By Marty Prager
Unless a killer app or new operating system is released, most of us don’t really need to replace our home computers very often, especially if we use the machine for basic tasks such as word processing, spreadsheets, web surfing, email, etc. One of the XP computers in my household operated flawlessly for about five years, except I had to replace the original hard disk (let’s call it disk 2003) when it stated making unusual noises. When I replaced disk 2003, I used a cloning application (which boots from the CD drive) to create a mirror image of disk 2003 on the new hard disk (let’s call it disk 2008) thus greatly simplifying installation. I removed disk 2003 and stored it in a safe location.
After a year of problem-free use, I booted the machine and saw on the screen the error that we all fear indicating the Windows operating system could not find the system disk, almost invariably indicating a failed hard disk. I tried to repair the disk with recommended boot sector repair utilities and other techniques without success.
Next I used the original Microsoft XP program CD and successfully booted the machine. The system was able to recognize the non-bootable hard disk 2008. So I was relieved. I configured hard disk 2008 as slave and installed the original hard disk 2003 configured as master and the machine booted normally. All of the data and applications on disk 2003 were 2 years old of course so leaving it in the machine wasn’t a long term solution. With disk 2008 installed as a slave, I went through the time consuming task of bringing disk 2003 up to date with current data and reinstalling the applications and updates that were installed on disk 2008. I left disk 2003 in place so I could return disk 2008 for warranty replacement.
When I received the replacement for disk 2008, I cloned disk 2003 onto it and updated my recent data. I then installed disk 2008 as the master, removed disk 2003 and carefully stored and everything was fine or so I thought….
Two months later, the system could not find the boot disk again. Repeating the same general cloning procedure creating a new image on disk 2008, I restored the machine to normal operation. Another two more months passed, and the fault returned. By now I was fairly, but not completely, certain disk 2008 was not at fault since it could be made to work albeit for a short time.
After trying many ideas including, without success, changing the on-board battery and changing hard disk cables, I began to think about the system BIOS chip on the mother board which is responsible for locating the system disk upon start up. Having no way to test it, I considered replacement. Some BIOS chips are available for older mother boards but they are very costly and take a long time to obtain. I eventually learned from the board manufacturer’s Web site that the BIOS chip on the mother board could be re-burned using their free software. There was even an updated version available.
On a hunch, I proceeded with this strategy. There was an option of using DOS software which called for downloading data and then creating a bootable CD or using Windows software that worked in a way more familiar to us these days. I had no luck creating a bootable CD so I tried the Windows software approach. In a matter of minutes, the BIOS chip was successfully re-burned. Using disk 2008 I have had no problems in the two and a half years since.
In my research on the web I read analyses and recommendations that re-burning a BIOS had little or no chance for success - most stated the battery was at fault which could have been the cause, but not in this case. If the BIOS was totally defective, nothing would bring it back to life. In my case, the BIOS chip was mostly OK, but the electrical charge that stores the boot data had gone awry due to age or manufacturing defect.
Why the machine would always boot from disk 2003 remains a mystery.
Moral of the story: all mechanical hard disks will eventually fail - it’s not a question of IF, it’s a question of WHEN. Replace the hard disk periodically before it fails. Buy a disk mirroring or cloning application and store a mirror image of your hard disk safely stored on the old hard disk. (I would rather spend two hours installing and cloning a disk instead of several evenings reloading my applications and all of the updates.) There are better solutions for more modern computers. For day-to-day backup of your data that easily recoverable, use a standalone external hard disk. Any memory device that uses flash technology such as memory cards, USB drives, and apparently BIOS chips, can go bad over time so don’t depend on them to store valuable data for long periods of time.
Marty Prager is a retired operations project manager. He was employed by the Walt Disney Company for 30 years.