Living on tech time

Posted: Thursday, May 08, 2008

I knew something was a bit off when I awoke to a different sound. Instead of hearing the usual transitional music that proceeds the national news, I was hearing the local radio report. The clock said 6:00 AM. Hmm.

The next day I hurriedly ran up the stairs to wake up my son, fearing he was running late. My watch said 7:14 AM, but his clock read 7:00, the alarm going off as I entered the room. It seemed that it was only a couple of days ago the clock was accurate.

The mystery was solved when I heard, the following morning, the radio announcers commenting about the slow clocks that folks in Juneau were encountering as a result of reduced power being delivered to households. It reminded me that we need a reliable source to track time, such as our battery-operated wrist watches.

Are computers reliable timekeepers? Well, your cell phone is a good place to start. It is, in essence, a portable computer. It directly obtains its clock setting from the cellular service provider, and the provider's central server obtains it's setting from one of many atomic clocks spread throughout the world.

Your computer can actually work the same way. I say "can" because not everyone's computer has its clock set up the same way. Windows Vista implicitly expects to use an atomic clock. Windows XP usually does, but you need to double-check to be sure. With Windows XP there is a possibility that your computer's clock might be affected by inadequate power. I say "might" because computer clocks do not run directly from the AC power as the electronic clocks in your bedroom, microwave or stove, but from oscillating quartz crystals charged by coin cell batteries in the event there is either reduced or cut-off power. For this reason, your computer's clock is not as sensitive to power reduction.

Because computers are almost always plugged in, they usually have a small trickle charge going through the system which keeps the clock accurate. However, a computer's internal clock can slow down if the coin-cell battery begins to die and the computer is unplugged from the wall outlet.

Windows Vista has considerably advanced from Windows XP when it comes to messing with clock settings, giving users more customizing features. For Windows XP, there is only one setting for all users.

In both operating systems, use "Date and Time" from the control panel to establish clock settings. Once there, you will notice that there is a place to establish "Internet Time." A pull-down list is provided, starting with Microsoft's own universal clock. Selecting one of these and applying the changed settings will synchronize your computer's clock to the central site. With "Internet Time" functioning, your clock is automatically updated each time the computer is connected to the Internet.

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