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BIOS Savior will save your system?s soul

Lose your BIOS and you lose your system. Fortunately, IOSS has created a backup Flash ROM device called BIOS Savior. In this Daily Feature, Rodrigo Zamora shows you how it can save your system from an awful death.

One of the great things about modern PCs is the ability to upgrade them to support new hardware and OS features by performing a BIOS update. Upgrading only requires that you perform a simple procedure known as BIOS flashing. Unfortunately, there is a downside to BIOS flashing: If your system loses power during a flash or if you overwrite the BIOS with the wrong data file, you can corrupt your BIOS information. There are also viruses that will attempt to destroy the data in your BIOS. Should your BIOS data ever become corrupted, it will render your system unbootable.

To address this problem, newer BIOS chips have been designed with boot blocks that are not overwritten. These boot blocks contain code that will attempt to boot your system from a floppy disk that has been setup to reprogram your BIOS. Because the amount of code that can fit into the boot blocks is very small, however, there may not be PCI or AGP display support. If this is the case with your system, you will either have to use an old ISA VGA card for display support, or do the restore using only audio cues from your BIOS and the LED from your floppy drive as guides.

On some systems, such as the test system I used for this article, there is AGP support. Nevertheless, recovering from boot blocks is not very convenient so other solutions have been developed. Some Gigabyte motherboards, for example, have a feature known as DualBIOS that consists of two BIOS chips integrated directly onto the motherboard. A functionally similar solution that you can add to most motherboards is IOSS’s RD1 BIOS Savior

What is it?
The RD1 BIOS Savior is a backup Flash ROM device that adds BIOS corruption protection to supported motherboards and makes the process of recovering from a corrupted BIOS easier. It also adds greater flexibility to the BIOS update procedure by allowing you to revert back to your old BIOS version, as well as test beta applications and unofficial updates. The BIOS Savior can be used as a replacement for your original BIOS or it can be stored away as a backup. You can also use BIOS Savior to recover another computer’s corrupted BIOS even if the system uses a completely different motherboard. (This last feature is limited somewhat by the corrupted BIOS chip’s form factor and capacity, but according to IOSS should work in many instances.)

For BIOS Savior to work with your system, your motherboard must have a BIOS that is plugged into a socket as opposed to being directly soldered to it. The BIOS Savior fits into the BIOS socket on the motherboard as shown in Figure A. Your original BIOS is then inserted into the BIOS Savior.

Figure A
Insert the BIOS Savior into your motherboard's BIOS socket.

There are four different versions available to support different BIOS types. The RD1-1M (128-KB BIOS) and RD1-2M (256-KB BIOS) versions are for motherboards that use typical DIP-packaged BIOS chips. The PL (2 Mb) and 8X (4 Mb) versions are for motherboards that use PLCC-packaged BIOS chips such as those found on newer Intel motherboards. For the purpose of this article, the RD1-2M version was used on an ABIT KA7-100 motherboard. If you are not sure if your motherboard is supported or what type of BIOS Savior to use, you can check the motherboard compatibility list maintained by IOSS. To find the meaning of the status codes in the compatibility list check out this index.

In the United States, you can purchase the BIOS Savior through IOSS’s distributor. Check the IOSS Web site for availability in other countries.

Installation and recovery
The RD1 BIOS Savior comes with the Flash ROM backup unit, instruction manual, selector switch, cable, and a bracket on which to mount the switch. IOSS also includes a ROM extractor tool to remove your original BIOS. The manual, though in choppy English, covers the installation step-by-step and is surprisingly thorough. To install the BIOS Savior, you must first carefully remove your original BIOS from its socket. If you bend the BIOS pins, try realigning them by gently reinserting the BIOS into its socket or into the BIOS Savior’s socket after installing it. Be extremely careful not to break a pin, as doing so will surely be an unpleasant experience (especially if the computer is not yours).

When placing the BIOS Savior and the BIOS into their appropriate sockets, be sure to insert them in the proper direction. There is a half circle notch on one end of DIP packages. The PLCC versions have a clipped corner key that indicates the direction of installation. Installing a device in the wrong direction can damage it. After the BIOS Savior is inserted, you should attach the cable to its jumper and attach the switch to the bracket. The bracket replaces one of your case’s slot covers. If you do not have an available slot opening, the switch can also be mounted on a nine-pin, D-sub connector opening (usually used for nine-pin serial connectors). The switch is used to select either your original BIOS or the BIOS Savior. These switch positions are labeled as ORG and RD1, respectively.

After the installation is complete, you should make a boot floppy that contains the appropriate flash utility for your system’s BIOS. (For example, Award’s AWDFLASH utility on a Windows 98 startup disk was used for the test system.) Make certain that the switch is set to boot from your system’s original BIOS (ORG), and then restart your system with the boot floppy disk inserted. If the installation was done properly, your system should boot up. If the system does not boot, most likely either the BIOS Savior or the original BIOS was not fully inserted into its respective socket.

Next, test the operation of the BIOS Savior by copying your original BIOS to it. To do this, save a copy of your original BIOS’s image to the disk using your flash utility. Then, move the switch to the RD1 position and program the BIOS Savior with the copy of the system BIOS. You should follow the specific instructions of the flash utility that you are using. Finally, reboot the system with the switch still set to RD1. If the system boots normally, then a valid copy was made and the BIOS Savior is working correctly. (If it does not work, you would have to start at the beginning—save a copy of your original BIOS’s image to the disk using your flash utility—to make a new copy.) The entire process only takes a few minutes to complete.

IOSS states that with some BIOSs or utilities, the programming must be done twice before it actually works.

Does it work?
To fully test the BIOS Savior, I decided to intentionally corrupt the test system’s BIOS. This was accomplished by unplugging the system while the BIOS was being flashed with a different version of the BIOS data. After the system was restarted, the BIOS detected the corrupt data and proceeded to boot from the boot blocks, as expected. To repair the original BIOS, I first moved the switch to the RD1 position and restarted the system. After reboot, the switch was moved back to the ORG position, and the original BIOS was reprogrammed. After another restart, the computer booted and operated as usual.

Although recent flash utilities prevent you from flashing your BIOS with an incorrect file and newer BIOS circuits contain boot blocks that enable rudimentary recovery of a corrupted BIOS, there is still a need for a product like the BIOS Savior. For example, a person responsible for upgrading systems could use the BIOS Savior on a test system to safely test a new or beta BIOS update before committing to the new version. A support technician might also appreciate BIOS Savior’s ability to recover from a wide range of systems. Enthusiasts may use it to take full advantage of their hardware by using unofficial or custom BIOS updates without putting their expensive motherboards at risk. All of these are excellent reasons to use the BIOS Savior. Its added functionality and flexibility make it a powerful tool for technical users and support specialists.

Editorial disclaimer
The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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