About 25 years ago, the PC world introduced us to the basic input/output system, or BIOS. Since then, this basic program has been sitting on the motherboard of your machine, taking care of initializing hardware, and booting up operating systems like Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. The problem with BIOS is that it’s antiquated. It keeps modern PCs and laptops from integrating innovative pre-boot features and starting up faster.
The good news is that there’s a new technology on the horizon: the Universal Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI). In this post, the TuneUp Blog team will explain what UEFI is, why it’s better than classic BIOS software, and when you can expect UEFI in your next machine.
What is UEFI? How is it better than the BIOS?
Like its older counterpart, UEFI is a relatively small software program that is the first code run when you push your computer’s power button. Intel developed it in 2003 under the name Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) for its 64-bit Itanium architecture which was designed for server and high-end workstation environments. Later, several technology industry leaders, including those from Microsoft, Dell, HP, Apple, and AMD, founded and joined the Unified EFI Forum. UEFI itself refers to a standardized piece of software that all partners can use and enhance according to the forum’s specifications.
UEFI checks all of the hardware components (such as hard disks and graphics cards) in your PC, initializes these devices, and launches the boot loader. It’s also responsible for telling the operating system that all these devices actually exist. In that regard, it performs the same tasks as the good old BIOS. However, UEFI offers even more than that—for instance, it’s customizable. If your hardware manufacturers put some work into UEFI, you’ll experience pre-boot environments that look great and are highly usable. For example, Asus implemented an attractive, highly functional UEFI utility in its latest upcoming P67 (Sandy Bridge) motherboards. This YouTube clip explains the new interface. Here are some of the highlights:
This is the first screen users will see when they enter the Asus UEFI environment. It has built-in mouse support and high-resolution graphics and sound. How does that compare to the 16-color, keyboard-only BIOS that we’ve been using for well over two decades?
More tech-savvy users still have access to all of the “Advanced” settings under a skin that’s more attractive and more functional.
HP is also in the game of rolling out UEFI across its motherboards, like the HP EliteBook 8440p.
MSI’s implementation of UEFI is called “MSI Click BIOS” and it includes some interesting features such as pre-OS applications like games, media players, and browsers, provided under an attractive interface. In the future, MSI plans to implement functionality such as streaming audio, an online update feature, and instant messaging. That’s right! You’ll be able to “boot” right into the UEFI within a few seconds after pushing your computer’s power button and start chatting with your friends or watch a movie. This comes very close to an iPad-like “on/off” experience.
Check out this clip of MSI’s Click BIOS from Jagatreview.com.
Another benefit of UEFI is its processor-independent architecture. While the BIOS is limited to Intel x86 architecture, UEFI is designed to run on virtually all processors. UEFI can also be booted from storage devices that are larger than 2 TB, and supports the more advanced GPT partitioning scheme.
UEFI boots faster
The BIOS needs an average of 10–15 seconds before it launches the operating system. By default, UEFI is much faster and takes only a few seconds to pass control of the PC over to the operating system. Lenovo took it a step further and demoed a ThinkPad T400 with a specially designed UEFI that only takes one or two seconds to load before Windows 7 starts up. Combine that with a blazing fast SSD hard disk drive, and you’re looking at a total boot time of about 12–13 seconds from powering on to viewing the Windows 7 Desktop. See for yourself:
What has kept UEFI from replacing the BIOS?
This is partly due to Microsoft’s lack of UEFI support. Windows Vista was the first platform that was able to read UEFI data, like the hardware device list. However, UEFI support only exists for 64-bit systems and with Service Pack 1 installed. In other words, Windows XP and Windows Vista (RTM) are out of the game. That’s a major compatibility issue.
Another reason for the relatively slow deployment of UEFI is the state of the hardware industry. Motherboard manufacturers need to invest both time and research to implement UEFI on their chipsets.
Awaiting the mainstream market
To date, only a handful of vendors like Asus, MSI and Intel have actually implemented UEFI. Other companies, even the likes of Gigabyte, have yet to release products with the new standard. But though the movement is still slow, it is happening, and eventually we’ll have to use UEFI. And this needs to happen a couple of reasons.
First, from the moment 2 TB hard disks become mainstream, you’ll need UEFI to utilize them fully as boot devices. Second, users are slowly getting used to the idea of PC-like devices that offer an instantaneous “on/off” experience. Boot-up and shutdown speeds of 15, 20 or 30 seconds are becoming increasingly unacceptable to more and more users. UEFI will be a blessing for network administrators since they’ll be able to control their machines even without running an operating system, thanks to the extensive support of network devices and protocols available to them as soon as they turn on their machines.
Expect 2011 to be the first breakthrough year of UEFI. Many manufacturers have already begun to announce their shift to the platform—and more are likely to follow in the months ahead.