Introducing the new A+ exams

Beginning on Jan. 31, 2001, the A+ exams are changing. For a few months you'll get to choose which one you want to take. In this Daily Drill Down, Faithe Wempen explains the changes you'll have to consider.

Now is a great time to be thinking about taking the A+ exams because the next several months provide a unique window of opportunity. New versions of the exams will be released on Jan. 31, 2001, but the current versions will also be available until March 30, 2001. That means you can pick the tests for which you are most prepared. If you have been studying for the A+ for a while but haven’t quite gotten around to taking the tests, this Daily Drill Down can help you decide whether to accelerate your study and test now or wait until Jan. 31, 2001 and take the new versions.

Something old, something new
To be A+ certified, you must pass two exams: one on hardware and one on operating systems. These exams are developed and administered by a company called CompTIA. Each exam costs about $128, but discounts are sometimes available through test prep centers.

The current exams were introduced in July 1998. To pass, you need to score at least 65% on the hardware exam (Core Hardware), and 66% on the operating systems exam (DOS/Windows). The Core exam consists of 69 questions, while the OS exam contains 70 questions. You have 150 minutes (2 1/2 hours) to complete each exam. That’s what you’re up against if you choose to take the current exam set (before March 30, 2001).

The exams are changing because technology is changing. Both hardware and software support are different now than they were in 1998 when the current A+ exam was created. For example, back in 1998, most technicians supported a mixture of systems, including Windows 95, Windows 3.1, and MS-DOS. Today, Windows 98/Me and Windows NT/2000 are the standard OSs. On the hardware side, networks were much less important in 1998 than they are today, and Plug and Play wasn’t necessarily assumed on every system. The new A+ exam tests technicians on the skills they need to perform their job duties in today’s support environment.

The new exams’ specifications are still up in the air. CompTIA has not yet announced the number of questions, minimum passing scores, or time limits. Those decisions will be made as a result of the beta tests going on from Nov. 22 through Dec. 8, 2000, and posted on the CompTIA Web site prior to Jan. 31, 2001. (Information about participating in the beta program can be found at the CompTIA Web site.) CompTIA is doing this to be fair to test-takers; they’ll grade the beta exams on a curve and then decide from that data how hard the beta test was and what a fair passing score might be.

Changes to the Core Hardware exam
Keep in mind that CompTIA will design the final version of the updated A+ exam after beta testing is finished. The information presented in this Daily Drill Down is based on CompTIA’s outline of the new exam’s objectives and should be reasonably close to the final version, but you’ll want to check these exam blueprints as test time approaches (use the links provided at the end of this Daily Drill Down). The beta for the new Core Hardware exam is similar to the current one but has added questions about new technologies. The breakdown of questions from various categories (which CompTIA calls “domains”) remains similar in the beta exams, but there are some minor shifts. For example, networking is now weighted more heavily and operating system installation and configuration less so. Table 1 shows the breakdown for the current versus new exams.

Table 1
Domain Current Exam New Exam
Installing, Configuration and Upgrading 30% 30% (no change)
Diagnosing and Troubleshooting 20% 25% (+5%)
Preventive Maintenance 10% 5% (-5%)
Motherboards/Processors/Memory 10% 15% (+5%)
Printers 10% 10% (no change)
Basic Networking 5% 15% (+10%)
Portable Systems 5% None (-5%)
Customer Satisfaction 10% None (-10%)
Core Hardware exam domains

Don’t let the fact that the Portable Systems section has been removed from the Core Hardware exam lead you to believe that you don’t have to know about supporting portables anymore; those objectives have simply been combined with the first two categories. Here’s a category-by-category breakdown of what to expect if you choose the new exams.

Hardware installation, Configuration, and Upgrading
Questions have been added about USB, infrared, IEEE-1284, and IEEE-1394 ports, as well as USB peripherals and hubs. Make sure you know the differences between USB and IEEE-1394 (FireWire) and the advantages/disadvantages of using each for devices that require local high-speed connection to the PC. (TechProGuild resources about these and other specifications are listed at the end of this Daily Drill Down.)

Diagnosing and Troubleshooting
DVD and CD-R have been added. Make sure you understand how to install and configure a DVD drive and MPEG decoder card and how CD-R and CD-RW drives work.

Preventive Maintenance
There are no significant changes.

You still need to know the characteristics of popular CPUs, but you’ll need to study up on the latest CPU types, their slots and sockets, voltages, and speeds. You should also know about RIMM and SDRAM, two newer types of memory, and the latest AGP and USB buses. In addition, you should understand Plug and Play BIOS operations and know the various types of IDE and SCSI adaptors.

Printer technology has not changed appreciably, but there are now two new ways of connecting to a printer, namely USB and infrared. You should know the advantages of USB printer connections and understand the advantages and limitations of infrared.

Basic Networking
Even though Ethernet is still the dominant network technology, there are now new alternatives for home and small offices. Study up on wireless networking and network connections that use household phone lines, and familiarize yourself with network adapter features.

Changes to the Operating System Technologies exam
The DOS/Windows exam has been renamed OS Technologies in the new exam, reflecting the fact that DOS is no longer a part of the average technician’s work. The OS Technologies exam covers two main operating systems: the Windows 9x platform (Windows 95, 98) and the Windows NT platform (NT 4.0 and 2000). Windows Millennium Edition (Me) is not covered, as it came out while the new exam was being developed. The Windows NT/2000 questions focus primarily on 2000. There are still no Linux or UNIX questions.

Table 2 shows the overall breakdown of changes to the beta version of the new exam. Networking is now much more important, and the Memory Management section has been eliminated. The exam also minimizes initial setup (installation, configuration, and so on) and places increased emphasis on troubleshooting.

Table 2
Domain Current Exam New Exam
Function, Structure, Operation, and File Management
(OS Fundamentals)
30% 30% (no change)
Memory Management 10% None (-10%)
Installation, Configuration, and Upgrading 30% 15% (-15%)
Diagnosing and Troubleshooting 20% 40% (+20%)
Networks 10% 15% (+5%)
DOS/Windows (OS Technologies) exam domains

The following sections cover what to expect in each category. I’ll cover these changes more in detail than I did with the hardware exam changes, because these changes are more far-reaching.

Operating System Fundamentals
You no longer need to know about DOS and Windows 3.1. That means you can forget about all those old memory optimization tricks like running MEMMAKER and SMARTDRV, using LOADHIGH and DEVICEHIGH in Config.sys and Autoexec.bat. The current exam has a separate section on memory management, but the new exam omits this section, choosing instead to combine a few basic questions about memory into this section on OS fundamentals. However, you should still know the basic command prompt procedures and their syntax, such as DIR, ATTRIB, VER, MEM, COPY, and SETVER. You are also expected to know how to create a startup disk, boot from it, and work your way around a crippled system using MS-DOS commands.

The current exam requires knowledge of Windows 95. This has been expanded to Windows 9x, which includes both Windows 95 and Windows 98. It also now covers Windows 2000, so you should know the differences between the two platforms, including the major system files and how they are used in each OS. For example, make sure you know how Windows 9x uses Win.ini to manage settings for older Windows-based programs and that the Registry consists of System.dat and User.dat.

Pop quiz
Here’s a quick listing of the major system files in Windows 9x. How many of these can you explain?
  • Io.sys
  • Win.ini
  • User.dat
  • Sysedit
  • System.ini
  • Msconfig
  • Regedit.exe
  • System.dat

Can you explain the purpose of each of these Windows 2000 system files and programs?
  • Boot.ini
  • Run cmd
  • Ntbootdd.sys

If you’re not familiar with all of these, it’s time to start studying.

The new exam also expects you to know about creating, viewing, and managing files, directories, and disks in both Windows 9x and 2000. Specific topics may include setting file attributes, naming files, backing up and restoring, and partitioning and formatting. You should know the various file systems available for use (such as FAT16, FAT32, NTFS4, NTFS5, and HPFS) and which operating systems support which file systems.

The new exam also covers various Windows-based utilities, such as these commonly used ones:
  • Scandisk.exe (ScanDisk)
  • Device Manager
  • System Manager
  • Computer Manager
  • Msconfig.exe (System Configuration Utility)
  • Regedit.exe (Registry Editor)
  • Regedt32.exe (32 bit Registry Editor)
  • Attrib.exe
  • Extract.exe
  • Defrag.exe (Disk Defragmenter)
  • (MS-DOS Editor)
  • Fdisk.exe (Fixed Disk Setup Program)
  • Sysedit.exe (System Editor)
  • Wscript.exe (Windows Script Host Settings)
  • Hwinfo.exe
  • Asd.exe (Automatic Skip Driver)
  • Cvt1.exe (Drive Converter)

Most utilities have a “friendly name” that’s different from the filename for the program (such as Drive Converter for Cvt1.exe). Make sure you know both names, because the exam could use either one or both.

Installation, Configuration, and Upgrading
You no longer need to know how to install DOS and Windows 3.1; you should instead know how to install Windows 9x and Windows 2000. Much of the base-level setup is similar for any operating system on a PC, however; so you will still need to know how to use programs like FDISK and FORMAT from a command prompt. You should also know the various phases of the setup process (text-based versus GUI) and the text logs generated during the setup process (Setuplog.txt and Detlog.txt).

Similarly, you no longer need to know how to upgrade a PC from DOS or Windows 3.x to Windows 95; instead you should know how to go from Windows 95 to 98, from NT 4.0 to Windows 2000, and from Windows 9x to Windows 2000. You should also know how to dual-boot Windows 9x with Windows NT 4.0 or Windows 2000.

Learn the basic boot sequence for each operating system (9x and 2000), how to make a startup disk, how to start in Safe mode, and how to start in MS-DOS mode. For Windows 2000, you should know about NTLDR (NT Loader) and Boot.ini and how to make an ERD (Emergency Repair Disk).

You no longer need to know how to install device drivers in Windows 3.x; Plug and Play is now assumed. (You don’t need to study configuring hardware in Windows NT 4, which lacked Plug and Play capability.) You should know how to manually change a device’s resource assignments in Device Manager, bypassing the Plug and Play assignments, in both Windows 9x and Windows 2000.

Diagnosing and Troubleshooting
The basic objectives are the same as in the current exam, but the scope of required knowledge has changed to include the newer operating systems. Make sure you can identify and troubleshoot all kinds of errors in Windows, including errors like missing driver files, corrupt data, failing hardware, and resource conflicts. The new exam objectives specifically mention SCSI startup errors and NT boot issues.

The new exam adds several questions on computer viruses. You should know what a virus is, how it can potentially affect a PC, and what it can and can’t do. For example, you should know that viruses cannot attach themselves to data files (except data files that can contain macros) and cannot damage hardware (except those that can rewrite the flash BIOS on a motherboard). You should also understand how antivirus programs work, what their limitations are, and how to get updates for them.

Networking is more important today than it was a few years ago, and the new exam reflects this. Even the casual home user can now have network capabilities inexpensively and easily. You should know all the basics about conventional networking, of course, such as configuring Windows for network usage and sharing files and printers, but you should also brush up on the new networking technologies available in home networking kits.

If you do not have much experience with large corporate networks, it might pay to study up in this area, as the number of networking questions has increased on the new exam. Make sure you know the advantages and disadvantages of various networking topologies and how to use command-line utilities such as PING, IPCONFIG, and WINIPCFG to check your network’s operation. You should also know what the most common network protocols are and which is best for a given situation. For example, you should know that NetBEUI is very fast and efficient but cannot go across routers, so it is not suitable for large networks. Make sure you know how to install and remove protocols in Windows and how to bind a protocol to a particular network adapter.

Networking also includes Internet access. The current exam covers this in a rudimentary way, but now you need to know more. Make sure you understand HTML (at least conceptually) and Web browsers. You should also be able to configure dial-up networking, troubleshoot Internet connection problems, and configure POP and IMAP mail accounts.

Other useful details
Now that you know about the content areas, let’s look at some of the nitty-gritty details about the exam:
  • To register for an exam, visit Prometric or NCS/VUE.
  • Exams cost $128 each, but discounts may be available if the company you work for is a corporate member of CompTIA, if your company has purchased exam vouchers in volume (50+), or if you have taken a prep course that offered a discount certificate.
  • Even though the new exams become available on Jan. 31, 2001, the current exams will continue to be available until March 30, 2001. This grace period gives you the opportunity to complete your second exam in case you have already taken one. You can take both current exams any time up to March 30, 2001.
  • When you register to take an exam between Jan. 31 and March 30, 2001, you will need to specify which version you want. Here are the exam numbers to request:
    Old Core Hardware Exam: 220-121
    Old DOS/Windows Exam: 220-122
    New Core Hardware Exam: 220-201
    New OS Technologies Exam: 220-202
  • The exam numbers for the beta exams are 221-201 and 221-202. These versions have more questions than will appear on the final exam, and you will not receive your score or find out whether you passed until late January 2001. (CompTIA will mail the results to you.) In contrast, when you take a nonbeta exam, the computer scores your exam on the spot and lets you know immediately whether you have passed.
  • There used to be a rule that you must pass the second exam within 90 days of passing the first one, but this rule has recently been rescinded for both the current and new exams.
  • The current exams were originally standard multiple-choice tests in which you were free to skip questions and come back to them later. Your answers were not final until you turned in your completed test. However, in July 2000, CompTIA made these exams adaptive, in order to eliminate the “dumb luck” factor by which some people appeared to be passing. Now, if you answer a question incorrectly, the testing software asks similar questions. Note that the new exams are not adaptive—they’re just plain old multiple-choice tests again. CompTIA will probably develop an adaptive version of the new exams as soon as enough statistical information is available. Since adaptive versions can be slightly more difficult than plain tests, you might want to take the test as soon as you feel ready, rather than putting it off.

In this Daily Drill Down, I’ve explained the changes being implemented to the A+ exam. If you already have invested in lots of study materials for the current version, now is a great time to take it, while you can. However, if you’re fairly new to the industry and don’t have a lot of experience supporting the older DOS and Windows 3.1 systems, you can avoid having to learn all that history by waiting for the new exam. For a complete look at the objectives for the current and new exams, visit the CompTIA Web site, where thorough outlines of each exam’s objectives (called blueprints) are available in PDF format:
Here are a few of the TechProGuild articles that can help you study for your A+ exams. Use our search feature to find more.The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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