July 14, 2012, 7:35 AM — You should update several programs on your hard drive regularly, usually for security reasons. Many of them, including your antivirus and Windows itself, probably update automatically. (For questions about automatically updating Windows, see Should I Turn Off Automatic Updates?)
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But the BIOS is different. It's not even on the hard drive. And you should only update it with good reason.
Unlike other programs, the Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) sits on a chip on the motherboard, and is the first code to run when you boot your PC. It tells the processor where to look for the operating system. It continues working after the bootup, facilitating communication between the OS and the hardware.
Although you can update today's BIOSes, doing so is more dangerous than updating drive-based software. If something goes wrong, it could render the PC completely unbootable; you won't even be able to boot a live Linux flash drive or reinstall Windows. There's probably a way to bring the PC back to life, but it won't be easy.
So when should you update your BIOS? Only if there's a problem--especially a hardware-related one--and your research suggests that the BIOS may be the cause.
Research is the key to a safe BIOS update. First, find the current version of your BIOS:
- Select Start (Start>Run in XP), type regedit, and press ENTER.
- Navigate the Registry Editor's left pane, as if it were Windows Explorer, to Computer/LOCAL_MACHINE\HARDWARE\DESCRIPTION\System.
- In the larger, right pane, note the data fields for SystemBiosDate and SystemBiosVersion.
Armed with that information, go to your PC or motherboard manufacturer's Web site to see if there's a new version available. If there is, double and triple-check to make sure it’s actually for your particular hardware. Read the description to see if it might fix your problem.
The Web site may offer two versions of the BIOS-updating tool--a Windows program and a special, bootable version you put on a CD or flash drive. If both are available, go with the bootable one.
And follow the instructions to the letter.
Read the original forum discussion.
Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector writes about technology and cinema. Email your tech questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or post them to a community of helpful folks on the PCW Answer Line forum. Follow Lincoln on Twitter, or subscribe to the Answer Line newsletter, e-mailed weekly.