Keep your motherboard up to date

Motherboard technology is constantly evolving. Take for instance the new Pentium 4 processor. James McPherson brings you up to date on today's advancements and provides tips you can use for any motherboard configuration.

You may have been building your own PC systems since the dawn of time (well, since the x486 chip, anyway). However, if you’re planning to build a new P4 system, perhaps you should read this Daily Drill Down first. While not much has changed on motherboards that use AMD chips, Intel’s new Pentium 4 processor has increased power and cooling requirements, uses new case designs, requires different memory, and has video card demands that can differ greatly from past Intel offerings. In other words, these aren’t your father’s motherboards. In this Daily Drill Down, I will discuss some of the changes taking place in motherboard technology as well as provide some universal troubleshooting techniques for any type motherboard.

Keeping your cool
The Pentium 4 is currently available in speeds of 1.80 GHz, 1.70 GHz, 1.60 GHz, 1.50 GHz, 1.40 GHz, and 1.30 GHz. To achieve such speeds, this chip demands substantial power from your power supply. From increased power comes increased heat. Intel suggests using a 60mm fan for active cooling and a heat sink consisting of aluminum fins and a copper base (Figure A). Keep in mind that heat sinks that attach to the motherboard's heat sink retention tabs should not exceed 450 grams. (That's close to one pound.)

Figure A
The copper provides increased heat spreading.

Some case manufacturers have made cases that allow the attaching of a heat sink directly to the case itself (Figure B). This will keep the heavy heat sink from bending and possibly warping the motherboard.

Figure B
The heat sink mounts directly to the case.

The Intel 850 chipset uses over 9 million transistors, giving off over 9 million transistors worth of heat. Intel says using passive cooling (that is, cooling with a heat sink only) is the minimum needed to keep this chipset cool. In other words, if you can afford some kind of active cooling for your system, you might want to check into it.

Upping the ante on power supplies
To supply all of this power, Intel has created a new standard for power supplies. P4-ready motherboards come with the familiar ATX-style power connector, the old AT-style power connectors, and the new ATX12V connector (Figure C). This is all in preparation for the advent of the multigigahertz processor and the increased power demands of these upcoming chips. If you plan to recycle your power supply and you don't have the ATX12V connector, don't sweat it. You can purchase a converter cable from many computer parts retailers. Intel suggests using a power supply rated at 350 watts if you're going to use a converter. I think that's being modest and would push for a 400-watt supply even if you’re not going to use a converter.

Figure C
Notice the connection points on the motherboard (circled).

New memory types
Rambus Direct RAM (RDRAM) was developed to give computers higher memory bandwidth over conventional memory systems (Figure D). RDRAM consists of memory modules called RIMMs. RIMM is not an acronym but instead is a registered trademark of Rambus Incorporated. Although RIMMs have a low pin count, they are rated to achieve speeds of up to 1.6 GB/sec in a single channel. Channels can be combined to increase this speed. For example, Sony’s PlayStation 2 uses a dual-channel RDRAM configuration to achieve speeds of 3.2 GB/sec.

Figure D
This RDRAM memory chip is an example of what you would see on a typical Pentium 4 configuration.

The Pentium 4 also uses this dual-RDRAM configuration. But, because it's dual channel, you'll need to install your memory in pairs. Failing to do so will cause your motherboard not to boot. Also, if you have any empty RIMM slots, you must install C-RIMMs. Short for Continuity-RIMM, a C-RIMM is a pass-through module that allows for a continuous signal throughout to the memory subsystem. Not having the necessary C-RIMMs in place will also cause your motherboard not to boot. This memory is not cheap. A single 128-MB, 800-MHz RDRAM module is priced at about $230.

Breakneck speeds for AGP
Before AGP, video manufacturers used PCI slots to provide computers with speedy graphics. With the introduction of the Intel 440 LX chipset came a new specification, AGP. During these early days, video card manufacturers continued to use the same 3.3 voltage used by PCI slots. As video cards became more advanced, it was apparent that a new design was needed, so manufacturers shrunk the size of the video chips from .25u to .18u. Shrinking the chip meant that you could achieve the same clock speed and get higher frequencies while reducing power consumption and maintaining the same design. This is where 1.5-volt AGP came in. Sadly, because we can fit more on less, we are right back where we started—higher power consumption and increased heat output.

In 1999, AGP Pro was introduced to solve these problems. AGP Pro slots come in AGP Pro 3.3V, AGP Pro 1.5V, and AGP Universal. This was done for backward compatibility, but now most manufacturers have fully converted to 1.5V, so we will probably start to see less and less of the 3.3V and Universal varieties. As a matter of fact, Intel has already started manufacturing 1.5V-only motherboards. For those of us not quite on the cutting edge, you can run your Pentium 4 on a motherboard with Universal AGP. However, to use non-AGP Pro cards in these slots, the AGP video card must have a registration tab, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E
The Universal AGP Pro Connector Registration Tab is the first tab on the right.

Also, Universal AGP Pro slots come equipped with a handy yellow sticker that reads something to the effect of Remove It For AGP Pro Only (Figure F). No matter how tempting, do not remove the sticker if you are not using an AGP Pro card. If you do, you’ll end up using an AGP Pro card whether you wanted to or not.

Figure F
It is important to remove the AGP Pro safety tab only if you are using an AGP Pro card.

Boot failure troubleshooting
Though I have been focusing on Intel chips, chipsets, and motherboards in this article, some of the ideas discussed here can be applied to new AMD systems, as well. That said, it is time to take a look at some universal techniques (both Intel and AMD) for troubleshooting motherboards. The rest of our time together will be spent discussing the common problem of what to do when your newly installed system won’t boot.

First steps
First, open the computer’s case and ensure that all connections are firmly in place. Make sure the memory, cables, and cards are all seated firmly in their slots. If the machine still doesn’t power up, it’s time to play Sherlock Holmes. Remove everything from the motherboard and unplug the hard drives from the power supply. Leave the leads that run to the power switch, reset switch, speaker, etc., attached to the board. Reinstall only the processor, the power supply, and the memory (and any C-RIMMS). When installing the processor, be sure the heat sink is fastened and the processor fan is connected to one of the power supply leads. Never run a Pentium 4 or Athlon processor without the fan and heat sink. You may have been able to get away with it in the past, but these new processors will burn up quicker than an ant under a magnifying glass on a sweltering summer day. If you have onboard video, attach a monitor. If you do not have onboard video, do not install the video card at this time. We are trying to leave the computer in a “barebones” configuration. Next, turn the computer on.

If your motherboard does not use onboard video, you should hear some sort of beep from the computer—either a series of beeps, one long beep, or a combination of both. This is because no video card is installed on the computer. If you have onboard video, the computer should continue to boot and halt either with a keyboard warning or a no operating system message (Figure G). In either case, you can assume that the motherboard is not the reason the computer did not boot the first time and continue on.

Figure G
You should see something like this when booting up in a "barebones” configuration.

If your computer doesn’t do anything, review the user's manual and ensure that the jumpers are all in their correct positions, the memory is correctly installed, and the processor is seated properly. This may also be a good time to contact the manufacturer for assistance. It is true, though, that some motherboards may not make a beeping noise, so you may want to continue on to the next step before contacting tech support.

Next steps
Turn the computer off again and install the video card. (You “onboard video types” just relax a minute.) Once the video card is installed, attach a monitor and turn on the computer. If your video card is working properly, you should see the BIOS screen, as in Figure G above, at which point the computer will halt.

Author’s note
I feel that it is better to use add-in video and soundcards than onboard systems located on the motherboard. When using onboard video and sound, precious CPU cycles will have to be dedicated to these systems, making you that much slower when playing a high stakes game of Half Life.

You can reattach your keyboard and continue using the “install-and-reboot method” for each of the computer’s components until you either find the problem or the computer fully boots. In most cases, I’ve found that simply reinstalling the hardware fixes most initial boot-up problems. Chances are something wasn’t seated correctly or plugged in firmly the first time around. (Remember the tips I discussed earlier in this Daily Drill Down if you’re dealing with Pentium 4 processors and Rambus memory.)

A helpful link to avoid trouble down the road
Here’s something you might want to keep in mind when researching your next troubleshooting task. Phoenix Technologies, maker of the Phoenix and Award BIOS, has introduced PhoenixNet, its new Internet-based system used to automatically update the software on your computer. PhoenixNet is supposed to download updates necessary to keep your computer in tip-top shape. At startup, the Phoenix Internet Launch system, which will reside in your system’s BIOS, will automatically connect to the Internet and download updates and tools for your system provided by Phoenix and third-party vendors. Motherboard manufacturers like AOpen, Giga-Byte, MSI, Soltek, and Zida have already agreed to start using PhoenixNet. You can go to the Phoenix Technologies FAQs page to get more information.

While the initial premise sounds good, the potential for “evil” is all too clear. Personally, I have a few reservations because this software will reside in the BIOS. It could subvert all firewall/security applications installed on your computer and connect silently to the Internet without your knowledge or consent—doing who knows what. Only those with external firewalls will be able to block the software. Phoenix says the system can be disabled through a system tray applet installed on your system. However, what if you do not use a Windows operating system? How do you disable it then? Further, how do I know that one of these system updates isn’t going to one day be used to disable the system tray applet? Maybe I am a bit paranoid, but you should consider these risks before using this tool.

Technology changes rapidly. Nowhere is this more apparent than in motherboard technology. Serving as the highway for the billions of instructions a PC has to process, the motherboard must be not only a stable foundation but also a technologically advanced one, as well. In this Daily Drill Down, I have covered a few recent advances in motherboard technology and some tried-and-true troubleshooting techniques you can use no matter how old your system is.

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