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COMPUTING

In making Y2K preparations, don't forget your home computer

Graphic

December 22, 1999
Web posted at: 1:14 p.m. EST (1814 GMT)

By D. Ian Hopper
CNN Interactive Technology Editor

(CNN) - After years of preparation and billions of dollars in fixes, most world governments and private companies look like they're going to be Y2K compliant. That's the good news.

The bad news is that most home users aren't able to pay consultants and programmers to make sure their personal computers are Y2K-friendly. It wouldn't make for a very happy new year if your lights and cable TV are working, but your computer won't boot.

And don't think you Mac users can stop reading. While the internal Mac clock is good until the year 29,940 - upon which you should probably buy a new computer anyway -- its vital system software and applications could have a Y2K bug that would crush a Mac just as easily as a PC.

There are three main areas that you should be concerned about: the BIOS, the OS, and your applications.

What is the BIOS, anyway?

BIOS stands for Basic Input/Output System, which is pretty much what it sounds like. The BIOS contains a set of instructions in read-only memory on how to control the system's hardware. Every time the PC boots, the BIOS asks the system clock for the current system date. That clock is a real, battery-operated clock on the computer's motherboard. However, the system clock contains only the last two digits of a year, the heart of the Y2K problem. The BIOS needs to know when to insert the digits "19" or "20" to the beginning of the date.

The BIOS is the most important part of Y2K compliance in a PC, since everything else in a computer takes the date from it.

You can check to see if your BIOS is compliant with any one of several small freeware or shareware programs, like Y2K Test or AllClear 2000 Pro, which are linked below. You can also use a more comprehensive Y2K package, such as Symantec's Norton 2000, which checks for a wide variety of Y2K problems. Most smaller programs use a very simple way of checking for compliance: put the system in a safe environment, then switch to critical dates like Dec. 31, 1999 or Feb. 29, 2000, and see what happens.

If your BIOS fails the test, you'll want to get help immediately. If you bought a pre-made computer from a store or mail-order company, contact your manufacturer for a fix. If you have a custom-made computer or put it together yourself, contact the manufacturer of the motherboard. Most motherboard makers, like Asus or Abit, have Y2K patches on their Web sites. Just download the patch, and follow the instructions to update your BIOS.

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No, Windows 98 isn't compliant. Surprised?

Despite progress made in both Windows 95 and 98, neither is fully compliant. However, Microsoft's Y2K site has updates that fix such problems as leap years, Microsoft Wallet and more. One would hope that the successor to Windows NT, Windows 2000, is compliant, but experience shows that's it's still a good idea to check Microsoft's site periodically for updates.

There's one quick fix you can do yourself. By default, both 95 and 98 attempt to show the system year in two digits. For programs that take the date from the Windows display rather than directly from the BIOS, this can cause a problem. Go to the Regional Settings Control Panel applet, in the Control Panel, then select the "date" tab. The format is probably set to mm/dd/yy, the default. Switch it to mm/dd/yyyy.

Some Macintosh control panels, extensions, drivers, or other essential system software may also be susceptible to Y2K. Like the PC, there are several free and commercial programs available to check for problems. If you find a problem, contact the manufacturer for a fix.

Don't forget your apps

Many applications are date-sensitive, as well. There are the obvious ones, like spreadsheets and money managers, but it's a good idea to check vendor Web sites for updates for all your major applications. Or, you can get a comprehensive Y2K utility that will check all of them.

Your data is also at risk. Backing up is always a good idea, but also check to see if you may have created any Y2K problems yourself. In spreadsheets or databases you may be using two-digit years to save time. After January 1, those short cuts may cause a lot of trouble. Either go through your documents manually, or use a checker like Norton 2000 or Check 2000 PC Deluxe.

Lastly, some security professionals are worried that virus authors will use Y2K as an excuse to launch attacks and release viruses. Make sure you update your virus protection software. If you have an "always-on" connection like a cable modem or DSL service, consider getting a personal firewall such as BlackICE Defender by NetworkICE.


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RELATED SITES:
Y2K Test (PC) CNET.com - AllClear 2000 Pro (PC)
CNET.com - Netsavers Net2000 Y2K Scanner (PC)
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Welcome to the Year 2000 Portal Page
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Apple Year 2000
Norton 2000 Retail Edition
Check 2000 PC Deluxe
FileMaker: Products: Year 2000 Readiness Q&A
Welcome to Network ICE
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