tell them the board number and they have all of its details on their website. Thus, three “CT211131” DIMMs would each be 512/3 MB, or 170.6r MB. I would love to discover where one acquires 170 MB DIMMs.

I never did figure out what this bloke was talking about. I never did buy their memory in the end. I ended up getting two 128 MB PC-100 DIMMs from the Stockwood Park radio and computer rally. According to the guy on the stall, PC-133 DRAM requires far too fast a refresh rate for a PC-66 board, so what I will have in there now is PC-100 RAM labelled as PC-133; apparently this was done when PC-133 first came out to make PC-100 RAM sell for more. Either way, the new RAM works perfectly and Windows performance went right up, no more waking up or coming home from work to find all my software completely paged out.

Now if only Linux had treated me so well when I upgraded the RAM in my Macintosh ;)

BIing a BIOS

My prior upgrade to fitting new RAM was a new hard drive. Spire came with only a 15 GB drive and that is by far not enough for me. I purchased me a Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 120 GB drive. On switching the PC back on with the new drive inside, the BIOS froze. D’oh, the machine evidently cannot handle drives as large as that. Even with the venerable AMIBIOS. Strangely, my Macintosh clone is a year older than the PC and it coped just fine with a 120 GB drive being fitted.

I jumpered the drive at 32 GB and decided to purchase a new BIOS from AMI (Microstar don’t offer any recent upgrades for my board). Their website referred me to another company who handle all BIOS upgrades now. I ran their system profiling tool which sent off an e-mail to the company allowing them to decide exactly what to sell me. I received this e-mail:


Thank you for your BIOS Upgrade inquiry and contacting ...., the Exclusive Authorized Upgrade and Support Center for Award BIOS. For 16 years, we have constantly upgraded thousands of motherboards and developed new BIOS Upgrades for all the latest technology. Our BIOS Upgrades are guaranteed to work on your system.

Based on the technical specifications you had submitted, we have an excellent BIOS Upgrade for your system. We have the brand new AMI BIOS for your motherboard.


Sounds good to me so I order it via their Web site. The order confirmation page comes back telling me that I am going to receive an Award BIOS. That doesn’t sound right. I need an AMI BIOS. I ask a technical friend and she confirms that I need the same type of BIOS that I already have. So I send off an e-mail to the company asking them why this has come up on the screen. They reply:

That is just a generic term for the BIOS. We fill in the correct part after based on your specs.

That did not sound very encouraging. When I downloaded the zip file containing the new BIOS, I found that the readme contained the lines:

AwardBIOS Part Number: 2A69JM49 Copyright (c) 2002, Award Software International, Inc. www.award.com Copyright (c) 2002, ... ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ The System BIOS file contains an AwardBIOS customized for your motherboard.

Unless I am really missing something here, this is an Award BIOS yet that is the part number I was originally quoted! Why are they sending me the wrong BIOS?

I replied,

...? Is this STILL just a generic term, because it looks to me like I’ve been sent an Award BIOS. Micro-Star used both Award and AMI BIOSes on the MS-6117 board that I have, but mine is definitely the AMI BIOS version. You disclaim all liability for problems that occur with the flash procedure, so I am hardly feeling inclined to blindly flash what is clearly stated to be the wrong BIOS onto my computer. Even if AwardBIOS is a generic term (which I don’t understand, why would you use a specific brand’s product name as the generic term for the equivalent product of rival companies?), the copyright is wrong, it should have an American Megatrends copyright on it.

I would really like, please, complete peace of mind and assurance that what is contained in that Zip file is the right BIOS image for my PC, which is not something I see any indication of right now. Before I toast my machine.

Eventually after some effort I learnt that Award had taken over development of that range of AMI BIOSes so it was perfectly OK that I was going to receive an Award BIOS instead. So I finally took the plunge and attempted to flash the machine. (In the privacy of my own home though!) No dice. Aparrently the new BIOS image was the wrong size. It was the same size as the copy it read from the Flash RAM chip though, so what was the problem? After more enquiries, it turned out they had sent me the wrong BIOS image anyhow. I still ended up with an Award BIOS but instead of 256 k it was now 128 k. This time it did work. Incidentally, the original 256 K back-up image of my BIOS was half empty anyhow.

The funny thing is that it is not a remade AMIBIOS, it is a plain, simple Award BIOS. Not sure what that tells me about BIOS compatibility and what Award might have done with any AMI code. It does work though, and the Barracuda is properly recognised. I just wished this whole saga hadn’t been so difficult, as it took several weeks or more to reach the stage of having a working BIOS image to flash. Beware.

Oh, and just in case…

…you thought modern PCs were any better. A while back we had an IT bloke fit an 8× DVD rewriter to Dell Dimension (I think) tower PC in the office. To our puzzlement, it was taking about 45 minutes to burn a DVD. The correct time for burning a 4.7 GB DVD at 8× is something like 9 minutes.

On examination, Windows was only supporting PIO mode for the drive. The IT bloke could only guess that this was due to Windows XP’s speed step-down procedure that permanently demotes drive access speed after experiencing issues with it. I followed instructions from a Web page he found me on how to erase the relevant registry entries that record the speed settings, but no dice. Windows just reverted back to PIO mode.

Eventually I just ploughed through the pages and pages and pages of replies on the Web page, hoping to find something, anything. Finally I hit the jackpot, from reading a comment by another Dell owner: the BIOS in the PC had the drive turned off! The BIOS was actually set to refuse to even acknowledge that there might ever be a drive connected at that IDE address. Windows falls back to PIO mode when it detects a drive that the BIOS can’t, and once the BIOS was wrist-slapped and told that, yes, a drive does exist at that address, UDMA mode came straight back without needing even any registry tweaks.


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