14 November 2020 - Dell Optiplex 760 - Beware Firmaware Upgrades

I recently bought a second hand Dell Optiplex 760 for experimental, research and development purposes. These are generally quite a good buy. Having been designed for the mass office market and now all superseded and hence replaced, there are an awful lot of them floating around, which makes them pretty cheap for what you get. Often you'll get a Windows Vista or Windows 7 licence with them, or of course depending on what you want to do, you can trash that and run Linux for free anyway. It also means they are compact, quite reliable and also fairly energy-efficient - which is handy if you plan to stick the thing in your "server cupboard" (aka, in my case, the cupboard under my stairs) and leave it switched on 24/7. If you want to start adding extra hard disks or upgrading the RAM beyond 8GB then forget it, but otherwise they are pretty sound.

However, I made a fatal mistake with mine which I felt I should share. This mistake was to try and upgrade the BIOS. For the uninitiated, the BIOS (Basic Input Output System) is the built-in software, stored in non-volatile memory, that first runs when you turn the machine on. It tells your machine, for example, how to use hard disk, and gets it to the point where it can start to load your actual operating system - Windows, Linux or whatever. The potential problem with this is that if that software gets corrupted then the machine will not start up. Some machines have a "BIOS reset" function, which will restore the BIOS to "factory settings", but many do not, which means there is no way to reinstall the BIOS if it gets corrupted - because the machine will not start up to a point where you can load an operating system from disc/USB, that will in turn let you run the BIOS update. The end result of that scenario is that the machine is "bricked" (as in, that's its only remaining possible function) - it can never run again unless it goes back to a factory and has a chip taken out and reprogrammed externally.

Now, some would ask, why would you WANT to upgrade the BIOS, and that is not an unreasonable question. Typically manufacturers will release several BIOS updates over the life of a PC motherboard, sometimes adding or improving features such as support for additional hardware, sometimes fixing bugs - although these are usually pretty obscure, and you're unlikely to have noticed or been hindered by them. In my case, the thinking was that the latest version (I had version 1, the latest was about 8) represented the best they had managed to do on this machine, so that's what I wanted, especially as the machine was intended for research. I do have to say though that had the machine not been so cheap I would not have risked it, because, and here's the rub, it IS a risk ! For a start, unless you're working in a location that's protected by a pretty top-notch UPS (Uninterruptable Power Supply), there's always a small risk that you might lose power during the update. Net result - a brick ! Worse than that though, and here is where I am going to be a little less complimentary about Dell, is that sometimes the software they provide to upgrade the BIOS can fail for no apparent reason whasoever. If your machine is under warranty and that happens then I am fairly sure they would fix it for free, which was probably the thinking behind not ensuring that the update was 100% bullet-proof. However, these machines now are all well outside their warranty period, and the shipping alone, never mind the cost of the repair, would be more than you probably paid for the machine. I do personally think this is rather naughty of Dell, and that if the utility that they provide breaks your Dell machine through no fault of your own then they should do the decent thing throughout the life of the machine, but they do not agree.

In the end, it was only cheap, so I just bought another one, to which I was able to add the memory chips from the first one giving me a fairly respectable 8GB. I also kept the hard disk and PSU as spares, and recycled the rest. So, not a terrible outcome, but to avoid disappointment and inconvenience my strong advice to all would be DON'T try to upgrade the BIOS on these machines, it really is not worth the risk.