Giving Linux the Boot

Let's face it: As enjoyable as the experience of staring at a dormant computer is, the real fun starts when you turn on the computer. As with any electronic device, opening the electron floodgate is the first step to fun. A computer, however, has much more stuff to do than your toaster oven. Rather than act as a simple heating element, your computer has to check all those gizmos that you (or the manufacturer) plugged into your computer's motherboard. After the initial power-up, the computer performs some simple hardware tests (called the POST, or Power-Up Self Test) to determine whether those various components are working properly.

Checking all your hardware is just the beginning. Between the time you turn the computer on and the moment the glowing phosphor on your monitor prompts you for a login name, the computer is building itself an empire. If you listen and watch carefully, your computer and monitor show signs of the boot process through bleeps, buzzes, whirring motors, clicks, messages on the monitor, and blinking lights.

Although you have heard the cliché "Rome wasn't built in a day," the boot process goes fairly quickly. This is pretty amazing, considering that the architecture of an operating system makes Rome's look like a stack of cardboard boxes and that each time you power up your computer, it must build its whole operating system in memory. (Remember that an operating system is the core software that makes your computer work.) This process can be broken into four main steps, which I discuss in the following sections.

Step 1: Power-On Self-Test (POST) leads to BIOS

The POST process really has nothing to do with the operating system. Your computer performs this step whether you're running Linux or another operating system such as Windows XP.

Some symptoms of a failed POST include i An unusual series of long and short beeps. i Nothing displayed on the monitor.

i No apparent activity other than the whirring fan on the power supply.

i A puff of smoke or the pungent smell of burning electrical components from your computer case.

i An error message, displayed on the monitor, indicating a hardware failure.

If you encounter any of these problems, you have hardware troubles that need to be resolved before you can proceed. Chances are, if your computer was running properly before you began your Linux installation, your computer should be getting through the POST just fine — POST problems don't tend to be caused by installing a new operating system; they're far more fundamental to the computer itself.

For all but the last of these errors, it's time to question your nephew Mortimer, who was last seen lurking around your computer with a screwdriver. (Or take your computer into a computer repair shop!) If you see an error message indicating a hardware failure, you might have a shot of fixing the problem in the BIOS. As the POST does its thing and finishes up, it briefly displays (usually at the bottom of the screen) instructions on how to enter "setup." Typically, these instructions mention pressing the DEL key or a function key such as F1. When you press this key, if all goes well, you usually see a blue screen with black and white text. From here, if you're familiar with your hardware, you can try to figure out and fix the problem. However, many people would rather have a root canal with no anesthesia than mess with this stuff, so you may want to grab the nearest teenager or computer repair shop to take a look.

The good news is that if you can get to the BIOS at all, the problem may be easier to fix than one where the computer fails before you reach the BIOS.

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