Review: Breaking through the BIOS Barrier

Cover of Breaking through the BIOS barrierThis morning I optimized my computer’s BIOS thanks to this book: Breaking through the BIOS Barrier by Adrian Wong (Prentice Hall, August 2005) ISBN 0-13-145536-2.

For those who don’t know, the BIOS is short for Basic Input/Output System. It sits between the computer hardware (motherboard, graphics card, soundcard, etc.) and the operating system (eg Windows XP, Linux, etc.) and allows one to communicate with the other. It is also responsible for the Power-On Startup Tests (POST) — sometimes also called the Power-On Diagnostic Test — and for controlling how the computer loads the operating system.

You may have noticed when your PC is booting up that it invites you to press a key (usually Delete, or F1 or F2) to access Setup. This takes you to the built-in BIOS setup utility that allows a user to tweak the BIOS settings to optimize it for their particular system.

I’ve just submitted this review of the book to Amazon.co.uk:

I always knew that the BIOS was important, and getting the settings right was essential for a stable system, but exactly what each setting meant and what its optimum value was I wasn’t certain. This book has certainly helped me a great deal.

Chapter 1 explains simply but thoroughly what the BIOS is, and how it relates to the hardware and operating system. It also talks you through how to find the latest BIOS update for your motherboard and how to update (flash) it.

Chapter 2 is there for those moments when it all seems to have gone wrong and your PC won’t boot due to a wrong overclocking value or a corrupted BIOS. I’ve been there and it’s a scary place to be, but Adrian Wong’s explanations, and ‘hand-holding’ directions are reassuringly simple. If only I’d had this book when my system wouldn’t start!

The rest of the book (chapters 3 and 4) follow an A-Z of BIOS settings (from ‘8-bit I/O Recovery Time’ to ‘Write Recovery Time’) — so, more an ‘8-W’ than an ‘A-Z’, I admit. Chapter 3 gives a Quick Review of each BIOS option, chapter 4 offers a detailed description of the same options.

This is the book’s first weakness, I feel. I can see why the author has outlined the information this way, but I would have found the book much easier and quicker to use if the detailed information followed on immediately from the quick review. As it is there is a lot of flipping back and forth between sections, and an awful lot of repeated text.

I’ve just finished optimizing my BIOS and I couldn’t have done it quick so quickly or knowledgeably without this book, but don’t expect to look up each and every setting without a little detective work. Not every BIOS uses the same name for each setting and so the A-Z (8-W!) organization is useful up to a point. Some settings in my BIOS began “IDE..” while in the book this is listed under “Onboard IDE..”. The index is very useful in this regard. While I realise that there are many kinds of BIOS and the author can’t list them all a few variations of the option names used would have been helpful. Some settings (particularly under the ‘Onboard SuperIO Device’ and ‘Power Management’ sections), however, I still can’t find in the book: External Cache, Sleep State, Video Off Method, etc. More detective work needed there maybe, or perhaps a new revision of the book.

If you want to check out some of the content then visit Adrian Wong’s website: www.rojakpot.com. It’s not quite as thorough as the book — and not quite as accessibile while you’re rooting around in your PC’s BIOS. It was because of this website that I bought the book.

All in all, this is a first class book that is let down a little, in my opinion, by separating the main content into two chapters where one would have sufficed. But if that is my only major criticism, and you are prepared to do a little detective work to match your BIOS options with those listed in the book then I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

What I didn’t say in the review was that the full, up-to-date BIOS Optimization Guide (BOG) is available from Adrian Wong’s website in both a cut-down, free version and also in full, subscription-only version. It is also available to buy in PDF, which would make it very useful to carry around on a laptop or PDA.

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