How to make sure your BIOS update goes without a hitch

Updating your BIOS can cut boot times, fix compatibility issues, improve overall performance or brick a system if done wrong.

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By Patrick Miller, PC World - Your computer's BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) is the first software your PC loads. It sets the stage for your operating system, so to speak, by finding all your PC's various hardware components and letting the operating system know it can use them.

[ See also: Cure an Insomniac PC and Other Tips ]

As with any software, your computer or motherboard manufacturer periodically updates the BIOS to fix bugs, add compatibility with new devices, improve caching functions, and make several other hardware tweaks that can speed up your boot time and fix annoying issues. These updates are available at the manufacturer's site. But if you make a mistake in the update process, you risk rendering your PC unbootable. Here's how to make sure your BIOS update goes without a hitch.

Step 1: Identify your current BIOS version.

The easiest way to find your BIOS version is to open up the System Information app in Windows--just type msinfo32 into the search bar (for Windows 7/Vista) or the Run box (XP), and click System Summary; your BIOS version should now show up on the right under your processor speed. Record your version number (and the date that appears afterwards, if applicable).

Step 2: Check your PC/motherboard manufacturer's Website for BIOS updates.

Most PC manufacturers handle BIOS updates based on your specific line and model, so head over to your manufacturer's support page and check its listings for your PC, because if you download and install a BIOS intended for a different model, your PC probably won't work (although most BIOS updaters are smart enough to notice if you try to install them on the wrong hardware). If there is a BIOS update file available, grab it--along with any documentation it comes with, because often warnings and specific instructions are contained in the Read Me docs.

Those of you who assembled your PC yourself will need to look for BIOS updates from your motherboard manufacturer's Website. If you don't remember your motherboard's model number, you can look it up without opening up the case by downloading and running CPU-Z and clicking on the Mainboard tab.

Step 3: Read the included documentation.

The BIOS updater's Read Me file will most likely include a list of fixes and new functions, often to support new hardware. Updating the BIOS for my Lenovo Thinkpad T500, for example, added support for a new AC adapter and a 1600-by-900-pixel screen resolution on an external monitor; the update also fixed fan speed and Webcam issues that could not have been handled by updating Windows or my specific device driver software.

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