October 11, 1999

By Karen Kenworthy


It's About Time

As clever as they are, many computers don't know what time it is. All PCs have a built-in electronic clock and calendar. But like the watch on your wrist and the clock on your wall, most computer clocks are off by a few seconds or minutes. Others computer clocks are off by one or more hours, and a few computers are so confused they don't even know what day it is.

Errors of one or more hours are often caused by the arrival or departure of daylight savings time and other time zone related errors. More than one computer mistakenly believes it resides in the Pacific Time zone, thanks to Windows' habit of defaulting to Bill Gates' time zone when first installed.

A few computer clocks think they are still in the land of their birth (often Asia), even after moving half a world away. The result can be an error of 12 hours or even more. And when the battery that powers your computer's clock fails, your computer may conclude today is the dawning of the personal computer age. That's because, when first energized, many computer clocks default to Midnight, January 1st, 1980, a few months before the release of the original IBM PC.

Even if once set correctly, computer clocks inevitably drift away from the correct time due to the accumulation of small errors in their timekeeping. As a result, your computer's sense of time is probably wrong.

To get your computer on time, first double-check its current time zone, date and time settings. If the time is displayed at the right-hand end of your Windows taskbar, double-click your mouse there. If not, double- click the Date/Time icon in your computer's Control Panel. When you see the Date/Time Properties dialog, you'll see your computer's current settings and be able to make changes.

Pay special attention to the time's AM/PM indication, and your time zone. You'll also see a checkbox labeled "Automatically adjust clock for daylight saving changes". If you place a checkmark here, your computer will automatically adjust its clock at 2 a.m., on the first and last day of daylight savings time. If your computer isn't running when the official time change occurs, your computer will make the adjustment the first time you run Windows after the change.

To stay on time, you can repeat this procedure every day. But that wouldn't be the Power Tool way. Windows doesn't come with any time synchronization software. But fortunately several good, and free, programs are available.

All rely on public "timeservers", incredibly accurate atomic clocks operated by organizations such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST, formerly known as the National Bureau of Standards), and the U. S. Naval Observatory. These servers are connected to the Internet, and will reveal the correct date and time, free of charge, to any program that asks.

Programs such as AboutTime and Dimension 4 do the asking. You can place them in your Startup folder, and configure them to adjust your clock once each time you start Windows. Or they can reside in Windows's system tray, that group of tiny icons at the right-hand end of your taskbar. There, the programs can adjust your computer's clock as often as you like, on a regular schedule.

AboutTime was written by Paul Lutus, and can be downloaded from http://www.arachnoid.com/abouttime/index.html. Dimension 4 was written by Rob Chambers, and is available at http://www.thinkman.com/dimension4/index.html. Both programs include a list of public timeservers. And they can also be asked to rely on a more local server such as your corporate network's server, or that of your ISP. And in the best Power Tool tradition, both programs are free.

You can even run a timeserver yourself. The programs I mentioned pass along their notion of the time to other programs that ask. Neither fully supports the Internet standard Simple Network Time Protocol (SNTP), but both work well with other copies of themselves. And AboutTime's implementation of SNTP is complete enough that it will communicate with many other third-party clients.

If you do decide to operate a timeserver, be sure to calibrate your atomic clock regularly. And if you don't have an atomic clock, build one. Or just make sure your timeserver periodically connects to one of the public atomic clock, to ensure it always reports the correct time.

FTP Downloads

Recently, some companies have begun to block employees' access to web sites from office computers. As a result, some readers have asked if my programs can be downloaded from a public FTP (File Transfer Protocol) site. Fortunately, the answer is yes.

All my programs and source code files are available at ftp://ftp.karenware.com, my public FTP site. Windows comes with two programs that allow you to visit FTP sites and download their files. One, FTP.EXE, is a command line program in your \Windows directory. It works well if you already know the standard FTP commands such as OPEN and CD.

The other is Microsoft Internet Explorer (MSIE). Though it's most often used to connect to web sites, MSIE can connect to FTP sites too, even if web site access is being blocked. Best of all, you don't need to know FTP commands to use MSIE. Just click on a directory's name to see its contents. Click on a file to download a copy of your very own.

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