Why is it that 11.30pm so often seems like the best time to start some intricate fiddling around with computers?
Somewhat earlier in the evening, I’d been putting the finishing touches to my upgrade plans. This PC is getting a bit long in the tooth, and though it had been handling most games pretty well, Age of Conan was giving it a somewhat vigorous thrashing. I was a bit disappointed about that, as other PCs with seemingly broadly similar specs were doing much better, but figured it was pretty much time for an upgrade anyway, so set off poking around the different options for a new machine and finding out through the power of Google that every possible component/manufacturer/vendor was both “excellent, had no problems, would highly recommend” and also “appalling, dreadful, am taking them to court for fraud, stay well away”. Having finally sorted a likely-looking system in the past couple of days, I thought I’d see if anybody would be interested in the current PC to offset the cost a bit, so set about collecting the specifications (I can remember my first three PCs were an 8Mhz 8086, 16Mhz 80386SX and 33Mhz 486DLC, but everything after that blurs rather… I was fairly sure this one began with “A”… AMD? Athlon? Ardennes? Artichoke?) System Information helpfully informed me it’s an Athlon 64X2 Dual Core Processor 4200+. Splendid.
Dual core? Dual core… That set me thinking… One of the things I’d happened across while investigating upgrades was screenshots of Task Manager for a quad-core processor, showing processor utilisation graphs for all four cores. My Task Manager ought to have two graphs, then? But no, just the one… Curious. More delving and searching, and it was showing up as “Uniprocessor” in device manager. Grabbing and running various drivers and dual core optimisers and Windows updates wasn’t having any effect, and many forum threads suggested making sure you had the latest BIOS for your motherboard. I’d replaced the processor a year ago, when the magic smoke escaped from the previous one, and I’m sure I’d checked compatibility and versions and all that malarkey, but just to make sure I fired up CPU-Z, checked on the manufacturers website for the catchily titled GA-K8N Ultra-9, and… I was running version F3 of the BIOS, and the processor was supported by F4 and above. Oops! I guess it works (well, it has been working for the last year), but presumably falls back to single core mode or something, with the second core kicking its heels and getting a bit bored. Only one thing for it, then, a BIOS flash. What could possibly go wrong?
Yes, this was around 11.30pm. Downloaded the latest BIOS, checked the manual about how to perform an update. While speccing up a new system, I hadn’t been including a floppy drive. I don’t think I’ve used the floppy drive on this PC… ever. Totally pointless. Except, of course, when it comes to BIOS updates! Thank god for floppy drives. Delving in the back of a cupboard, I found a 3.5″ disk, blew the dust off it, copied the firmware over, and got ready for the update. Take deep breath, drop into the updating utility on boot up, read from the disk, install, all ready, reboot, and…
BEEP… BEEP… BEEP… BEEP…
There’s nothing more chilling than the sound of a PC speaker. On an 8086, it’s cheery blips and burbles were all the music we had (and we were grateful!), but these days it’s a portent of POST-y doom, a signifier of forthcoming Long Dark Update of the Soul as you struggle to get everything working again, which, as with so many things, xkcd captures perfectly:
The trouble with starting stuff late at night is that by the time the midnight doom chimes of the POST beeps ring out, you’re not exactly in an optimal troubleshooting state, but at least it was Friday. Also, thank god, the motherboard’s got some kind of dual-BIOS fallback-failsafe thing, so at least the PC started booting again (from cold, any warm reset went back to the Beeps of Death). More fiddling, checking the files on the floppy are OK, attempting to revert to the backup BIOS, trying a slightly older BIOS, trying the newest beta BIOS… It would still only boot (if at all) with the old F3 BIOS. Eventually I made a bootdisk (thank you (a) floppy drives and (b) bootdisk.com and their Driver Free Disk For BIOS Flashing), stuck a flashing utility on it, and used that instead of the BIOS self-update-type thing. And, fingers crossed, touch wood, rabbit foot grasped, horseshoe attached to PC case, it seems to have done the trick, the BIOS is now on version F8, and the Evil Hell Beeps are gone. Better still, there’s a second graph in task manager, I now have two cores!
First thing’s first, obviously, fire up Age of Conan, crank up the detail settings, and in the words of the great Mark Kermode: “Blimey Charlie!” It’s a different game! There are mountains, and water, and stuff! It looks amazing, combat is so much smoother, FPS holds up at a decent rate. To think I could’ve done that a year ago… Upgrade postponed, and I might even be tempted back into Age of Conan a bit sooner than I’d thought!