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BIOS update for a legacy computer


Breaking the 120 GB hard drive limit in an old VIA Mini-ITX.

I am using a 533 MHz VIA C3 Eden Mini-ITX computer as a home server. It is old and slow, but it is completely passively cooled - no CPU fan, no case fan and no PSU fan - and still runs Windows XP surprisingly well.

So when it was time to replace the aging hard drive with a new one, the 120 GB (40-bit LBA) hard disk limit of the old BIOS became a problem. The fact that it can not boot from an external USB CD station has also been annoying since I use such a small case that there is no room for a normal cd-drive - making reinstalling Windows a painful task.

VIA has not released a new BIOS for this board since 2002 so things where looking bleak. I tried to install a SATA PCI card and SATA drive, but for some reason it did not work correctly.

I have thought a lot about buying a new computer for this purpose, but I want it to be small and passively cooled and that limits the options - severely.

After a lot of trying and failing to get the SATA drive to work, I started looking for a new BIOS from an alternative source. To my surprise, there really is another alternative: eSupport.

I did not know if the 120 GB / 40 bit LBA limit was a hardware or BIOS limitation and the eSupport site looks, well, unprofessional and the information eSupport provides about what the new BIOS for your particular machine is going to do is non-existing. They have a short list with general things a modern BIOS in general will do, but that is it.

But for $29 I was willing to take a chance and try since everything else had failed miserably.

I installed the "BIOS Agent" Windows software that analyzed my machine and sent it to eSupport. and the following day I got an e-mail with a download link to my new BIOS. They made a lot of fuss about how easy it would be to update the BIOS but once I got it, it was a zip file with the files for a boot floppy disk - the normal old-fashion way to flash a new BIOS. The e-mail contained a 13 step instruction manual for the process, including "get a unzip program from". I am sure a few costumers who are unfamiliar with BIOS updates are going to be disappointed after the advertisement texts about how easy it would be to upgrade.

Well, I flashed and hoped for the best. And yes, the computer booted and seemed to work well. The original Award BIOS from 2002 had been replaced with a Phoenix BIOS (they now own Award) modified by eSupport and dated June 29th 2004. The BIOS setup screen looked very much like before, but under "boot options" I now had USB CD-ROM as an alternative - excellent news for me.

But still I had no idea if this had fixed the 120 GB HDD barrier. I shut down the computer, took out the old 120 GB drive and replaced it with a new 300 GB one. I popped the XP install disk into the external USB CD drive and a few minutes later the XP installer was formatting the entire 300 GB disk.

It works great. I just with I could have found out about this option earlier and that eSupport would have said more clearly that the update really will fix the 120 GB limitation - that it isn't a hardware limitation.