New toolkits help you prepare for Y2K
August 23, 1999
by Stan Miastkowski
(IDG) -- By now, everyone who watches TV or reads a newspaper must be sick and tired of Year-2000-scare stories. But as the old saw goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and it does make sense to check out your PC before New Year's Day rolls around. As we march closer to the new millennium, the trickle of Y2K-compliance utilities and toolkits is becoming a flood. Two of the latest packages designed for stand-alone PCs -- Centennial Pro Lite 2000 ($39.95) and Viasoft's OnMark 2000 Assess ($49.95) -- debuted too late to be included in PC World's "Control your Y2K chaos" roundup (see link below).
Both packages are relatively inexpensive solutions and take a sensible approach to probing your PC for Y2K compliance, checking the "big three" areas where Y2K problems can fester: the system BIOS, individual applications, and data files. Surprisingly, though, they offered slightly different assessments of my PC's Y2K readiness.
Get your BIOS in line
I tested both toolkits on a three-year-old generic PC equipped with a Pentium-233 processor and Windows 98. Both packages installed easily and quickly, without making any changes to the Windows system files or registry. Centennial Pro Lite 2000 comes with a 30-page printed manual; OnMark 2000 Assess's manual is a 146-page Adobe Acrobat file included on the CD-ROM.
Both programs will run BIOS, application, and data tests individually or in a batch. And both took about 10 minutes to run all tests on my PC (your time will vary depending on the applications and data you have).
I started with the BIOS test. From the start, the two programs differed on whether or not my BIOS was Y2K compliant. Several months ago, I downloaded and installed a new BIOS that the motherboard maker said would make my system Y2K-compliant. Centennial Pro Lite confirmed that this BIOS was indeed Y2K compliant, but OnMark 2000 said it wasn't and offered to install a small utility in the PC's config.sys file to take care of the problem. (Centennial Pro will do the same if it deems your BIOS to be non-compliant.) Because any driver loaded in the config.sys file takes up system resources -- and I trust my motherboard vendor -- I decided not to load the driver. As a general rule, the first line of defense for Y2K BIOS problems is to get the latest version for your system directly from the vendor. Unless you have relatively old equipment, you can use software to "flash" update your BIOS.
Both Centennial Pro Lite and OnMark 2000 Assess also test to make sure the Windows date format is set at four digits (2000) instead of two (00). This setting has caused great confusion -- not to mention fear and paranoia. Untrue claims that Windows will crash on January 1, 2000, if you haven't set your date format to four digits proliferate on the Internet. In reality, the date setting affects only how dates are displayed on the screen; it has nothing to do with how they're stored internally or how dates are calculated.
Even so, it's not a bad idea to alter this setting. Centennial Pro Lite allows you to make the change automatically by clicking on an icon; OnMark 2000 takes you to the Control Panel settings, where you make the change manually. (If you want to make the change now, simply go to Start/Settings/Control Panel/Regional Settings/Date.)
Y2K compliance for individual applications is a murky area. Basically, it's a matter of trust. If the software makers say their programs are compliant, you'll have to take their word for it... and cross your fingers.
Neither Centennial Pro Lite nor OnMark 2000 Assess offers a foolproof test for application compliance. Centennial Pro Lite generates a list of all the applications you're running; you can then click on any application on the list and the utility will fire up your browser and take you to Centennial's Web site. There, you'll get a list of links to each software vendor's home and Y2K pages.
OnMark 2000 uses a built-in Y2K compliance database to help you identify potential problems. After scanning your PC, it puts your applications into one of three categories: applications with known Y2K problems, applications whose compliance status is unknown, and applications deemed by their manufacturers to be fully Y2K compliant. This method proved to be unreliable, however: Of the two dozen or so applications on my PC, most fell into the "unknown compliance" area -- including, strangely, the OnMark 2000 utility itself.
To discover more about applications of unknown compliance, you can click a link that takes you to the OnMark Web site, which hosts an updated database of compliance information and manufacturer links. But unlike Centennial, OnMark doesn't give you a list that matches your applications; you'll have to search for each application.
Dirt in your data
For most of us, the big Y2K question is the compliance status of our precious data files. Spreadsheets, with their extensive date-based calculations, tend to harbor the biggest potential problems. Because my personal spreadsheets tend to be simple, I used the fairly complex 1-2-3 and Microsoft Excel spreadsheets in the PC WorldBench test suite to evaluate these utilities.
After running a data scan, Centennial Pro Lite produces a brief report on the files found and the problems encountered, presented in an easy-to-interpret checklist format. To fix problems, you click Open File and the program displays the file with information about what needs to be changed. You have to make the changes manually, but most minor problems -- such as the two-digit date-format error the scan uncovered in a mortgage calculation sheet -- won't take long to fix.
OnMark 2000 Assess produces an almost painfully detailed report. My report, for example, said that PC WorldBench's 1-2-3 annuity spreadsheet contained 15,113 "date issues." Fortunately, that mind-boggling figure proved misleading: OnMark propagates spreadsheets while scanning, essentially testing all possible date permutations and revealing all potential conflicts. When I popped into the program's wizard-based Fix utility, it turned out there were only seven cells in the sheet that needed to be changed -- essentially what Centennial found.
The Fix wizard in OnMark 2000 works in both manual and automatic modes. Manual mode is much like Centennial's approach, telling you where changes need to be made and leaving you to make them. In automatic mode, the program does it all for you, and creates a detailed log of changes made
Bring on the millennium
Both Centennial Pro Lite 2000 and OnMark 2000 Assess are well-designed and comprehensive Y2K toolkits. Except for their disagreement over my PC's BIOS compatibility, they generally identified the same potential Y2K problems.
Still, I favor Centennial Pro Lite, the lower-cost package, for its cleaner interface, well-formatted reports, and quicker links to specific information on application compliance. If you have lots of complex spreadsheets sitting on your PC, though, OnMark 2000 might be the best choice -- its automatic-fix utility can save time.
Keep in mind that no utility can provide absolute assurance of protection against all potential Y2K problems. You still need a reliable backup -- preferably of your entire system, but at least of your essential data.
You can find free Y2K utilities, but most perform only basic tests. So for relative peace of mind, it's worth investing in one of these packages or choosing from one of the 15 utilities in our recent roundup (see "Control your Y2K chaos," link below).
Here comes the official Y2K villain
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