If one were to listen to the doom merchants then IT's day of reckoning is less than 28 months away and the PC is not immune. The BIOS chips on many PCs cannot cope with the Year 2000 roll-over since they only store the last two digits of a date.
A PC with a non-Year 2000 complaint BIOS will appear to work as normal when the year changes. However, when the machine is rebooted, since it does not store the "20", the machine assumes the year is 0000. On a PC the BIOS software is hardwired to convert this year into 01/01/1980.
The real danger of computers failing on this momentous occasion has spawned a huge industry of Year 2000 compliance testing software. This review examines four software packages at the bottom end of the price scale for testing Year 2000 compliance of PC hardware. It also checks out BIOS and software upgrades to fix non-compliant BIOSs.
The software packages covered are Fprint 2000, Prove It, Millennium Buster 1 and 2 and Willit - a freeware utility available on the web. The intention was to run the different pieces of software on multiple computers and determine how they performed, the types of tests they carried out, and how consistent they were in comparison to each other.
Installation of all the packages was simply a case of following the prompts.
Fprint 2000, distributed on CD-ROM, was slightly more complicated because it involved having to copy the program on to a master disk This was achieved with the MS-DOS disk copy utility. Willit was simply copied from machine to machine and executed. Installation of Prove It and Millennium Buster was straightforward. These programs were distributed as run-once products, making them less attractive for sites where large number of PCs need testing.
However, Millennium Buster is available as a server option when large numbers of machines need testing.
All of the programs tested the CMOS Real Time Clock (RTC) and the BIOS by setting the date forward to 31/12/1999 and then advancing until 01/01/2000 was reached. This forced the BIOS and clock to set a date into the Year 2000. The operating system was then tested to see if it would cope with the 2000 tick over. Then the BIOS and clock were retested by simply setting the date into the next century and seeing whether it would move forward safely. The final test was to look at leap year dates and see how they were handled. During the tests the machines were rebooted at least twice.
The reason for rebooting the computers was to test how the information was actually being stored. The only accurate version of the date on a PC is that stored by the CMOS RTC. When the BIOS checks the date and when the operating system displays it to you, it does so by checking the CMOS RTC, then calculating the date from its own baseline which, on the machines tested, varied between 01/01/1980 and 01/01/1984.
The results, instead of being consistent, varied from package to package.
Fprint 2000 failed all of my hardware, including two machines using Intel motherboards that were delivered less than three months ago. Millennium Buster 1 was only tested on a Paradise Pentium 166 tower that was installed as a server and passed it with no problems, as did Prove It. Willit, like Fprint 2000, failed all the machines tested.
I was surprised to see machines passed with one package but failed by another. They were, after all, carrying out the same set of basic tests.
As a quick and easy test I ran the clocks forward on the PCs that had given inconsistent results and allowed the machines to tick over into the Year 2000. I then rebooted to reset the date. When they restarted the date was set to 01/01/1984 in some cases and 01/01/1980 in others.
From the results of this simple test of Year 2000 BIOS compliance, it seemed that two of the packages - Millennium Buster and Prove It - had failed to detect a problem. Not a good sign, especially given that companies could be betting their businesses on the fact that their machines would be functioning correctly when they switched on their PCs after New Year's day 2000. Worse, curious to track down why the Millennium Buster and Prove It tests were not giving the correct results, I called their respective technical support lines and left several voicemail messages, but no one returned my call.
So, should you rush out and purchase any of the Year 2000 software packages?
Personally, I am very wary of these packages that test the PC BIOS for Year 2000 compliance. Rather than purchase such software, it is possible to carry out a crude test by simply setting the clock forward to 31 December 1999 and observing what happens when you reach the 2000 mark. Don't forget to reboot the computers and then see how the date is portrayed.
Having determined that some of the machines tested genuinely failed Year 2000 compliance, the next step was to fix the BIOS. This can be achieved either in software or by replacing the BIOS.
Of the four packages reviewed, Millennium Buster 2 was the only one to offer a software fix for the BIOS problem. Basically, Millennium Buster includes a little software program which intercepts accesses to the date functions and formats it as a corrected, four-digit date.
When I used Millennium Buster 2 on my computer I ended up with some serious problems. Somehow, Millennium Buster 2 was setting the receipt of my Email from MSN to 1981, causing it to appear out of sequence in Outlook.
Replacing the BIOS is a more permanent solution but this does involve screwing the back off the PC and purchasing a new BIOS chip.
When buying a BIOS upgrade it is worth checking out the web sites of several of the BIOS resellers. Some offer shareware diagnostic BIOS software which collect statistics about the BIOS and test whether it is Year 2000 safe. When purchasing a new BIOS, you should ensure that the supplier attempts to match your motherboard with the new BIOS. This will reduce the risk of upgrade catastrophes such as the loss of hard drive tables.
Different BIOS vendors have different approaches to BIOS upgrades. AMI, for example, states that any BIOS dated after 15 July 1995 will deal with the Year 2000 without any problems. Any previous versions of their BIOS can only be updated via the OEM which shipped the BIOS. Award takes a different view and uses flash BIOS upgrades via its own program.
This allows you to update your BIOS as necessary, although you will need to purchase the necessary upgrade through Unicore. Another option is to use a software BIOS such as the Mr BIOS which is regularly updated and has a large feature list which makes it an attractive proposition for the future.
Flash or software upgrades can vary from around three minutes to five minutes. If you need to replace the BIOS chips, then you will need a chip remover and the whole job should take 10 minutes. The cost of a new BIOS chip varies, but prices range from $40 (u25) to $70.
When a faulty machine is found, the next question is how to correct the BIOS. If it were my money, given the low cost of BIOS chips, I would upgrade the BIOS rather than circumnavigate the problem with a software fix.
You should also consider how many of your organisation's machines are likely to be in use by the time twe reach the millennium. Of those likely to be in use, check the roles they will be fulfilling. End user machines, for example, are likely to be turned off at the crucial time and should operate without any problems when turned on again, but if they are your network servers, then you might want to protect yourself by ensuring the BIOS has been upgraded.
Prove It: 0990 991999
Millennium Buster 1 and 2: 01262 601006
Fprint 2000: 0181 563 2359
American Megatrends: www.ami.com
- Setting PC Click manually: simple test, but remember to reboot machine, to check date is being stored correctly
- New Year 2000 compliant BIOS: best option, but check that the new BIOS is compatible with your hardware
- BIOS Test Software: beware, software to test PC BIOSs can give inconsistent results
- Fix BIOS in software: watch out, this software can affect other applications on the PC.
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