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Last-minute Y2K preparations

By Compiled by DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 1999


Most home PC users won't have any significant problems with Y2K glitches that can flummox computers and software that read the new year "00" as 1900 rather than 2000.

Even for those who don't escape unscathed, fixes shouldn't be too difficult. And there's still time to test your system before New Year's Eve. Here's one last rundown of what to do and where to check to make sure your computer's ready:

Starting out: Most computer and software companies have posted Y2K information and fixes on their Web sites. Go to those first, starting with the maker of your computer. It may give a green light to the basic operations of all models made after a certain date. Experts say most home PCs will work New Year's Day, though users may have to manually correct dates.

After that, a must-visit for anyone using a Windows or DOS-based computer is Microsoft Corp.'s Y2K page at www.microsoft.com/y2k/. The NSTL test lab (www.nstl.com) provides information, links to manufacturers' Web sites and a free Y2K software-testing tool. Another is computer magazine publisher Ziff-Davis at www.zdnet.com/zdhelp/filters/y2k/.

Apple Computer says its operating system is fine, but Mac users still need to check on their software applications to make sure they are Y2K-ready.

The problem: Some older PCs and software read dates as only two numbers (this year would be 99). That's worked so far. But on Jan. 1, when the numbers roll to 00, some older machines will interpret it as 1900. For most home users, that 100-year error may mean some inconvenience, with some files and calendar programs, for example, having incorrect dates.

What to check: A PC tracks dates in three places: (1) The CMOS Hardware Real Time Clock (RTC), which maintains a two-digit year. (2) The Basic Input/Output System (BIOS), which is the software that controls the computer's motherboard. The BIOS gets the two-digit year from the CMOS RTC and appends a pair of century digits. (3) The operating system (such as Windows or DOS), which picks up the date from the BIOS software and passes it along to most software programs.

Most PCs built before 1996 will have BIOS that will roll back in time from 12/31/1999 to 1/1/1900. Older versions of Windows, including Windows 3.1, will set the year to 1980 (the first year of DOS.)

If your PC thinks it is Jan. 1, 1980, when you start it on New Year's Day, reset the date correctly through Windows (double-click the clock or go to Control Panel, then Date/Time).

On some older computers, however, the BIOS will revert to the old, incorrect setting every time you boot up. If that happens, the BIOS software will need to be updated. Contact the BIOS vendor. Information on the BIOS normally flashes on the screen when the computer boots up.

Newer computers are in better shape. Even if there is a problem, Windows 98, Windows NT 3.51(sp5), Windows NT 4.0 and the upcoming Windows 2000 (NT 5.0) will recognize 1900 as an error and automatically will set the date to 2000.

A careful test: To determine whether your PC will roll correctly into 2000, double-click the clock in Windows or go to Control Panel, then Date/Time. Set the time to 11:59 p.m. 12/31/1999, shut down and then reboot after waiting 5 minutes. But performing this test isn't risk-free. Make sure you disable any software that is time-sensitive (scheduling software, for example) before doing this test. And be aware that this may cause problems with software (leased or demo) that has time limits. The test could trigger the software to expire and be permanently disabled. If you're squeamish about simulating midnight on New Year's Eve, it might be best to wait for the real thing to come along.

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