Your computer’s BIOS (basic input/output system) is the low-level software that starts when you boot your computer. It performs a POST (power-on self test), initializes your computer’s hardware, and passes control over to the boot loader on a connected device. The boot loader then boots your operating system – Windows, Linux, or whatever else you’re using. The BIOS has a setup screen, which is used to configure a variety of low-level system settings.
Note that you shouldn’t change settings in the BIOS unless you know what you’re doing. We’ll walk you through modifying some of the most commonly-used settings – like your boot order – but you could potentially change low-level CPU and memory settings that could make your computer unstable.
Accessing The BIOS
You’ll need to restart your computer to access your computer’s BIOS. Press the appropriate key at the start of the boot-up process – often when the manufacturer’s logo appears on screen – and you’ll be taken to the BIOS setup screen.
The key you need to press is often displayed on-screen at the start of the boot process. It’s usually the Delete key, although some computers may use other keys like F2, Escape, F1, or F10. If you don’t know the key you need to press and it isn’t appearing on-screen, consult your computer’s manual or perform a Google search for your computer’s model name and “BIOS key.”
Navigating The BIOS
Note that every computer’s BIOS is different. Your computer’s BIOS may look significantly different from the screenshots here, or it may look similar but have different options.
You’ll need to use the keyboard to navigate through your computer’s BIOS. You should see a list of the keys you need to use displayed on-screen.
Generally, you’ll use the left and right arrow keys to switch between settings screens (the names of each screen are generally displayed across the top), the up and down arrow keys to select an option on the current screen, and the Enter key to select an option or enter a sub-menu. To re-order a list, use the + and – keys to move items up and down in the list.
If this sounds a bit complicated, it’s not – you’ll mostly use the arrow keys and Enter key.
One of the most commonly changed options in a computer’s BIOS is the boot order. After the BIOS starts and initializes your hardware, it passes control to a boot loader that boots your operating system. The boot order determines which device the BIOS passes control over to.
For example, let’s say you have Windows installed on your computer’s hard drive, a Linux live CD in your disc drive, and a hackintosh system installed on a USB drive plugged into your computer. When you boot your computer, which operating system starts? The answer is determined by your boot order.
It’s referred to as a “boot order” because it controls the order in which boot devices are tried. For example, a typical computer might have its physical DVD drive higher in the boot order list than its hard drive. This means that the computer will attempt to boot off the DVD drive first, booting any inserted operating system installation discs or live CDs. If there are no bootable discs in the DVD drive, the computer would try the next option in the list, which would likely be its hard drive.
If you want to boot off another boot device – such as your DVD drive, USB drive, or a network boot location – you’ll need to move it up in the boot order list. You’ll generally find the boot order on a screen named Boot or something named similarly. Use the + and – keys to rearrange devices in the boot order list.
Note that, on some computers, USB drives may not appear in the list unless they’re connected when you enter the BIOS.
Computers with onboard graphics hardware, such as Intel’s integrated graphics, may have a Video Memory setting. Onboard graphics hardware doesn’t have its own memory as dedicated graphics cards do – it takes over a portion of the computer’s RAM and uses it as its video memory.
On some computers, a Video Memory option may allow you to control how this memory is allocated. You may be able to allocate additional memory to the video memory or reduce the amount of RAM used for video memory, reclaiming some of it for system tasks.
You can generally set a password in your BIOS, often on the security screen. The password can be used to control access to the BIOS itself, preventing anyone from entering your BIOS and changing its settings. However, you can also set a password that people must have to boot the computer. This password prompt shows up right when the computer starts – if the person doesn’t know the password, they can’t even start your computer and access the Windows login screen. This feature is more powerful than a simple Windows password – it prevents people from booting other operating systems from removable media devices.
However, someone with physical access to your computer could reset the CMOS to clear this password, so this won’t protect you if your computer becomes stolen and a thief really wants to remove the password.
Save or Discard Changes
Changes you make to BIOS settings don’t take effect immediately. To actually save your changes, you’ll need to locate the Save Changes and Reset option on the Save & Exit screen. This option saves your changes and resets your computer.
There’s also a Discard Changes and Exit option. If you make a mistake or decide you don’t want to change your BIOS settings at all, you can use this option to exit the BIOS setup screen without saving your changes.
(These options may be named something slightly different, but they’re available on all BIOSes.)
You could also use the appropriate keyboard shortcut to quickly save and exit – the F10 key for this BIOS.
Your BIOS also contains a Load Setup Defaults or Load Optimized Defaults option. This option resets your BIOS to its factory-default settings, loading default settings optimized for your hardware.
This performs a complete BIOS settings reset, wiping any BIOS passwords in addition to resetting hardware settings and your boot order.
The BIOS contains quite a few other settings and options. For example, there’s a System Information screen that shows information about the hardware in your computer. Overclockers may be able to use CPU settings screen to tweak their CPU’s voltage and multiplier, increasing their CPU’s performance at the cost of additional heat, power usage, and possibly instability. (However, these settings are locked on some BIOSes.)
You shouldn’t change settings unless you know what you’re doing, but if you need to change a BIOS setting – such as the boot order – you should now know how to do it.
Do you have any other BIOS-related questions? Leave a comment or ask us on MakeUseOf Answers!
Image Credit: Laptop computer via Shutterstock
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