BIOS Upgrading

The ROM BIOS provides the crude brains that get your computer's components working together. A simple BIOS upgrade can often give your computer better performance and more features.

The BIOS is the reason various operating systems can operate on virtually any PC-compatible system despite hardware differences. Because the drivers in the BIOS communicate with the hardware, the BIOS must be specific to the hardware and match it completely.

As discussed earlier, instead of creating their own BIOS, many computer makers buy a BIOS from specialists such as American Megatrends, Inc. (AMI), Microid Research, or Phoenix Technologies Ltd. (for Phoenix and AwardBIOS).

A motherboard manufacturer that wants to license a BIOS must undergo a lengthy process of working with the BIOS company to tailor the BIOS code to the hardware.

This process is what makes upgrading a BIOS somewhat problematic; the BIOS usually resides on ROM chips on the motherboard and is specific to that motherboard model or revision. In other words, you must get your BIOS upgrades from your motherboard manufacturer or from a BIOS upgrade company that supports the motherboard you have, rather than directly from the BIOS developer.

Often, in older systems, you must upgrade the BIOS to take advantage of some other upgrade. To install some of the larger and faster Integrated Drive Electronics (IDE) hard drives and LS-120 (120MB) floppy drives in older machines, for example, you might need a BIOS upgrade.

Some of the machines you have might be equipped with older BIOS that do not support hard drives larger than 8GB, for example. The following list shows some of the primary functions of a ROM BIOS upgrade; the exact features and benefits of a particular BIOS upgrade depend on your system:

  • Adding LS-120 (120MB) SuperDisk floppy drive or Iomega Zip drive support

  • Adding support for bootable USB drives

  • Adding support for hard drives greater than 8.4GB or 137GB (48-bit LBA)

  • Adding support for Ultra-DMA/33, UDMA/66, or faster UDMA IDE hard drives

  • Adding support for bootable ATAPI CD-ROM drives (called the El Torito specification)

  • Adding or improving Plug and Play (PnP) support and compatibility

  • Correcting calendar-related and leap-year bugs

  • Correcting known bugs or compatibility problems with certain hardware and application or operating system software

  • Adding support for newer-type and -speed processors

  • Adding support for ACPI power management

  • Adding or fixing support for temperature monitoring and fan control

  • Adding support for legacy USB devices

  • Adding support for chassis intrusion support

If you install newer hardware or software and follow all the instructions properly, but you can't get it to work, specific problems might exist with the BIOS that an upgrade can fix. This is especially true for newer operating systems.

Many systems need to have a BIOS update to properly work with the Plug and Play features of Windows 9x, Me, XP, and 2000. Because these problems are random and vary from board to board, it pays to periodically check the board manufacturer's Web site to see whether any updates are posted and what problems they fix.

Because new hardware and software that are not compatible with your system could cause it to fail, I recommend you check the BIOS upgrades available for your system before you install new hardware or software, particularly processors.

You can use the BIOS Wizard utility available from (formerly Unicore) to test your BIOS for compatibility with popular BIOS features, such as Zip/LS-120 booting, ACPI power management, PCI IRQ routing, and more. Download it from

Where to Get BIOS Update

For most BIOS upgrades, you must contact the motherboard manufacturer by phone or download the upgrade from its Web site. The BIOS manufacturers do not offer BIOS upgrades because the BIOS in your motherboard did not actually come from them. In other words, although you think you have a Phoenix, AMI, or Award BIOS, you really don't!

Instead, you have a custom version of one of these BIOS, which was licensed by your motherboard manufacturer and uniquely customized for its board. As such, you must get any BIOS upgrades from the motherboard or system manufacturer because they must be customized for your board or system as well.

In the case of Phoenix or Award, another option might exist. A company called eSupport (formerly Unicore) specializes in providing Award BIOS upgrades. eSupport might be able to help you if you can't find your motherboard manufacturer or if it is out of business.

Phoenix has a similar deal with Micro Firmware, a company it has licensed to provide various BIOS upgrades. If you have a Phoenix or an Award BIOS and your motherboard manufacturer can't help you, contact one of these companies for a possible solution.

Microid Research (sold through eSupport, formerly Unicore) is another source of BIOS upgrades for a variety of older and otherwise obsolete boards. These upgrades are available for boards that originally came with AMI, Award, or Phoenix BIOS, and they add new features to older boards that have been abandoned by their original manufacturers. Contact eSupport for more information.

Determining BIOS Version

When seeking a BIOS upgrade for a particular motherboard (or system), you need to know the following information:

  • The make and model of the motherboard (or system)

  • The version of the existing BIOS

  • The type of CPU (for example, Pentium MMX, AMD K6, Cyrix/IBM 6x86MX, MII, Pentium II, Pentium III and later, AMD Athlon, Athlon XP, and so on)

You usually can identify the BIOS you have by watching the screen when the system is first powered up. It helps to turn on the monitor first because some take a few seconds to warm up and the BIOS information is often displayed for only a few seconds.

In addition, you often can find the BIOS ID information in the BIOS Setup screens. eSupport also offers a downloadable BIOS Agent that can be used to determine this information, as well as the motherboard chipset and Super I/O chip used by your motherboard.

After you have this information, you should be able to contact the motherboard manufacturer to see whether a new BIOS is available for your system. If you go to the Web site, check to see whether a version exists that is newer than the one you have. If so, you can download it and install it in your system.

Most BIOSs display version information onscreen when the system is first powered up. In some cases, the monitor takes too long to warm up, and you might miss this information because it is displayed for only a few seconds. Try turning on your monitor first, and then your system, which makes this information easier to see.

You usually can press the Pause key on the keyboard when the BIOS ID information is being displayed, which freezes it so you can record the information. Pressing any other key allows the system startup to resume. Part of the PC 2001 standard published by Intel and Microsoft requires something called Fast POST to be supported.

Fast POST means that the time it takes from turning on the power until the system starts booting from disk must be 12 seconds or less (for systems not using SCSI as the primary storage connection). This time limit includes the initialization of the keyboard, video card, and ATA bus.

For systems containing adapters with onboard ROMs, an additional 4 seconds are allowed per ROM. Intel calls this feature Rapid BIOS Boot (RBB), and it is supported in all its motherboards from 2001 and beyond—some of which can begin booting from power-on in as little as 6 seconds.