Although it is the foundation of the modern personal computer system, the motherboard can also be one of its most maddening compon- ents. One section in particular, the ROM BIOS chip(s), can cause more problems in terms of installation and upgrades than most people would believe!
Recently, I helped a friend upgrade an older desktop PC by installing a used 386 motherboard. The original system had used a 52-megabyte SCSI hard drive. Since IDE hard drives are more widely available than their SCSI counterparts (especially used ones), my friend naturally wanted to upgrade to an IDE hard drive. Naturally, this required the purchase of an IDE controller card, which, in this case, was also a multi-I/O card.
To our utter consternation, however, the 386 motherboard steadfastly refused to work with an IDE hard drive--even when we repeatedly switched from one IDE card to another! Not until we upgraded again, this time to a used 486 motherboard, were we able to successfully install and use the IDE drive. As if that weren't bad enough, the 486 motherboard was older than the 386!
The problem, I finally concluded, was one of incompatibility between the IDE cards we had available and the ROM BIOS of the 386 motherboard. "But why?" you may be asking. "And why is this something I should be concerned about?" The answer to these questions is the focus of this article.
First of all, let's briefly cover just what the ROM BIOS is and what it does. As you may know, the phrase "ROM BIOS" is an acronym-- that is a word or phrase which is actually an abbreviation of several other words or phrases. In this case, the words "ROM BIOS" stand for "Read Only Memory--Basic Input/Output System." As that phrase implies, the ROM BIOS is a special set of routines and instructions governing some of the most basic hardware-level functions regarding the input and output of information among the various components and subsystems of a personal computer. So important are these functions and instructions that they are permanently encoded into special memory chips on the motherboard, and are accessed by the system from the very moment that the power is turned on. Even DOS makes use of these functions in controlling the use of the computer as a whole.
There are only a handful of companies that manufacture ROM BIOS chips. Most of them make their products available to motherboard and computer manufacturers in such a way as to allow them to "customize" the ROM BIOS to their individual specifications. In some cases, this may actually benefit the consumer, particularly in the case of a large manufacturer or reseller such as Compaq or Gateway. In other cases, however, this can pose serious or even insurmountable problems when it comes time to upgrade the computer by adding or replacing a component (as in the case mentioned earlier). This is particularly true if the manufacturer goes out of business, or if (as is often the case) the motherboard manufacturer is a small, "Mom-and-Pop" concern in Taiwan or some other foreign locale.
As I found out when I called the ROM BIOS manufacturer, obtaining technical support in such cases can be extremely difficult even at best. Unless you already have the name and address of the manufacturer (and, of course, assuming they are still in business!), it may well be impossible to obtain an upgraded or replacement ROM BIOS if one is needed.
What, then, can be done to at least minimize the possibility of such problems? First of all, I would recommend buying ONLY new motherboards from an established computer supply firm. While the lure of obtaining a motherboard from a friend at an exceptionally low price might well be a strong one, in my experience this all too often turns out to be false economy--as my friend found out the hard way!
Second, if at all possible, buy controller cards, I/O cards, etc., from the same source from which you obtained the original motherboard. In the vast majority of cases, they will know what does and does not work with a given motherboard. This fact alone will help to save time, money, and aggravation when either building or upgrading a computer. Also, they should at least have some idea as to the availability of ROM BIOS upgrades, especially from a major motherboard vendor.
But what if--for whatever reason--you need to obtain a ROM BIOS upgrade or replacement and you can't go to the original vendor or manufacturer? Take heart--as it turns out, there are several firms which specialize exclusively in stocking and selling ROM BIOS chips. These firms advertise quite regularly in such computer magazines as BYTE, PC Magazine, PC World, and--especially--Computer Shopper. Usually you will find their advertisements in the display or "classified ads" section in the magazine's back pages. Call them and discuss your situation with them. It is quite literally their business to keep up with the availability of ROM BIOS upgrades and replacements for a wide variety of motherboards.
One hint--before calling, if you can, the name of the motherboard's manufacturer, and the serial or model number of either the motherboard or the ROM BIOS itself. In most cases, this information will be displayed on the screen when the system is first powered up-- before you even see the message, "Starting MS-DOS". In fact, it will most likely be displayed during the initial memory test directly after the power is turned on. Write down this information (including the date and version number, if any, of the ROM BIOS), and have it in front of you when you call the ROM BIOS vendor. They will need it in order to check on the availability of any upgrades or replacements for your individual motherboard.
If an upgrade for your ROM BIOS *IS* available, the vendor will advise you of the cost, shipping options, etc. They will (or should!) also advise you of any potential or existing problems (such as compatibility with a particular component or type of component) with the ROM BIOS version you are discussing with them. If not, ASK THEM!
Sadly, in many cases, an appropriate upgrade will not be available. In my opinion, at least, your best--in fact, your ONLY--option in such a case is to purchase and install a new motherboard from an established source, as described above. Be sure you obtain any and all documentation on both the motherboard itself and (if any) the ROM BIOS at the time you purchase the motherboard. In fact, if the vendor does not have, or will not furnish, such documentation about a given motherboard, DON'T BUY IT!! The more information you have about your motherboard, the easier upgrading it will be.
While I have not yet had the opportunity to do any real research in this regard, I have no doubt that this kind of information can be found on the Internet and the World Wide Web. Using a search engine such as Yahoo or Alta Vista, set to search for such terms as "motherboard" and "ROM BIOS", should prove to be a useful starting point in your research.
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