Tablet computers seem to be all the rage, making your boxy desktop computer look even less hip. But that doesn't mean the BIOS underneath your “standard PC” is going away. It’s still as important as ever.
Touchscreen and tablet computers have been around for years, but for some reason they’ve always been a hard sell. I have personally benefitted from this lack of adoption, recently buying a cast-off Panasonic Toughbook with a lovely 10" touch screen for a mere fifty dollars.
But recently some turtleneck wearing hipster with a company named after a piece of fruit produced a pretty cool tablet computer, so the once maligned tablet PC is now the hottest thing since sliced pads … er, bread. Now the computer news is filled with new tablet designs based on Intel Architecture products.
Sure, the tablet PC is nothing new to Intel-based products. Products like the Panasonic Toughbook H1 medical tablet pre-dates our fruity friend by several years … but they’ve been part of a specialized market. Recent announcements like the Cisco Cius start blurring the lines between tablet and embedded telecommunications system. The embedded space also features Panel PCs … tablet functionality for more stationary systems.
So where the does the BIOS, long associated with expansion cards and keyboard-based interfaces, fit into the world of tablet computing? Well, the same place it’s always been.
At first glance, it’s easy to build an Intel tablet. There are a variety of low-power Intel Atom processors, which can be combined with an off-the-shelf operating system and commodity hardware to fit your particular form factor. So that’s pretty easy … now pick the OS.
Here’s where it gets complicated. Choose an established OS like Microsoft Windows 7, adapt an existing Linux distribution to be more tablet friendly or use one of the newer operating systems like MeeGo or Intel’s Android x86 port? As a tablet manufacturer, you may not want to choose right away, or you want the option to quickly switch to a new OS as the tablet market evolves.
Even though tablet users may never change the OS, using BIOS allows the tablet developer to quickly boot and test different operating systems. BIOS also opens up the possibility of booting recovery or installation disks from different media, like USB or SD slots.
So what happens to the things people associate with BIOS? The old school boot screen full of tech jargon has long since been replaced on most systems by a simple boot logo. With today’s short BIOS boot times, that screen flies by as the OS starts to load.
User setup on a tablet depends on the approach the developer wants to take. One approach is a "no touch configuration," removing the BIOS setup all together. Even without a standard BIOS setup screen, the system boot order can change dynamically if USB boot devices are added.
Another approach to user setup goes in the completely opposite direction, presenting a fully graphical setup that takes advantage of the touch screen. Companies like AMI provide everything from graphical setup layouts to on-screen keyboards in setup. This is an advantage if a company wants to market a "hackable tablet" to more tech savvy users.
So tablets change the form factor, but BIOS still plays the same role in system compatibility and configurability. Users may never see all of the options provided by the BIOS, but developers can use these tools to take full advantage of the Intel ecosystem.
American Megatrends, Inc. (AMI) is an Affiliate member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance.
Got a question about BIOS or UEFI? … then it’s time to Ask a BIOS Guy! Find Brian on Twitter (@askabiosguy) or leave your question in the comments. Your BIOS question may be featured in an upcoming ‘Ask a BIOS Guy’ article.