Older System Hardware Woes

Fred, Long time reader, new Plus subscriber with a strange one…
A couple of weeks ago my trusty 5 year-old Gateway Performance 450, running W98SE started running about half-speed during the BIOS phase of reboot. The progress bar moves slowly, sometimes pauses a while, and when it’s at the end the "beep" is now a "be-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-p". Once Windows launches, things run about the same as always. No other symptoms are apparent. I’ve tried doing everything right to keep the old girl healthy, but she’s got me a little scared now! I’ve always trusted your help inside Windows.  Can you imagine what’s going on here outside?
Thanks, Ron

My guess is that it’s at least partly a problem with the BIOS not retaining the Extended System Configuration Data— or "ESCD." This is information about the interrupts and memory assignments required by various devices built into the motherboard or added via "plug and play" cards. Normally, once a PC figures out the right settings (this takes some time), it stores them as Extended System Configuration Data. Then, during future boots, the PC saves time by referring to the ESCD and using the data stored there. But if the hardware configuration has changed (eg if you add a new plug-in card) or if the ESCD data is lost, the PC must laboriously "discover" the hardware configuration from scratch at each boot. This always takes longer than an ESCD-assisted boot, and can take *much* longer if the setup is complex. (See http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/0,,sid9_gci213947,00.html )

That might explain the slow boot, but may not explain the long beep. Most BIOSes use some kind of audible tones (so called "beep codes") to indicate the system’s basic health or status at boot. Usually, one short beep means "all is well." Longer beeps and patterns of beeps carry different meanings, depending on the BIOS. Most of the major vendor beep codes are documented at sites like http://www.computerhope.com/beep.htm and http://www.google.com/search?q=beep+codes .You usually can also find beep code information at you PC vendor’s site.

If the beep code resources don’t help, then my guess is you have a hardware problem that might include a fried BIOS chip, dying battery on the motherboard, or something similar. Actually, given that your system is already five years old, a dying battery might be a good guess. Fortunately, most PC’s use inexpensive button-type cells (the same kind found in watches and calculators) that you can buy almost anywhere. It takes only a couple minutes to open the case, remove the old battery, pop in the new one, and close the case. ( http://search.atomz.com/search/?sp-q=replace+battery&sp-a=0008002a-sp00000000 )

Beyond that, the only other things that come to mind would be very weird problems with the motherboard’s clock speed settings— or, more remotely, its timing crystal or circuits— that would make things run at partial speed. But this sort of timing problem is rare, and would be unlikely to go away when the OS woke up; so I doubt that’s what’s happening. Most likely, it’s one of the problems outlined earlier.

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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.