What is BIOS Flashing?

M. McGee

A computer’s basic input/output system (BIOS) is the core of a computer’s internal programming. The BIOS system is separate from the active parts of a computer, the parts a user commonly interacts with. When a BIOS needs repair or updating, it goes through a process called flashing. BIOS flashing allows the computer to directly interact with an area of the system that is typically inaccessible.

A screenshot of a BIOS configuration screen.
A screenshot of a BIOS configuration screen.

A computer’s BIOS is the first piece of software run after the machine is powered on. This integrated program lays the groundwork for interaction between the various pieces of hardware and software on the system. The BIOS enables the operating system to start and the computer’s user interface to load up.

A BIOS chip enables a computer to properly initialize the startup process.
A BIOS chip enables a computer to properly initialize the startup process.

For many years, a computer’s BIOS system was held on a standard read-only chip. Like most read-only chips of the time, this chip could not be altered or upgraded. If a new BIOS was needed for the system, the chip needed to be physically removed from the system and replaced with a new chip. Replacing this chip was a time-intensive and difficult process, far beyond the abilities of most home users.

In the mid-90s, a new type of BIOS came into common use called Flash BIOS. This was on a special type of read-only chip that wasn’t completely read-only. Under the right circumstances and with the right information, it was possible to rewrite the information stored on the chip. This process was known as BIOS flashing.

The impact of BIOS flashing was enormous. Users were able to reliably update their own BIOS systems. This enabled the BIOS manufacturers to make less versions of their software. With fewer versions, the complexity of BIOS systems increased. Soon, they incorporated system settings that were previously only available as hardwired dipswitches or through external hardware interaction.

BIOS flashing is an important part of computer maintenance. Since the BIOS is at the center of the computer’s hardware and software, a properly functioning BIOS is essential. BIOS updates allow for new hardware types to interact safely with the computer system and provide a more stable platform for the hardware and software to function upon.

Typically, BIOS flashing is done through a program available from the motherboard manufacturer. Originally, the information needed to be loaded onto a floppy drive as a boot disk. The update process would happen automatically after the computer was restarted. While this option is still available for most updates, it isn’t the preferred method. Now, a simple downloadable program will check the computer’s BIOS version, download the newest updates, perform the BIOS flashing and restart the computer—all through the standard user interface.

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