I'm now unable to access my BIOS, as a result of changing the disk operation mode from AHCI/SATA to IDE, as suggested by cdob in my "Can't install (Arch) Linux" topic. The errors in that topic didn't go away, they changed a bit, but essentially meant the same things as before.
At that time I had also tried swapping 2 tested, known good HDDs, into my laptop, and removed the SSD. A tech friend tested both drives for 2 hrs for free, said they were fine, and have no bad/relocated sectors as well as a low UDMA CRC error count.I became unable to access the BIOS at this time. I don't think the removal of the SSD had anything to do with this, putting it back in will likely yield the same issues as before. The 2 HDDs I swapped in were previously present there before I bought the SSD and all worked fine. So I have no reason to believe that the presence of 2 drives are confusing my PC. No OSes are installed at this time, and haven't been for about a week.
I don't really believe the BIOS is bricked, since I can boot a disc/iso/USB from the boot selection menu. However, repeatedly tapping F2 or F12 then selecting "Setup" (what my PC calls the BIOS" results in a hang on a black screen with a non-blinking white cursor in upper left corner. I've left it this way for over an hour and nothing happens. I hear no beep error codes and no external devices are inserted except power cord. In the rare event I can get in (about 1 out of every 100 tries) I'm immediately locked out the next time I try. During this time I've checked the disk settings and everything is back in AHCI mode.
What I've tried:
1. Swapping the HDDs into the opposite slot, no difference
2. Booting to BIOS with no disks inserted, same as above
3. Downloading Hirens boot disc in an ISO format, then booting it from my phone via DriveDroid app and USB cable (Wonko, don't you dare say anything along the lines of it being an illegal PE, because I don't care at this point), then reflashing 100% stock BIOS from there. BIOS flash succeeded but it didn't auto reboot, I also had to change a few parameters in the INI file because the flasher wouldn't recognize my battery/power cable.
4. Formatting a USB as FAT32 and placing the BIOS file on it, then removing battery, holding End key while simultaneously plugging in. The fan turns on and PC turns on (but doesn't boot into anything), screen stays black and USB blinks rapidly then stops. I found the details at http://forum.techinf...y-possible.html
I haven't tried removing the CMOS battery yet because I'm unskilled with disassembling electronics (beyond replacing HDD, RAM, battery, etc), Dell made it a megabitch to get to, a complete teardown is required. This will only reset the BIOS to default settings rather than reflash, which I've already managed to do.
What I really believe is going on is that in my attempts to flash BIOS in the past, something got corrupted along the way. I was able to able to access it just fine while SSD was in, as well as long before then when I only had 2 internal drives. All this happened the moment I tried IDE. This something that is being corrupted (or whatever) is something that probably isn't overwritten with a normal flash, since it seems logical that flashing fresh *should* fix my issue, but in fact doesn't.
I've also noticed the presence of literally dozens of "Network" entries in both the BIOS and boot menu, all doing the same thing (nothing, except give an error). A new entry is added when I flash a new BIOS or reset to defaults, and they just keep building endlessly. Perhaps there are now so many that the PC has become overloaded. They may be a result of my usage of unofficial rather than pure stock BIOSes, or something else. My tech also stated that some of the menu entries in my unlocked BIOSes may either be invalid or not applicable. Like the presence of a NumLock on/off option, even though I have no NumLock key. He thinks this may be a part of what is causing my issues.
I think the only solutions will be to replace the BIOS chip with a new one, completely erase my current chip with an EEPROM programming device then refash pure stock. I don't think resetting BIOS via CMOS will help. Both of these will be expensive and not worth the money, so if anyone has other suggestions then I'd like to hear them.