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5/6/2002
05:16 PM
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Langa Letter: Small Acronym, Big Help

Fred Langa explores three important technologies best known by their three-letter abbreviations.

It's a fact of life in computer maintenance: Sometimes, even when you do everything right, an unknown factor can ruin your work and cause trouble. Circumventing that unknown factor can take a bit of, well, let's call it "magic."

For example, I recently bought a new laptop. It came with 128 Mbytes of RAM, but I wanted 256 Mbytes. The manufacturer charged a truly usurious price for a memory upgrade, so I purchased the additional 128 Mbytes of RAM from a respectable third-party vendor.

This upgrade truly should not have been a big deal--I've added RAM to dozens of PCs over the years and know all the precautions--but one of those "unknown factors" was hiding in the weeds.

Things started normally: As always with RAM upgrades, I ensured that I was ordering an exact electrical and physical match with what was already in the system. When the new stick of RAM arrived, I also double-checked to make that what was sent was what I'd ordered. Everything checked out, so I set about installing the RAM.

The whole operation took less than five minutes. Following the laptop manufacturer's instructions, I powered everything off and removed the battery. Naturally, I made sure that both the laptop and I were grounded (electrically neutral, with no static charges that could damage the delicate solid-state components). I removed the RAM bay's cover and installed the new stick of RAM normally: I handled it carefully and only by the noncontact edges. I inserted and seated it properly, making sure it was square in its socket and that the hold-down latches fully engaged. I then replaced the RAM bay cover, inserted the battery, plugged the laptop into the wall, and rebooted.

Everything ran fine--except that the laptop didn't see the new RAM: Neither the BIOS setup program nor Windows saw or made use of anything but the original 128 Mbytes. According to the owner's manual, which I had followed to the letter when adding the RAM, the system's BIOS should have automatically detected the extra memory, but clearly that wasn't happening. I tried resetting the BIOS ("use default settings" was the closest option the BIOS offered), but that didn't help, either. There seemed to be no way to force the system to acknowledge the existence of the new RAM. Uh-oh.

So I repeated the installation process: I killed all power to the system (including removing the battery), opened everything up, carefully removed and then replaced the new RAM, and took extra care to ensure that the RAM chip was making good contact in its socket. I put everything back together, and rebooted.

No dice. Despite having 256 Mbytes of RAM in the system, the laptop still thought it was a 128-Mbyte system.

What the heck was going on? And more important, what could I do about it? I could send back the new RAM, but the odds were low that brand-new RAM from a major manufacturer was defective. The laptop itself also was new, and it seemed unlikely that just one of two identical RAM slots would be defective.

I can't say why this next step occurred to me because it makes no sense on the surface, but it worked: I depowered the system again and opened it up for a third time. I removed both the new and the original RAM sticks, and swapped their positions: The original RAM had been in slot 1; I put it in slot 2. The new RAM had been in slot 2; I placed it in slot 1. Swapping the RAM sticks shouldn't have made any difference--the sticks were physically and electrically identical--but it did. When I powered up the system, both the BIOS and the operating system saw and used the full 256 Mbytes of available RAM.

Why did this switch work? My guess is that, even though I'd depowered the laptop and removed the battery, some residual electrical charge was preventing the system from seeing that the RAM had changed. Physically removing both RAM sticks was enough of a change to force the system to redetect its hardware, including the RAM, from scratch.

But that's just a guess. You might as well call this kind of bizarre fix "magic" because it's nonstandard and almost nonsensical, and because you won't find it in user documentation or how-to manuals. "Magic," "lore," or whatever you call it, it's information that's very handy to know.

The computer industry uses so many abbreviations there's even an abbreviation used to describe abbreviations: TLA, meaning "three-letter abbreviation." Some TLAs, such as CPU, are so widely used that you almost never hear it spelled out as central processing unit. Likewise, terms such as RAM, USB, and LCD are so well-known they rarely need to be expanded to their full form.

Other TLAs may be less familiar, but they're still worth knowing about. Let's examine three, starting with the least familiar.

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