How to Break a CMOS on a Dell Vostro

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Dell markets the Vostro series of laptops primarily for small businesses. Nevertheless, the small form factor of Vostro laptops paired with their budget pricing makes them suitable for many on-the-go consumers as well. Like many modern laptops, Vostro notebooks allow you to enter a BIOS password to prevent unauthorized start and use of the computer. If you forget your BIOS password, you may need to break or reset the CMOS to boot the notebook and view files. Depending on the model Dell Vostro laptop you own, there are a few different options for cracking the CMOS and resetting the BIOS password.

Use a Backdoor Password

  • If you have an older model Vostro laptop, there is a chance it may have shipped with what many refer to as a backdoor password. During the early days of the PC revolution, when computer security focused mainly on preventing access by others in the home or office, many manufacturers enabled backdoor passwords for allowing a user to enter the BIOS during tech support calls. If you cannot remember the BIOS or password for an older Dell Vostro laptop, you may be able to simply type “DELL” and press “Enter” to access the system setup menu. Depending on the motherboard in an older Dell Vostro laptop, other backdoor passwords that may work are “AWARD PW,” “AMI_SW” and “PHOENIX.” You may be able to find a website that lists possible backdoor passwords for your Dell Vostro depending on the motherboard installed in the laptop (link in Resources). Dell uses several BIOS manufacturers for the Vostro series, including Award, AMI and Phoenix.

Remove the CMOS Battery

  • With most Dell Vostro laptops made since the early 2000, using a backdoor password will not allow you to enter the system BIOS. Consequently, you may have to short the CMOS in the laptop to remove a startup BIOS password. With some Vostro laptops, you can do this easily by removing the CMOS battery. This method is similar in effect to clearing the CMOS or BIOS password on a desktop computer. To remove the CMOS battery from a Vostro laptop, you first need to power off the notebook, and then remove the battery from the bottom of the unit. To find the actual location of the CMOS battery, you’ll probably need to download a service manual from the Dell support website. However, in most cases, the CMOS battery is underneath either the memory card slot or wireless card slot on the bottom of the laptop. The CMOS battery is a flat disk that looks like a large watch battery; in most cases you can snap it in or out as needed.

Hacking the ROM

  • During the late 1990s, IBM was the first company to make it impossible to reset the BIOS password in laptops simply by removing the CMOS battery. Since that time, other companies including Dell have slowly followed suit. With newer models of Dell Vostro laptops, you may not be able to reset the BIOS password by removing the CMOS battery. Consequently, you may have to hack the BIOS or CMOS. Depending on the complexity of the password used to secure the BIOS startup menu, hacking the ROM may be relatively easy or may prove virtually impossible. Simply put, the shorter the password, the easier it may be to hack. Free utilities such as IBIOS and PC CMOS Recovery attempt to retrieve the password either by direct reading of the ROM or through brute force password attacks (links in Resources). However, you should be aware that these utilities probably can't retrieve BIOS passwords that contain more than five or six characters -- unless you don't mind allowing the software to run brute force attacks for many days or even weeks before determining the correct password.

Changing the Motherboard

  • If you're not able to retrieve a Dell Vostro BIOS password by any other means, you may have to change the motherboard in the laptop. Just as with many other modern laptops, modern Dell Vostro notebooks store the BIOS passwords on a special memory chip on the motherboard. Because of the fine micro tracing used to solder the memory chip to the motherboard, replacing it is extremely difficult even for skilled technicians. Even Dell does not offer the service of changing the security chip itself. Instead, if you forget the BIOS password and have a hard drive password as well, Dell's only solution is to change the motherboard -- which is very expensive. If you can find a motherboard from the same type of Dell Vostro laptop as the one you own, you may be able to change the motherboard yourself and retrieve data from the hard drive. Changing the motherboard requires that you take the laptop apart completely. Nevertheless, if you are able to change the motherboard in the Dell Vostro laptop -- and the replacement motherboard does not have a BIOS password -- you should be able to boot the notebook normally so you can retrieve your data. Alternatively, you might consider removing the hard drive and connecting it to an operational computer.

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