With fewer than 70 days left before Y2K's malfunction junction, experts agree that many home PC users are confused about what to do.
"I think there's a large proportion of them out there that really haven't addressed it," says Dave Cunningham, program manager for Dell Computer's Year 2000 Worldwide program, who says ordinary non-techies can solve this themselves.
"They have full capability to affect the outcome for their own PC and their data," Mr. Cunningham says. "But they really need to check their computer."
If you avoid checking and fixing your older computer's Y2K flaws, the consequences can range from tainted data to total crash. Y2K computer expert Mike Wendland -- whose 20-page booklet, Y2K: Help for Your Home PC, is available free from Zip drive-maker Iomega Corp. (call (888) 233-8566) -- warns of "disappearing e-mails and computer files" and "wrong dates on your electronic checkbook register." He advises backing up all important data even before testing for Y2K readiness.
Mr. Cunningham reports that in testing older systems for Y2K outcomes, Dell and other manufacturers found some crashed and irreparably corrupted hard drives in rare cases. More typically, "computers simply aren't going to boot up," he forecasts. "But that's probably the least of the problems. If that occurs, you are kind of safe because it hasn't messed up any of your data."
Worst-case scenario? "The date has not rolled over, but the system boots up and runs fine anyway," he explains. "Your financial spreadsheets or something like that are using an incorrect date for calculations, and you have no idea it's doing this."
Which computers are at risk? The rule of thumb is that if your home computer is older than two years, there's a good chance it's not compliant with industry standards for making a trouble-free Y2K transition. (Macintosh computers are not affected.) If it's older than three years, you should bet on it not celebrating on New Year's Day.
But the only way to know is to contact the manufacturer for its compliance statement on your specific computer. Determine your computer's brand, model and processor speed, then go to your manufacturer's Y2K Web page. Most provide Y2K fixes for systems that aren't up to snuff -- usually a free software utility "patch," a BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) upgrade or both.
My chop shop-built computer is what the industry calls "a white box," one that defies manufacturer identification. So I went directly to the best catch-all Y2K site online: The PC Y2000 Alliance (http://www.pcy2000.org), created in May by nine of the world's leading manufacturers and technology suppliers, from Acer to Symantec.
My system failed the tests. In search of a cheap cure, I visited several more Y2K test sites, including PC Magazine's (http://www.zdnet.com/pcmag/special/y2k), which offers a wealth of guidance and another free compliance test. I also discovered a dizzying number of sites that offer free Y2K testing but charge for the fixes.
"Beware of those who offer you a free test but want to sell you a solution," Mr. Cunningham says. "In many cases, the test will lead you to believe that you have a problem when you really don't. ... I can take some of these tests and flunk a brand new computer on them. There are some vendors who are trying to make a quick buck off of this stuff. They're playing on confusion and fear."
Once you download the patches or BIOS upgrade, there may be more work to do. To be Y2K compliant, home PC users must also upgrade or replace their date-dependent software and inspect their databases for bugs as well.
Mr. Cunningham says your computer may operate even with these flaws, but once you've straightened out your hardware, you might as well visit Microsoft's Year 2000 Readiness Disclosure & Resource Center (http://www.microsoft.com/technet/year2k) to trouble-shoot your software. Most prone to problems: data-based programs, money-management programs and spreadsheets.
"There are fixes that even search your data, but the average home user wouldn't need that," says Mr. Cunningham. He recommends eliminating old and unnecessary databases rather than fixing them. "With the home consumer, this isn't going to be a catastrophe in most cases."