Ultimately I focused on different types of disk drives for our computers, neglecting other categories of PC components.
By this post I am planning to get in touch with you again, this time about a special type of motherboards that may be nice to have! It is about dual BIOS motherboards, or simply about those boards that feature two distinct Flash BIOS entities in their structure. We will understand what a BIOS is, some critical aspects about it, and why a dual BIOS motherboard may sometimes bring us a real advantage in case we fail to perform certain operations on the PC.
What is BIOS?
The BIOS term is obviously an acronym and it stands for Basic Input/Output System. The processor (CPU) of a personal computer needs this BIOS program for starting the operating system after we turn the computer on. BIOS is tightly connected to the motherboard, it comes pre-installed with the motherboard (or with the whole computer, if you buy the PC as all-in-one), so you don’t need to worry about installing a BIOS when starting your PC for the first time. On the other hand, most BIOSes are updatable, and it’s precisely this BIOS update question that my current post is going to address.
The BIOS is contained in an erasable programmable read-only-memory (EPROM) chip that is included into the motherboard, and the CPU makes use of this program at startup, because basically the BIOS needs to make sure that everything is fine with the computer.
It verifies that the PC basic components (the RAM, video, storage drives, the CPU itself) are mounted on their places and work properly; it also lists all (or most, on older PCs) the storage drives that are connected to the PC – assuming that they work well; the BIOS also stores data about how the hardware system is cooled (fan speeds, system temperatures, operating modes for the cooling process), about the amount & frequencies of RAM and CPU, about the video memory (be it shared or from a separate GPU), about disk drives’ capacities, the operating system boot order (because the computer must know where to go for starting the system), and other custom settings, including the modification of important parameters like frequencies, voltages (RAM and CPU), fan speeds, the boot order… Things that need understanding, knowledge, and care.
To make short work of exposing what the BIOS does: it ensures the good order of the PC hardware.
If a BIOS does not work well and there is no copy (backup) for it, then the motherboard is in big trouble. Not being able to use the BIOS is a tragical synonym to not being capable of using the PC any more.
When is it unsafe to work with BIOS?
Although a BIOS is stored in a read-only memory chip as I said above, when we enter into it (by pressing special keyboard buttons – aka keys – like F12 or Delete, the computer must display on the screen the appropriate command for entering BIOS, right at start) we are actually able to modify certain settings, and some of them may be quite critical, not to say dangerous (like overclocking the CPU very much, or putting it to reach a too high voltage, or doing something similar to the RAM). We can save the BIOS settings, of course. Or discard them before exiting / restarting or turning the PC off, if we are not OK with them.
When modifying BIOS settings, we must understand well our PCs and what the parameters that are exposed in the BIOS mean. We must know what we are doing, in order not to get impaired by disfunctionalities then, not to mention those very risky settings leading to permanent damages.
Another potentially dangerous (yet necessary) thing to do with BIOS is… updating it. A large number of modern motherboards (say, mobos released after 2010) came with given versions of their BIOSes and people bought them so. But later, manufacturers found out that there was still room for better BIOS settings for those motherboards (like updating CPU microcode, or making boards compatible with newer CPUs released, adding support for a certain technology…), which meant releasing new versions of BIOS on their sites.
So people who were… let’s better say who ARE interested in having their hardware and software up-to-date go to the sites of their motherboards for downloading BIOS updates – newer versions that replace theirs’ ones. Modern BIOSes provide update options such as M-Flash (updating the BIOS from a USB memory stick, at least this is the case with my five modern motherboards at home).
The BIOS file is usually around 16 MB (or 128 megabits) in size – because that’s also the capacity of that ROM chip described above – and can be copied to the USB drive, from which then the old BIOS, that has to enter the so-called FLASH mode, reads the data, recognizes the new BIOS file, and then updates “itself”, in fact the old BIOS is overwritten with the data from that update file, then the computer restarts and we can enter the new BIOS.
When updating BIOS, we must make sure the version of the update file is newer than ours, and also to download such files only from the manufacturer’s site, for our safety, NOT from third-parties.
But what happens if the BIOS update fails? Maybe the update file is corrupted, maybe there’s a power outage right in the middle of the process, and the update does not finish the good way. After all, when it starts, we are warned not to power the PC off during the process. And the mouse & keyboard are blocked. Again, at least this is the case with my home equipments when I perform BIOS updates.
If you update the BIOS on your laptop, then make sure its battery is completely charged and the laptop is also connected to a power outlet – it must not be turned off at all during the update process. If you have also an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) for protecting your computer from power outages, it’s even better! And surely, it is not a good idea to update your BIOS during a storm. Or if there are frequent power interruptions due to maintenance works. The UPS is also providing protection to computers only for a limited time – it is not a perpetuum mobile!
So what if you fail to update the BIOS?
If the BIOS is damaged, you cannot start your computer as you used to. On many modern motherboards there is a lot of solutions for solving a BIOS update failure (like using BIOS flashback, automatic firmware recovery tools, flashback software utilities, removing the Li-Ion CMOS battery that is associated with the BIOS chip on the motherboard and putting it back after 5-10 minutes), in the worst case replacing the motherboard.
There is also a special situation: even if the BIOS is damaged by an unfinished update, you don’t need any of the workarounds above, because your motherboard can still enter the BIOS! How is that possible, since the BIOS was just damaged? Is it for real or not? Let’s see!
Dual BIOS in action
A certain number of motherboards have actually two different BIOS ROM chips. One of them is the main BIOS, or simply the BIOS we see in our normal days, the one with that shining CMOS battery. The second chip acts like a backup copy for the main BIOS (keeping the original BIOS that the motherboard came with, or the previous version of BIOS in case we chose to make updates). This second chip is not affected at all by failing update processes, but in such situations it is used for recovering the main BIOS (it takes the place of the main BIOS for a short time). Then you can use your BIOS and the whole computer again, and possibly try another update with care.
Clearly, not all motherboards – not even the high-end ones! – support this feature. I have five functional high-end motherboards at home: four of them from the Intel X299 suite, and the fifth mobo is from AMD X399 (for the second generation of Threadripper processors). Only one of them has the Dual BIOS, and it is NOT the Threadripper one!
I took the risk a lot of times and made BIOS upgrades, and thank God that they all finished well.
There is also the possibility to be wrong about some settings in BIOS and thus to trigger a recovery… I think this happened once on the Dual BIOS motherboard, it was about overclocking settings and my BIOS was reverted to an earlier version, that was NOT the original one that the motherboard had come with (I had already performed a number of updates). Which made me deduce how the backup BIOS works – which kind of previous BIOS version it actually stores. This BIOS rollback story ended up well – I was able to repeat the update and to keep it, and there have been also other updates since then. No power interruptions :).
So, if you buy a new motherboard, when looking at its specifications you may also search for the Dual BIOS feature – having it is an advantage, it leverages your BIOS update experience. In case something of undesired takes place, you won’t bother with complex recovery methods – the backup BIOS will solve the problem for you. Better luck next time!
Examples of Dual BIOS motherboards
Of course we should concretely know some motherboards that are empowered by the Dual BIOS factor. From what things look like, they have to belong to the high-end segment of market, or at least to be very recent, if they are not exactly designed for geeks.
Well, let’s start with my Dual BIOS motherboard at home. It is the GIGABYTE X299 AORUS GAMING 9 model.It was released in Summer 2017.
The Gigabyte X299 suite, which is high-end, provides also other Dual BIOS models. And speaking in general, by now Gigabyte seems to be the only motherboard manufacturer to provide models with two BIOSes:
- GIGABYTE X299 AORUS GAMING (no number, simply Aorus Gaming);
- GIGABYTE X299 AORUS MASTER (Aoruses seem to keep it well, you go guys!);
- GIGABYTE X299 AORUS GAMING 7 PRO (notice the PRO – by the way, there is no “9 PRO”);
- GIGABYTE X299 AORUS GAMING 7 (no Pro; it is a lower version to 9);
- GIGABYTE X299 DESIGNARE EX (a sort of improved gaming board that came out after the i9-7980XE CPU was released in Autumn 2017);
- GIGABYTE X299X AORUS XTREME WATERFORCE (for the newer 10980XE processors, but supports also earlier CPUs from 2017, like 7980XE; it comes with a big waterblock);
- GIGABYTE X299X DESIGNARE 10G (same enlarged i9 CPUs usage as above; it has a 10G LAN and some USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports);
- GIGABYTE Z390 AORUS XTREME WATERFORCE (not X299, but Z390, a modern mainstream platform from 2018);
- GIGABYTE X570 AORUS MASTER (this is for “mainstream” Ryzen 3, not Threadripper, processors released in 2019, so modern);
- GIGABYTE X570 AORUS ULTRA, for the same CPUs above;
- GIGABYTE X570 AORUS PRO, idem;
- GIGABYTE TRX40 AORUS XTREME, high-end, for the third generation of Threadrippers; in January it may host a 128-thread 3990X processor, so if you see TRX40, you know it is extremely strong;
- GIGABYTE TRX40 AORUS MASTER, same purpose as above;
- GIGABYTE TRX40 DESIGNARE, idem.
For the time being, I am ending this list here, which still does not mean these are all the currently existing Dual BIOS motherboards. But many of them are high-end, and a few belong to the enhanced mainstream market of the last couple years (2018 and 2019). There is a 16-core, 32-thread CPU (AMD Ryzen 9 3950X) that is considered as “mainstream”, it launched this year for the X570 AMD chipset!
Some people may think it is a reckless act to update the BIOS. Others may say “don’t update your BIOS if everything works fine”. And other others (myself included) may say “Long live the software progress!”.
There are criteria to take into account when updating BIOS, of course. And we must not get interrupted. There are variants of solving the problems with damaged BIOSes, but an easy one is Dual BIOS. And as we can see, there is one big brand that scores well at implementing it: GIGABYTE.
I did not grub everywhere, but I suspect that basically the GIGABYTE AORUS high-end division (and not only HEDT) is wholly Dual BIOS :). If you want such “BIOS proof” mobos, that list may be updated and there is a certain pool of options.
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