Processor Bugs And Steppings
Processor manufacturers use specialized equipment to test their own processors, but you have to settle for a little less. The best processor-testing device to which you have access is a system that you know is functional; you then can use the diagnostics available from various utility software companies or your system manufacturer to test the motherboard and processor functions.
Perhaps the most infamous of these bugs is the floating-point division math bug in the early Pentium processors. This and a few other bugs are discussed in detail later in this chapter.
Because the processor is the brain of a system, most systems don’t function with a defective processor. If a system seems to have a dead motherboard, try replacing the processor with one from a functioning motherboard that uses the same CPU chip. You might find that the processor in the original board is the culprit. If the system continues to play dead, however, the problem is elsewhere, most likely in the motherboard, memory, or power supply. See the chapters that cover those parts of the system for more information on troubleshooting those components. I must say that in all my years of troubleshooting and repairing PCs, I have rarely encountered defective processors.
A few system problems are built in at the factory, although these bugs or design defects are rare. By learning to recognize these problems, you can avoid unnecessary repairs or replacements. Each processor section describes several known defects in that generation of processors, such as the infamous floating-point error in the Pentium. For more information on these bugs and defects, see the following sections, and check with the processor manufacturer for updates.
Microcode and the Processor Update Feature
All processors can contain design defects or errors. Many times, you can avoid the effects of any given bug by implementing hardware or software workarounds. Intel documents these bugs and workarounds well for its processors in the processor Specification Update manual that is available from Intel’s website. Most of the other processor manufacturers also have bulletins or tips on their websites listing any problems or special fixes or patches for their chips.
Previously, the only way to fix a processor bug was to work around it or replace the chip with one that had the bug fixed. Starting with the Intel P6 and P7 family processors, including the Pentium Pro through Pentium D and Core i7, many bugs in a processor’s design can be fixed by altering the microcode in the processor. Microcode is essentially a set of instructions and tables in the processor that control the way the processor operates. These processors incorporate a new feature called reprogrammable microcode, which enables certain types of bugs to be worked around via microcode updates. The microcode updates reside in either the motherboard ROM BIOS or Windows updates and are loaded into the processor by the motherboard BIOS during the POST or by Windows during the boot process. Each time the system is rebooted, the updated microcode is reloaded, ensuring that it will have the bug fix installed anytime the system is operating.
The updated microcode for a given processor is provided by Intel to either the motherboard manufacturers or to Microsoft so the code can be incorporated into the flash ROM BIOS for the board, or directly into Windows via Windows Update. This is one reason it is important to keep Windows up to date, as well as to install the most recent motherboard BIOS for your systems. Because it is easier for most people to update Windows than to update the motherboard BIOS, it seems that more recent microcode updates are being distributed via Microsoft than the motherboard manufacturers.