Ultra-X PHD PCI Diagnostics Card Evaluation

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Diagnostic Modes

The PHD PCI card is capable of many different operating or debug modes. Depending on how much or how little is working on the system under test, there are many approaches an experienced technician can take. The following section goes over the four main modes of operation: P.H.D. diagnostic mode, extended diagnostic mode, POST mode diagnostics, and forced start mode.

Mode 1: P.H.D. Diagnostic Mode

There are a variety of ways to apply this card when testing a system. The first mode is referred to as the regular PHD Diagnostic mode. This mode allows the user to perform circuit level diagnostics on a system while viewing test progress and results on the system’s monitor via the system’s regular video card. In this mode the following tests can be run:

  1. Verify a system’s compatibility with PCI standards
  2. Exercise all PCI specific functions and circuits
  3. Test all PCI bus connectors
  4. Test all core motherboard functions
  5. Burn-in new or repaired system
  6. Troubleshoot and isolate malfunctions and failures that occur after boot.
  7. Determine/verify CPU and PCI bus speed

Diagnostics tests can check the following core functions of a system:

  1. PCI Local BUS
  2. DMA Page Register
  3. Master DMA Controller
  4. Slave DMA Controller
  5. Keyboard Controller and Keyboard
  6. Master Interrupt Controller
  7. Slave Interrupt Controller
  8. CMOS RAM and Real Time Clock
  9. Timer/Counter
  10. Port B
  11. System RAM
  12. Color Video Card
  13. Main BIOS Sockets

This mode can be initiated by simply plugging in the P.H.D. card into an empty PCI slot and leaving all the regular components as they are. This includes continuing to have the monitor use the system’s main video card. It is necessary to verify the board’s switch settings prior to plugging it in to make sure it is configured correctly. The regular computer’s BIOS comes up and goes through it’s standard boot up screens, but before the hard drive is booted the P.H.D. BIOS is seen and initiated, and from this point on the P.H.D. card is in the driver’s seat and controlling the system.

A screen appears showing the revision of the board’s firmware, the type and speed of the computer, and the PCI bus speed. A picture is also shown of each switch setting so that it’s obvious what mode is being initiated for the testing. After a brief display of the processor and PCI bus speed, the board launches into its battery of tests. The full testing suite should continue to run, looping forever, unless an error is found or the P.H.D. hangs up on something. There is an option to run all tests, all tests except one, or only one test. I was disappointed that the selective exclusion of a test actually included a major test section and all the sub tests under that section. For example, if you had a major failure on a specific IRQ test, you would have to skip all IRQ tests in that section. It is not possible to just skip an individual sub test.

Mode 2: Extended Diagnostic Mode

The extended diagnostic mode is really just a subset of the Ultra-X QuickTech Pro 2000 software program (which can be purchased separately for approx. $500). It requires a particular switch to be set on the board, and then you simply plug the card in and let the computer bootup. The system must be capable of successfully completing the POST sequence in order to run this test.

This software program allows the user to do the following:

  1. Check System configuration including CPU and RAM information, IDE drives, RTC/CMOS RAM viewer, PCI bus test info, benchmarking, DMI/PCI/PnP information and I/O Port viewer.
  2. System Board Diagnostic Tests checks CPU, coprocessor, DMA controllers, interrupt controllers, keyboard controllers, floppy driver tests and many other functions.
  3. Hard Drive and EIDE CD-ROM Drive Test
  4. RAM Tests
  5. Peripherals test (internal and external serial and parallel port loopback tests)
  6. Keyboard tests
  7. Video tests
  8. Printers tests
  9. Burn-in Mode (allows for indefinite unattended running of diagnostics to stress a faulty or repaired system)
  10. System compatibility

Because the above tests are run from firmware, it is not necessary to have a functioning floppy drive, or to even have a particular operating system loaded. Ultra-X also offers an extensive customization service if any manufacturer or integrator needs some specialized testing feature. The advantage of this mode is that you don’t need some of the components stuffed, and even if you had the Quick Tech Pro 2000 software, you don’t need it loaded on a hard drive to have it run.

Mode 3: Post Mode Diagnostics

Another mode is called POST mode or Power On Self Test mode. POST codes are generated by the system BIOS during the power up phase of a system. The 7 segment displays on the P.H.D. card are capable of displaying the various POST codes as each test is run. This makes it easy to follow the progress of POST during boot. The PASS and FAIL LED’s show the results of each test. In this mode it is not necessary to have the video or monitor hooked up. This is one of the modes where the PORT button mentioned previously allows you to monitor some 16-bit POST code values at particular offset addresses (81h, 85h and 681h). If the POST test hangs while testing, the test displayed will most likely be the one that is causing the board problems. The manual that comes with the P.H.D. comes with numerous listings of various POST codes from a few of the most popular BIOS manufacturers.

Mode 4: Forced Start Mode

If the system under test can’t successfully complete the POST tests, there is still an option called the Forced Start Mode. This mode is for those systems that appear totally dead, hang during boot, intermittently fail during boot, have a burnt keyboard controller fuse, have no RAM installed, or are prototype designs.

What you can do is replace the regular BIOS ROM chip on the mainboard with a special test ROM chip from Ultra-X. This mode is meant to help find out what is causing the system to hang or fail. This is a last resort sort of test, requiring all cards to be removed from the system to strip it down to just the bare essentials. If you have a system that is not compatible with the optional ROM chips supplied with your P.H.D. card you might be able to contact Ultra-X to get a special ROM made up.

Technical Reference Manual

Included in the package is a paperback reference manual that outlines many details about the P.H.D. PCI card’s operation. The book is an essential piece of the package, and one that has its strength and weaknesses. On the plus side there are well done sections on the various diagnostic modes and how to specifically implement each one. All the various switches, displays and features are explained in easy to understand text and descriptions.

Near the end of the book are references to many of the most common POST errors, pin-outs on the various bus connections, IC chipset pin-out and feature set lists. Block diagrams are also included to explain typical system functionality to help aid in debugging. In the back there are some blue pages that have some of the most useful quick reference information and the different colored pages made referencing some things easy.

On the negative side, the manual can be difficult to navigate and locate information. I often felt lost looking for something I read earlier but could not find. Edge tabs defining the different chapters would be most welcome. Also, while there is a table of contents, the manual leaves out an index, making it impossible to reference specific topics. The explanations on some of the low-level tests are frequently inadequately explained. For example, I had a few older systems fail the C.6 (Video – cursor registers) and C.7 (Video – DAC registers). Researching what exactly these test did is not explained anywhere in the book. The video was working so I was left to wonder what exactly constituted a failure. While some of the system block diagrams and chipset feature lists were decent supplemental information, it seems this section hadn’t been updated in a few years and lacked many of the most recent and popular chipsets.

My preference would be to have a CD-ROM with the manual that includes a machine readable copy of the entire manual with a great deal more depth, and a searchable database of topics. Perhaps including a section on applying the board to different testing situations, various strategies to overcome common pitfalls, a database of common hardware problems, etc. More detailed information on all the tests and exactly what is actually being done would add a valuable perspective. In talking to Ultra-X it’s obvious they’ve struggled to find an appropriate amount of information to include in the manual and what level of readership to target. They have gotten complaints in the past that too much information was being given, and this could make the CD-ROM idea valuable. The manual could be something of a quick start guide and the included CD-ROM a more comprehensive manual for those seeking deeper more in-depth information.

The problem here is, if a person uses this product to test a board and is given some nebulous failure code, they need to be able to decide what a failure in this area means and how important it is. A diagnostic card of this level and expense owes it to its customers to provide as much detail as possible and let them decide how much knowledge they need. If it’s not provided at all, it is difficult to effectively use the card.

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