It's time: If you've put off getting your PC ready for Y2K, you'd better get serious about protecting yourself against the millennium bug. The good news - there's plenty of help available.

November 29, 1999|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

There are 33 days left until the year 2000 and you're thinking: Do I really need to pull myself from the couch and deal with this Y2K thing on my home computer today?

While it's unlikely your machine, new or old, will croak on New Year's Day, that doesn't mean you'll escape scot-free. Your PC could have issues, my friend. Unless you resolve them, you may not be the only one to suffer a hangover on Jan. 1.

Actually, your procrastination has paid off. There are more Y2K resources out there than ever before. This month, for example, Microsoft launched a 30-minute video titled "Is Your Computer Prepared for the Year 2000?," available from Blockbuster Video outlets. The tape comes with a free CD-ROM stuffed with Y2K software updates and other useful information.

More good tidings: It's only the computer that needs your attention. You need not worry about monitors, keyboards or pointers. PalmPilots and other hand-held gadgets are similarly immune. Macintosh owners can skip most of this, too: Apple says its recent models are safe until A.D. 29940 (although working antiques like the Apple II may not be so bulletproof).

But if you use a PC, you'll want to scope out three potential Y2K trouble spots: hardware, software, and personal data files.

"There is no 'silver bullet' solution to the Y2K issue," says Bill Nye, television's popular "Science Guy" and host of the new Microsoft video. "But there are simple steps that consumers can follow to test and prepare their home PCs."

First step, the hardware.

Ever wonder how your PC tells time? Deep inside, a battery-powered microchip called the Real Time Clock ticks away even when the power is off. When you boot up your machine, this chip feeds the time and date to a built-in software program called the BIOS, or Basic Input Output System.

Think of the BIOS as the primitive brain of your computer. It's the first bit of software to spring to life. Among its many housekeeping duties is handing off the time and date from the Real Time Clock to operating system software such as DOS or Windows. These, in turn, pass along this info to higher-level programs such as Intuit's Quicken or Microsoft Outlook.

The upshot: If your BIOS loses track of time, so will everything else on your PC.

And that's exactly what happens when the Y2K bug strikes.

The Real Time Clock was designed to track the year using two digits. Today, for instance, it reads "99" for 1999. After Jan. 1, it will flip to "00". While the BIOS inside newer computers recognizes 00 as the year 2000, some older machines may not. You may wake up and find it's 1900. Happy new year, McFly.

How do you know if you've got a rotten BIOS?

First, check with your computer manufacturer, and be prepared to hand over your PC's model and serial numbers. To save time, visit the PC Year 2000 Alliance (www. pcy2000.org), an online Y2K clearinghouse with links to every major computer and BIOS maker.

In addition, computer makers suggest you test your computer's internal clocks using a software utility. Norton 2000 BIOS Test and Check 2000 Lite are both free and easy to use. Grab them at their publishers' Web sites (see the resource box at the end of this article).

If your computer flunks the test, it's time to take action.

First, see if your old BIOS can be upgraded through software, then swap the old one for a new one. This operation sounds scarier than it actually is, and your computer maker can walk you through it. Otherwise, pick up software designed to work around a bad BIOS. Two of the best commercial products are Check 2000 PC Deluxe (Greenwich Mean Time, $60) and Norton 2000 (Symantec, $50). These will not only test and fix your BIOS, but also ferret out Y2K problems in your software and personal files.

And that's where things start to get tricky.

The most important software on your computer is the operating system. Unix, Linux and other industrial-strength operating systems are Y2K ready. But MS-DOS and Microsoft Windows-- the software that runs the vast majority of home PCs -- are not.

To prep Windows and other Microsoft software for the new year, visit the company's online Year 2000 resource center and download its Y2K updates. Better yet, avoid tedious Internet delays by ringing up Microsoft and requesting a copy of its free Year 2000 Resource CD (888-673-8925).

This disc contains year 2000 updates for Windows 95, 98, and NT, as well as fixes for many other popular Microsoft software products. To make sure you've covered everything, run the included Product Analyzer, which will inventory every piece of Microsoft software on your machine and let you know whether it's Y2K vulnerable. If you're still clinging to MS-DOS or Windows 3.1, get over it: There's no update for these relics.

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