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ISSUE 483: The high tech office

January 26 - February 1, 1999

ALAN ZISMAN

Free help is available on the Web for those facing personal Y2K problems

In last week's column, we started looking at how (or if) the upcoming Year 2000 problem will affect your personal computer; not your bank's mainframe, not your elevator's embedded processor -- as important as those might be -- but the computer on your desk.

We saw that the problem could affect you in several ways and started off looking at the computer's most basic levels -- how it tells time. Macs, we saw, are all Y2K-compatible at this level (though not, we'll see, at other levels). Newer PCs may or may not be compatible. Their system clocks might not properly roll over from December 31, 1999, to January 1, 2000, and in some cases may not be able to deal with dates next year at all.

We also saw that we could test our PCs with the free Ymark2000 utility, from NSTL Systems Laboratories (www.nstl.com). If your machine passes this test, you're okay so far -- but only with problems at the system clock level. If you fail it, however, you don't have to throw away the machine. There are a number of things to try:

* Upgrade the BIOS, the basic-level instructions that control your computer's lowest-level operations. Computers produced in the past three to four years are usually easy to upgrade in this way. Check with your vendor or with the manufacturer's Web site to see if they have information on this for your model. It's an easy process, but can be dangerous if you try to install an upgrade for a different model.

* In many cases, older computers will work fine with Y2K dates as long as they aren't running during the transition. You can test this now. At the end of the day on Friday, reset the date to sometime next year, and leave the computer on over the weekend. On Monday, check whether it still has the "correct" fake date and time. Then turn it off and restart it -- see if the date and time have been maintained. (Don't forget to correct the date and time when you're done with these tests!)

* There are also a number of free utilities for older computers. Most install themselves to run in the computer's startup files and check the reported system date. If it's obviously wrong (1980 or 1900, for example), the utility automatically resets it to a Y2K date. These are not a complete Y2K fix, and they'll have to be left to run for the rest of the computer's lifetime, but one of these may be a worthwhile way to extend the useful life of an older PC.

For example, Symantec, which is marketing Norton 2000 software (a utility that checks your hardware, applications, and data for Y2K problems), has a free sample of the program available for download. The free version tests your computer's BIOS and will add a small utility to automatically check and reset the system's clock with every reboot. We'll look at the full software package as part of this series, but the free download may be worth getting. You'll find it by starting at the company's Web page (www.symantec.com), going to their U.S. page (oddly, it's not listed on their Canadian page) and following the links to the Norton 2000 retail product, where you're offered a chance to download the free BIOS test and fix. The file is about 1.2 Megs, so you can download it in a reasonable time.

Even with your computer knowing the right date, you're only one step along the way. The next level involves the operating system. It needs to be able to properly handle the dates passed on to it by the computer's hardware. Here again, PCs face small but aggravating problems. All of Microsoft's consumer-level operating systems -- DOS, Windows 3.1, Windows 95, and even the nearly new Windows 98 -- have minor problems with the date change. Even Microsoft's big-business-oriented NT Workstation and NT Server list a number of patches. For example, Microsoft has released a patch for Windows 95 that updates the way that system's versions of Command.com and the old File Manager manage two-digit years.

And Windows 98 is listed by Microsoft as "compliant" with Y2K issues, yet at the same time Microsoft has released a Windows 98 Year 2000 Update. (Get this using Win98's Windows Update feature.) With the exception of the Windows 98 update, Microsoft has not made these patches easy to find on their gargantuan Web site.

Start at www.microsoft.com/y2k and click on the Product Guide link. You can then scroll down a list of Microsoft products to find the operating system of your choice and click on the Search button to jump to a page briefly outlining the state of Y2K compliance for that product.

This page includes a link to a Microsoft Knowledge Base article for more information. That article includes either links to the patch(es) or information on getting them.

Luckily, all these problems are relatively minor. Even with the operating system unpatched, your computer will continue to run this time next year.

So far, Mac owners have been able to gloat. Apple's foresight has made every Mac from the original 1984 model onward Y2K compliant, at both the hardware and operating system levels. But next week, we'll see that it's not that simple. Even with your machine working the way it should, your applications and your data files can still cause problems -- on both PCs and Macs. *



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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan