Check your firmware before Y2K

October 25, 1999|By Mike Himowitz

Over the years, I've gotten so used to technobabble that I forget how strange and bemusing the language of computers can be to newcomers.

So I had to chuckle a few days ago when I got a good-natured message from a reader who had visited his computer manufacturer's Web site, where he learned that a "firmware update" was available for his PC.

"Now I'm pretty sure I know what hardware is," he wrote, "and I've got a pretty good idea what software does. But I'm stumped by 'firmware.' Is this some kind of third world? A parallel universe that exists in the Twilight Zone between hardware and software? Does it matter?"

Good questions all. But the answers lie in the physical world, not the metaphysical. And yes, it does matter, particularly with Y2K two months away.

As you probably know, hardware refers to your computer and its components -- the circuit boards, chips, disk drives, printers and other gadgets attached to it. If you can touch it and feel it, it's usually hardware.

Software, on the other hand, refers to programs -- instructions that turn your computer into something other than an expensive doorstop. Microsoft Word, Quicken, Quake and your Bart Simpson screen-saver are examples of software. The software running on your computer can change, and your PC is usually running several programs at the same time. If you know something about programming, you can even change the nature of the software itself.

Unlike the hardware, which sits there immutably whether your computer is running or not, software disappears from your computer's memory chips whenever you turn it off. When you turn the PC back on and start up a program, the instructions load from your computer's hard disk back into its memory chips and the machine becomes useful again.

As you might suspect, firmware lies somewhere in between. It consists of software loaded onto special chips that don't lose everything when you turn off the power. These chips are generically referred to as ROM, an acronym that stands for Read Only Memory. The instructions on these chips are burned at the factory and normally don't change.

The most important firmware in your computer is something called the BIOS, or Basic Input Output System (don't worry, that's the last major acronym of the day). It's a set of elementary instructions that tell your computer how to communicate with its various components, such as disk drives, memory chips, monitor, keyboard and communications ports. The BIOS also contains instructions that tell your computer how to load the operating system from the hard drive when you turn it on. Without this basic programming, your computer wouldn't know what to do when you flip the switch.

In the early days of computers, when the BIOS had been programmed and installed, it was there for good. In fact, the only way to change the computer's basic instructions was to replace the ROM chip itself -- and often that was impossible because it was soldered to the PC's main circuit board.

But as time went by and technology improved, manufacturers realized they could fix mistakes in the original BIOS or add features to the computer by using a new generation of firmware -- reprogrammable ROM chips known as flash memory. Flash memory can be changed, although not too easily, because you normally don't want the contents to disappear. So computer makers routinely post special software on their Web sites that will replace a PC's firmware with an updated version.

Not long ago, when my computer started behaving strangely and I couldn't fix the problem, a consultant suggested that there might be corrupted code in the BIOS. So I logged onto Dell's Web site, downloaded the latest firmware and installed it. The problems disappeared.

On the other hand, owners of Macintosh G3 computers who downloaded a new version of Apple's firmware in May -- ostensibly posted to improve performance -- found that the "upgrade" also disabled their computers' ability to use newer, faster G4 processors. A mere oversight, Apple said.

The lesson: never be the first person to update your firmware.

You'll also find flash memory in a variety of gadgets ranging from pagers to clock radios. For example, it's used to store photos in digital cameras. When you fill one flash memory card, you can pull it out and stick in another without losing your first set of pictures. When you've transferred the photos to your hard disk, you can erase a flash memory card and use it again. Handheld PCs such as the Palm Pilot and Windows CE devices store their entire operating systems in flash memory, which is why they don't need hard disk drives.

Getting back to your computer, its firmware and the year 2000 problem, many older machines -- and some produced in the last couple of years -- have a BIOS that can't process the change in the century. This could render a lot of PCs useless, or at least highly unreliable.

Check with the manufacturer to find out whether your BIOS is Y2K compatible. Larger computer makers post this information on their Web sites. If your BIOS isn't Y2K compatible, you may be able to upgrade the firmware with a simple download. The bad news: Many older machines with a static BIOS may not be fixable.

If you don't know how to get in touch with the manufacturer, invest a few dollars in a commercial Y2K compatibility checker or download a free or shareware utility from an online source such as ZDNet (www.zdnet.com) or CNet's software library (www.shareware.com).

This is something you should do right now. Don't wait until the last minute or you could wind up with an expensive doorstop.

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