Processor Bugs

Processor manufacturers use specialized equipment to test their own processors, but you have to settle for a little less. The best processor-testing device to which you have access is a system that you know is functional; you then can use the diagnostics available from various utility software companies or your system manufacturer to test the motherboard and processor functions.

Companies such as Diagsoft, Symantec, Micro 2000, Trinitech, Data Depot, and others offer specialized diagnostics software that can test the system, including the processor. If you don't want to purchase this type of software, you can perform a quick-and-dirty processor evaluation by using the diagnostics program supplied with your system.

Perhaps the most infamous of these bugs is the floating-point division math bug in the early Pentium processors. This and a few other bugs are discussed in detail later in this chapter.

Because the processor is the brain of a system, most systems don't function with a defective processor. If a system seems to have a dead motherboard, try replacing the processor with one from a functioning motherboard that uses the same CPU chip. You might find that the processor in the original board is the culprit.

If the system continues to play dead, however, the problem is elsewhere, most likely in the motherboard, memory, or power supply. See the chapters that cover those parts of the system for more information on troubleshooting those components.

I must say that in all my years of troubleshooting and repairing PCs, I have rarely encountered defective processors. A few system problems are built in at the factory, although these bugs or design defects are rare. By learning to recognize these problems, you can avoid unnecessary repairs or replacements.

Each processor section describes several known defects in that generation of processors, such as the infamous floating-point error in the Pentium. For more information on these bugs and defects, see the following sections, and check with the processor manufacturer for updates.

Processor Update Feature

All processors can contain design defects or errors. Many times, the effects of any given bug can be avoided by implementing hardware or software workarounds. Intel documents these bugs and workarounds well for its processors in its processor Specification Update manual; this manual is available from Intel's Web site.

Most of the other processor manufacturers also have bulletins or tips on their Web sites listing any problems or special fixes or patches for their chips. Previously, the only way to fix a processor bug was to work around it or replace the chip with one that had the bug fixed.

Now, a new feature built into the Intel P6 and P7 processors, including the Pentium Pro through Pentium III, Celeron, and Pentium 4, can allow many bugs to be fixed by altering the microcode in the processor. Microcode is essentially a set of instructions and tables in the processor that control how the processor operates.

These processors incorporate a new feature called reprogrammable microcode, which enables certain types of bugs to be worked around via microcode updates. The micro code updates reside in the motherboard ROM BIOS and are loaded into the processor by the motherboard BIOS during the POST.

Each time the system is rebooted, the fix code is reloaded, ensuring that it will have the bug fix installed anytime the processor is operating. The updated microcode for a given processor is provided by Intel to the motherboard manufacturer so it can incorporate the microcode into the flash ROM BIOS for the board.

This is one reason it is important to install the most recent motherboard BIOS anytime you install a new processor. If your processor is newer than your motherboard ROM BIOS code, it probably doesn't include updated microcode to support your processor. In that case, you should visit the Web site of your motherboard manufacturer so you can download and install the latest BIOS update for your motherboard.