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Closely check those auto-detected BIOS settings

You may think that the BIOS automatically detects everything you put on your motherboard when you build your custom machine. Think again. See what might be missing when you start up your custom machine for the first time.

Those of you who have been building computers for more than two or three years will remember the days when scores of jumpers populated a motherboard's landscape. Thankfully, many modern boards don't contain that many jumpers; most have only a single jumper for clearing the CMOS. The lack of jumpers has made hardware installation and configuration almost simple enough for the end user to perform. Notice I said almost.

Even though a motherboard's BIOS that doesn't have jumpers will auto-detect most hardware configurations correctly, there are times when this process doesn't work. In such cases, it takes an experienced techie to sort things out.

I recently built a custom machine with a Shuttle AK11 motherboard and an Athlon Thunderbird processor. Everything appeared to be fine, until I accidentally discovered that my processor was only running at 75 percent. Here's how I fixed the problem. Let my experience serve as a reminder for those who build their own machines to check those BIOS settings.

Settings, settings everywhere
There are a multitude of settings on the modern motherboard that need to be set properly. You risk blowing up your new, expensive processor or having a machine that never quite meets its capacities if these settings aren't correct.

The Shuttle AK11 uses AwardBIOS, and although I trusted this combination to correctly detect my hardware, I decided to check the BIOS settings anyway. After the first POST, I entered the BIOS and began scrutinizing each screen.

I changed the boot order to use the CD-ROM, hard drive, and then the floppy. I had expected to do that anyway, though. Of course, I also set the date and time and checked to make sure the BIOS had correctly detected my hard drive, RAM amount, and CD-ROM.

I then moved to settings under Advanced Chipset Features. I was particularly anxious to ensure my AGP video card had been correctly detected, as this would significantly affect my Counter-Strike game play. On this same screen is where I noticed the first truly incorrect setting. The DRAM clock speed was set to 100 MHz, instead of being set for the 133-MHz RAM I had in the machine. The settings I had changed previously were mere preferences, but this one was actually incorrect. There was a reason for this that I didn't know until later, but I reset it to 133 MHz and moved on.

All the other settings seemed to me, at the time, to have defaulted to automatic detection modes, so I just cranked the machine up and started using it.

It was wonderful. The machine ran more quickly than any of my work or other home machines, and the graphics were great. Needless to say, Counter-Strike looked better than ever.

You can be too cool
My first clue that something was wrong came when I noticed how cool my new machine was running. I had gone to extremes to keep a cool-running machine. I had added a fan to an already well-designed case. I had used Arctic Silver's Arctic Silver II thermal compound and GlobalWin's CAK-II 38 solid copper heat sink. The heat sink's fan runs at 7,500 rpm and is rather loud, but I don't care that I can't hear aircraft flying overhead, just as long as it keeps my machine cool.

I was happy that my processor was recording only 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit at idle and only 90 to 95 degrees after a few intense hours of online Counter-Strike gaming.

Everyone seemed amazed at how cool my machine was running. Then one day, after a discussion about overclocking processors and seeing a video clip on melting AMD processors, I decided to take a closer look at my processor's performance.

My 1.13-GHz processor was running at only 849 MHz!

I went back into my BIOS, and there it was. My CPU clock speed was set to 100 MHz instead of 133 MHz. I totally missed this during my initial BIOS inspection. This also explains why the DRAM setting was at 100 instead of 133 MHz. According to the Shuttle manual, if the CPU clock had been set higher than 100, the DRAM setting would only have 133 MHz as an option. I quickly set the CPU clock speed to 133 MHz and rebooted. When I checked the processor speed again, I was running at a full 1.13 GHz. And I thought my machine was fast before!

Learn from my mistake
Whether you're building a machine for a client, for your IT department's test network, or for home use, remember to check all auto-detected, auto-configured settings. This advice not only holds true for BIOS settings but also other hardware and software settings as well. The next time you install a new video card, NIC, sound card, or other peripheral, make sure your OS has correctly detected the device. Ask yourself, "Is the device running at optimum efficiency?" Don't let an incorrectly configured, auto-detected setting ruin your day.

Have you been fooled?
As easy as building a computer or setting up an operating system seems to be today, there are gaps in the ability of auto-detecting devices to fully determine what they are supposed to detect. Has this happened to you? If so, what were the circumstances? Let us know by posting a comment below.


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