Many years ago I was a computer geek for a living. Well OK then, not so long ago, barely three if truth be known but it seems like an eternity ago. Those who have had the misfortune to sit in on a conversation with a group of techies will marvel at the way those who work in computers derive endless fascination from their accounts of what they achieved that day or what particular trick they employed to get an application stable. The truth of the matter is, when you are a bit of a technical freak and have done something really clever, or engaged in a bit of masterful detective work to solve a particularly annoying problem, you want to share it with others. Recount the tale of how you slew the silicon dragon if you will. The only problem of course is that the only people who know what you are talking about are other electronics wizards. To everyone else it just sounds like gibberish. Hence it always seems that IT wizards are only friends with other IT wizards. It isn’t planned that way, it is just that is the only way they can hold a conversation without boring the other party to death.
Anyway, today I solved one particular problem. Not in any clever way of course, and not by doing anything that thousands of others before me have managed, but with my wife being the only person around I’m stuck for anyone to share it with. This tale is also a great example of just how many hoops you sometimes have to jump through, just to persuade the most basic bit of equipment to work the way you wanted it.
Today I am the proud owner of a new 19-inch widescreen monitor. My existing 17-inch LCD screen had been a good and faithful workhorse, transforming my life when I got it and introducing me to a brand new high resolution world with added desk space to boot. Sadly when moving flat in the summer it suffered from my reckless decision not to protect it with bubblewrap. Inside its cardboard box, the screen got scratched. Not badly, but enough to gouge four pinprick holes in it, resulting in a kind of crescent shaped bruise in the top right hand corner. With my finances now having recovered sufficiently, the time had come to cast it aside and move into the widescreen world.
So I plugged it in, powered the machine up, let the autoadjust do its business and then set out to adjust the windows resolution to the recommended 1400×900 pixels. Except I couldn’t. The option simply wasn’t there. “Not a problem” thought I, “these things are often solved by a quick driver upgrade”. I should point out at this point that my machine is a nice generic white box model bought for a song from some system builders on ebay two years ago. This is at times both a blessing and a curse, as we shall see.
I then made the mistake of checking Windows Update for a driver for the integrated motherboard graphics card (I’m not a gamer so splashing out on a dedicated card has always seemed a waste of money to me). Whilst WU does indeed often deliver updated graphics drivers from time to time, they are not pushed out automatically for the simple reason that they often cause more trouble than they are worth. Such as in my case, with the updated SiS 741 driver apparently reluctant to interface with the control panel extension installed by the drivers that originally shipped with the motherboard. Windows still booted, but threw up plugin errors the moment the desktop arrived. Better yet, there was still no 1400×900 option available to me.
Cue a quick visit to the SiS website, whose download section came with the usual disclaimers of how they only made chips for other people and that really you should look to the manufacturer of your equipment for updated drivers, but if you really insisted here is an option to download the latest version for your card without any promise of support for them. Downloading and installing this solved the Control Panel applet problem, but still no option of widescreen resolution support was forthcoming.
At this stage I was contemplating another trip down the road to buy an external VGA card to replace the clearly useless onboard jobby. First of all though I had to do what every computer support person does in the face of a problem he doesn’t have the knowledge to solve – google it to see if someone else had overcome the same difficulty.
This is now where I reveal the gap in my knowledge that comes with having been out of the game for a few years, something which will have many people reading this going “well that was obvious wasn’t it?” Widescreen resolution you see is a comparatively recent trend and is effectively a new graphics standard in its own right – WXGA. Most modern cards now come with WXGA support as standard, but people with older cards, or those with onboard video hardware fitted to older motherboards are out of luck. In the case of my SiS model, various websites suggested that only certain versions of the video BIOS supported the standard, and a quick check of the version running on mine indicated that I was some way off the pace.
It was here that I once again learned the value of never throwing anything away. Amongst the pile of computer related documentation I had the original manual for my motherboard, an Asrock K7S41 if such detail interests you. The manual came complete with a link to their website, which I loaded up with some trepidation. User websites for such low level hardware are invariably either totally in Japanese or have their very own Engrish version, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that the Asrock site was user-friendly and easily navigable and also contained a download page for BIOS updates. Of special interest was the update posted a few versions back which explicitly stated that it upgraded the video BIOS to support WXGA. Finally we were in business.
Or so I thought. BIOS flashing is a nervous process which normally has to be undertaken from a boot floppy, thus bypassing any GUI interface to the computer. The instructions for the update indicated that I should copy both the ROM image and the flash utility to a boot floppy and run from the commandline. Here I thanked my lucky stars that I’d insisted on a floppy drive being fitted to the computer when I bought it as it was not a default option. That said, I had not actually had reason to use in over two years, but this surely wasn’t going to be an issue was it? Extracting a blank floppy from my last remaining stock of them, I advised Windows to format it as a system disc, and option which thankfully Microsoft has not yet elected to remove. Formatting complete, I copied the BIOS files over, powered down and rebooted.
*crunch* *crunch* Disc read failure. Nothing could persuade the machine to boot from my newly created disc. Presuming that I’d picked a dud floppy, I extracted an older one from the box, wiped it clean of the existing files and made a new system disc. Same problem. My machine just would not read from the disc I had created. Fortunately salvation was at hand, for I came across an old disc labelled “Windows 98 Boot” which had clearly been filed away for future reference. I put it in the drive and checked that the system files were all complete and readable. I copied across the flash utility and rebooted.
This time success, a command prompt appeared. With trembling hands I entered the command to run the flash utility and pointed it at the relevant image file.
*crunch* *crunch* Disc read failure.
This was of course now verging on the barking mad. Clearly what I had was a floppy drive that would happily read discs created on other systems, would write neatly to discs I gave it but would subsequently not want to read those files back. I was so close to fixing my resolution problem, I was not yet going to give up. My only hope though was to hope that my ancient creaking motherboard BIOS, the one shipped with its three year old RTM version, supported booting from USB devices. Without waiting to find out I dived headlong in to the process of creating a bootable flash drive. Now whilst there will be plenty of p
eople reading this who are familiar with the process, I actually wasn’t having never had to perform such an operation. One swift google search took me to this site which not only had a link to a utility to create the disc, but also a step by step guide for the really hard of thinking.
Sadly the rest of this tale is actually the least interesting part, the bit where everything works like clockwork. Bootable 64MB USB stick duly created, I restarted, selected “USB device” from the list of boot media, dropped to a command prompt, ran the BIOS flashing utility and restarted with crossed fingers. There was of course one nervous moment on that first boot when the POST failed complaining of an invalid checksum, until I remembered the instructions which said that upon flashing the default configuration should be reloaded in the BIOS config screen. With that done I was dropped back into Windows. Right-click on the desktop, select Properties, click the Settings tab and voila! A whole new range of possible display resolutions including the hitherto elusive 1400×900.
So that my friends, is how I spent two hours of my Thursday afternoon, wrestling with the very heart of my system to persuade it to talk to my much-anticipated new purchase, in the process learning something I shamefully did not know before about system building and at the end realising that however much joy I get from making radio programs, I still miss the feeling of triumph when you have solved a particularly tricky computer problem despite the attempts of your own resources to thwart you at every turn.
It also took me back to the bad old days in the 90s before Plug and Play was invented. Frankly if you have not spent an hour changing jumper settings on your brand new internal 36K modem to get around IRQ conflicts in Windows 3.1, you really haven’t lived.