ISSUE 483: The high tech office
January 26 - February 1, 1999
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
* 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. *