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Testing Your Media-Savvy PC Learn how utility programs such as Ultra-X QuickTech Professional can help make sure your new or upgraded system is working properly

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Testing Your Media-Savvy PC
Learn how utility programs such as Ultra-X QuickTech Professional can help make sure your new or upgraded system is working properly

Introduction

Although todays computers are more complex than ever before, many system vendors dont provide diagnostic software beyond the tools built into Windows. Although Windows tools such as Device Manager, Microsoft System Information and DirectX Diagnostics can be useful for finding device driver errors, determining basic system configuration, and finding hardware resource problems, these tools are not designed to determine whether your drives, ports or onboard hardware are working as well as possible.

Consequently, you need to consider third-party diagnostic tools. These are available from many different vendors, and over the next few months I plan to try several of the leading products and discuss them in this space. In this article, I show you how to use the QuickTech Personal and QuickTech Professional diagnostic programs from Ultra-X.

Personal versus Professional Testing Software

Ultra-X, like many other diagnostic vendors, provides two types of diagnostic programs, personal and professional. What are the differences?

In general, personal diagnostic programs are designed to test the basic features of an individual PC in an interactive mode. Compared to a professional version, the tests performed by the personal version of a diagnostic program might be more limited, might not offer as many configuration options, and might not check all the devices found in an advanced PC.

Both personal and professional diagnostics programs are often sold in a self-booting floppy disk form. This enables the diagnostics programs to bypass the operating system and access the hardware directly. Some professional diagnostics programs offer both self-booting and operating-system-based diagnostic features.

Using Ultra-X QuickTech Personal

QuickTech Personal is provided on a self-booting floppy disk. After the program starts, it displays a menu across the top of the screen.

Press the ENTER key to display the Information menu. You can select from Configuration (processor, memory, ports, drives, video information). The Configuration display ignores USB ports and can detect Sound Blaster but not other types of audio (such as onboard audio). It identified my mouse as a PS/2 mouse (its actually a hybrid USB-PS/2 mouse plugged into the PS/2 ports). Other options on the Information menu include CPU information (useful for determining if the CPU supports MMX, SIMD extensions and other features), SMI (System Management Information) features, and IDE/ATA drive information. The IDE/ATA drive information screen displays the supported ATA, UDMA, and PIO modes for each drive, drive buffer size, drive serial number, and other details.

The SysBoard menu provides tests for CPU, NPU (math co-processor), DMA and interrupt controllers, timer, keyboard controller, RTC and CMOS RAM. Each test can be run individually, or all can be run in a series. Each test runs continuously until you interrupt it.

The Disk Drives menu provides testing for floppy and hard disks and any ATAPI (removable-media, CD, and DVD) drives. A formatted floppy disk must be used for the floppy drive test, and a test CD or DVD must be used for these tests.

The RAM menu offers tests for base RAM (below 640KB) and extended RAM (1MB and above). You can choose from quick or extended tests.

The Peripherals menu provides tests for serial and parallel ports and the keyboard. The serial and parallel tests are very detailed. However, the tests can be run even on ports which are not present or are disabled in the system BIOS, triggering bogus errors. Be sure to note whether the port is present (ports that are present show in black while disabled or missing ports are shown in red) before running these tests. The keyboard test is the standard interactive test. Although multimedia keys are not shown on the keyboard layout, the testing program will detect key presses and releases. The keycodes for multimedia and other non-standard keys are referred to as illegal patterns, but the make and break keycodes are shown on-screen as you press and release standard and non-standard keys so you can verify for yourself that they are working.

The video test checks VGA and VESA (high-resolution graphics) modes and RAM as well as text modes. An interactive section displays color bars and grids so you can see if your monitor is providing correct colors and linear patterns.

The Burn-in test offers 40 different tests, and can be customized by number of runs per test or time elapsed. You can also load or save burn-in scripts.

Using Ultra-X QuickTech Professional

QuickTech Professional, like QuickTech Personal, comes on a bootable floppy disk (a bootable CD is also provided). It automatically starts an automated burn-in process when you boot the software unless you exit to the menu-driven mode when prompted. QuickTech Professional also features tests that must be run when the operating system is active.

The menu lists Quick Inventory, a feature identical to the Configuration menu in the Personal edition, as the first choice. However, almost every other feature in QuickTech Professional goes well beyond the Personal Edition.

The Configuration menu lists SMI, PCI, PnP, hardware sensors, APM and ACPI power management, extended system configuration data (ESCD), 32-bit BIOS services, and SDRAM/DDR SDRAM SPD information for each memory module. Even if you dont have detailed spec sheet information for your module, this feature will provide you with burst lengths, cycle time and other information useful for adjusting RAM timings for better performance.

The Peripherals menu features PnP Monitor (works in self-boot mode), PC Card and Network/Windows 3.x tests.

The IRQ/DMA menu lists IRQ and DMA tests which function under Windows only, but also has a soft IRQ test available in self-booting mode which lists the memory addresses used by IRQs and other interrupts.

The CMOS menu displays raw and standard CMOS information and also supports writing CMOS values to a file, reading them back from a file and comparing the stored values to the current values.

The I/O ports menu displays basic information in self-booting mode, but also provides detailed information when run from Windows.

The IDE menu provides very detailed information about the ATA/IDE capabilities of each drive, including supported features as well as PIO/UDMA/ATA levels supported. It also identifies the cable type (40-wire or 80-wire) installed, which can be useful in determining why a UDMA-66 or faster drive is not performing at top speed.

The S.M.A.R.T. technology menu identifies the attributes supported and shows the current level and threshold level for each supported drive.

The Diagnostics menu includes all the tests provided in the Personal edition, plus many more. The System Board tests also include PCI, PnP, APM, SM Bus, speaker and turbo switch tests. The hard drive tests also include destructive tests. The peripherals tests also support USB ports, modems, HP and PostScript printers in self-boot mode (over 700 printers when run under Windows), and PCI sound, network, and modem. The RAM tests also support VESA and cache memory (useful for testing processors), memory refresh, and can be extensively customized. Each test pattern is displayed as it is performed. The video test also offers a regulation test, and the keyboard test can check everything from antique 83-key PC/XT keyboards to the latest Windows-compliant keyboards as well as various European and Japanese keyboard layouts.

The burn-in menu offers additional customization options.

Additional features provided with QuickTech Professional include two serial loopback plugs and a parallel/25-pin reversible loopback plug, a test CD and a test DVD.

The current version (5.01 and above) support Serial ATA drives, dual-channel DDR memory, Pentium 4 with 865 and 875-series chipsets, and AMD 64-bit processors.

Pricing

QuickTech Personal is $149. The test CD and test DVD are sold as a set for $15. QuickTech Professional is normally $399, but promotional pricing is sometimes available.

Conclusion

These products are relatively expensive, but provide system information and tests far beyond what Windows can provide. The Personal Edition provides good basic testing for essential hardware, especially when combined with the test CD and DVD. However, the Professional Edition is the preferred choice for diagnosing a modern multimedia or corporate PC because of its much wider range of tests, greater customization options and specific support for the latest hardware. Although either product can be used to burn-in a PC, the Professional Edition provides more customization.

Copyright©2004 Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

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