MSI mobo ditches Bios for EFI
Inside the future of PC set-up technology
Although the MSI P45D3 Platinum looks like a regular Core 2 motherboard, it breaks new ground. Out goes long-standing PC technology the Bios and in comes UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) in its place.
UEFI is the successor to the Bios and seeks to take us away from the antiquated method of changing core computer settings using the keyboard to a more graphical world where we generally use the mouse to make adjustments instead.
MSI's P45D3 Platinum: wot no Bios?
Owners of Intel Macs are welcome to feel smug as their machines already use UEFI, though they rarely if ever need to access it.
Intel developed the original EFI in a bid to drag the PC out of the 1980s, as the business of changing the date, boot order of devices, or overclocking your PC using the Bios can be a horrible experience. It looks horribly dated and it can come as a nasty surprise when you look behind the veil and see the clunky mechanism that sits beneath your shiny copy of Windows 7 or Vista.
MSI's Click Bios: EFI plus garish colours
Abit has a handy animated guide to the Bios here, which saves us from the chore of taking loads of screenshots. If you have seen a Bios screen in the past ten years, this one will be instantly and horribly familiar. The low-resolution graphics are a throwback to the dark ages, and you have to navigate the text menus with the keyboard rather than the mouse.
In fairness to the motherboard manufacturers and Bios developers, they have proved remarkably adept at evolving the technology, but there’s no getting away from the fact that we are forced to navigate complex settings using nothing more than the Tab, Enter, Escape and the arrow keys.
Select your boot device
Microsoft attempted to paper over some of the cracks when it tried to hide the fact that DOS underpins Windows XP. The problem was that motherboard manufacturers continued to use DOS to run Bios updates in a clean environment before Windows loaded. This meant that we were treated to the sight of bootable floppy disks and command lines for the first few years of the 21st Century.
Intel was the first motherboard manufacturer to deliver Bios updates as executable files that run in Windows, and since then Asus, Gigabyte and MSI have released software that makes life easier when you are performing a Bios update. These days you can update the Bios from within Windows, or you can use a built in updater that's part of the Bios to update the file from a USB key, without ever clapping eyes on a DOS command line.
It’s a similar story with overclocking software that works within Windows to avoid the need to dabble in the Bios. Most motherboard manufacturers include software that allows you to move sliders to adjust your chipset and processor voltages and clock speeds in much the same way that you can overclock your graphics card using the Catalyst or Forceware drivers. These utilities generally look slick, with AMD’s OverDrive utility the pick of the bunch.
Change power settings
Intel has been somewhat slack in this department as it has released a series of point releases of its Desktop Control Center software for a limited selection of its enthusiast motherboards that suggest it's now playing catch up.
Unfortunately, our experiences with these utilities have tended to be unsuccessful and we have invariably resorted to the tried and trusty Bios, which brings us back to that rotten interface. In 2005, Intel handed the EFI project over to an industry body called UEFI and now, a mere three years later, we have the first visible fruits of the project in the shape of the MSI P45D3 Platinum motherboard which is available with a choice of either a BIOS or UEFI.
Overclocking options built in
MSI gives full details on its microsite here, where you will see that UEFI is also available for the P45 Platinum and "coming soon" for the P45 Diamond.
Memory tweaking, no problem
MSI's main UEFI screen - decked in customary Asian fashion in garish colours and dubbed 'Click Bios' - shows five options floating like planets in the solar system. Or something like that.
The options are OC (Overclocking), ECO (power settings), Setting (Boot configuration, hardware monitor and stuff like that), Game and Utility (Live Update, Bios update and so on).
You can see in the screen grabs that OC, ECO and Setting cover options that are familiar from the traditional BIOS except they look far better with decent graphics. As you would expect it is both quicker and easier to navigate the menus with the mouse.
Control your CPU
Monitor your hardware
Tweak the North Bridge settings...
...and those of the South Bridge chip
ACPI power management settings
The USB sub-system
The Game option is unusual as it allows you to play simple games in the UEFI that you load from CD in the limbo before the OS loads. This is similar to the Asus' Express Gate system, which allows you to use instant messengers and look at photos without booting your OS, so we asked Iain Bristow, who looks after the marketing of PC components at Asus UK, about the company's plans for UEFI
It even has... er... games
"We do plan on using it someday," he said, "but we’re not in a hurry. Currently, we aren’t seeing any huge improvements to end users [in implementing EFI].
"EFI’s major benefit is within its programming structure. It’s really good for the guys doing the designs, but to the end users everything that is available within EFI at this moment, we can do with Express Gate. We’ve been debating a GUI Bios for a long time, and we’ve done it before – currently it’s not that important to an end user, so we’ll focus on producing strong Bios."
Those are fair points, so we put a few questions to Richard Stewart, Marketing Manager at MSI UK. Yes, he admitted, at a simple level, EFI is just a 'pretty' Bios. "At this stage, the MSI Click Bios is just a tool to show what the future holds. As you click through it, you'll just notice all the 'legacy' menus and almost the same options but in a clickable format. You can, however, see new options such as language selection.
The Utilities section is more useful
"This is the next-generation Bios structure that moves away from the 25-year-old or more Assembly-based design into a new, very user friendly interface where you can even use a mouse. As development becomes more widespread we hope that within the UEFI framework we can activate the LAN (as an example), which would potentially mean the use of IM software, browsers, media players all available OS independent.
"I see EFI as a go-between. It’s not really meant to totally replace the Bios, just replace the functions that have been crammed into the Bios over time. So the Bios can revert to its original job of turning the computer on, running POST, and then feeding the higher level program (EFI) layer. This layer takes all the add-in cards, Bluetooth keyboards - which will never work in Bios - and third-party LAN, audio chips, and initialises them through firmware."
Change the language
How quickly, then, will UEFI roll out across the MSI range of motherboards?
"Every board that we want to support UEFI takes a lot of work, so on-board components - like IDE mode for UEFI driver AHCI+IDE, RAID+IDE Mode control - needs setup and some firmware from vendors. So it's incredibly difficult at the time being to roll it out over our whole range.
"I heard we are starting to just kick-off now an EFI Bios for our X58 boards, but of course the priority at this time is for 'legacy Bios update' because it's what we get reviewed and criticised on, and will directly affect our sales figures. EFI also takes up much more space than Bios, so it increases our costs to implement at board level."
UEFI has arrived for the PC and we can finally use a mouse to change settings before you boot into the OS. We don’t expect to see the end of the legacy Bios any time soon, and because of the long-standing usage of the term, we can expect EFI-based interfaces to be branded as 'Bios' any way. Only its mouse friendliness will give the game away.