Upgrade your PC maintenance guide

Most IT departments have a version of this guide in their reference library. And as with any good reference manual, updating is in order. But does this edition hit the mark? James McPherson tells you if it's worth the price.

The Complete PC Upgrade & Maintenance Guideis the hefty, 12th editionreference book by Mark Minasi that comes with two CDs. Minasi, along with his publisher Sybex, is also responsible for Mastering Windows 2000 Server and Mastering Windows 2000 Professional. Because it is an annual release, this bookis usually more up to date than other PC references of its ilk. Each year, shiny, new information gets integrated and dead-end, obsolete material trimmed, leaving an accurate snapshot of today's PC technology world. After all, only constant updates can make the new guide more appealing than picking a previous edition out of the bargain bin and resorting to the Web for the more current information. Read on to decide if you should purchase this book or head for the discount rack at your local bookstore.

Production value
This is a 1,360-page behemoth, not a pocket reference. The bindings are solid and the covers are resistant to dog-earing. I was particularly impressed that the spine showed no inclination to split or crack, despite the abuse I heaped on the book by reading it on the road.

The large-font text is easily read even when the book is sitting on the desk or floor as you disassemble a PC. The graphics and photos are crisp and easy to make out at a normal working distance. The artists managed to get all the details and leave out the circuit clutter that can be distracting. Overall, this book should last you a long time.

Reference value
The longevity of this text is rather evident by the previous 11 editions. While I think the bulk tends to make it intimidating to many, the book makes an excellent desk reference. It probably won't be the first book an IT pro reaches for, but he or she might recommend it to a novice person in the organization trying to get a solid grip on computer hardware. For that alone, the book's cost could be justified.

It does a good job detailing the evolution of the PC architecture, from its 8-MHz single clocked beginnings to the tumultuous split clock MCA and ISA days to the more or less modern AGP and USB systems of today. There are plenty of photographs and illustrations that will help neophytes identify components and connectors with a reasonable degree of confidence.

The first six chapters cover the basics of disassembling, reassembling, installing hardware, troubleshooting, and performing basic maintenance. This particular arrangement puts the “hard stuff” up front. While it seems unorthodox, having those sections toward the front and easy to find make for easy reference for the frantic person trying to figure out how to turn the pile of greenish circuit boards back into a computer. However, I am concerned that the chapter on soldering circuit boards remains. For someone who needed help inserting a daughter board, giving them a brief overview on using a high temperature wand to melt metal seems a little irresponsible, even if we weren't in a world of throw away components.

Current updates
As a sharp-eyed reader, I noticed that some of the information seemed to have a "born on" date, as memory prices were listed for March 2001. I realize that the publishing cycle is protracted and editors need time, and I also know that technology changes. So I harbor no illusion that the author is psychic. But even if that were the last information to go in before the final edit, it sort of implies that anything current as of January 2001 should at least make a brief appearance in the text.

Unfortunately in many cases, it didn’t. The first thing that struck me as strange was that none of the graphics and photos showed anything other than a slot-based processor. I thought this oversight odd but not necessarily tragic. Installing a socket-based processor isn’t much different than a slot-based one, but I could easily see a novice trying to replace the north bridge with their new socket-based CPU.

In addition, the section describing processors was woefully inaccurate. According to Minasi, only Pentium 4s and Celerons were available in sockets; everything else is slot-based. Also, no AMD or Cyrix/Via processors were listed with socket support. Considering FC-PGA Pentium III's reached the market by spring 2000 and Socket A Athlons by summer 2000, I found this area sorely lacking.

Furthermore, there was an incredible dearth of information on non-Intel processors. The Athlon had an entry in the system comparison chart, but only a fraction of the data was entered. There was no mention of the AMD K6, Duron, Transmeta Crusoe, or Cyrix/Via C3 processors. Well, that’s not true. It wasn’t in the book, but it was on one of the accompanying CDs in the bonus chapters. These chapters are really what I was expecting to make the 12th edition stand out from the earlier ones. Here in the silvery digital disk you will find Pentium III, Celeron, K6, and Athlon frequencies, bus speeds, and clock multipliers detailed up to the point of spring 2001. That's useful, but it's disappointing that they never actually made it into the printed book, especially if you need that chapter to set your motherboard jumpers and the computer is broken.

Other things lacking are details of modern memory types. Few things can have as much impact on a computer as using cheap, slow memory on a fast computer. A little explanation on latency and bandwidth might save someone from the misfortune of trying to couple a Pentium 4 computer with PC133 SDRAM.

Current hard drive details are equally lacking. While there is plenty of data covering cylinders, heads, platters, and FAT tables, the master boot records section made a disappointingly brief appearance in the form of “back it up often.” There is not a single mention of an ATA or UDMA standard. The world of ATA 33/66/100 and now 133 is something that the inexperienced need to have explained. Heck, I occasionally need to look up which one can use the cheap cables and which one needs the shielded kind. In fact, there is no mention at all of different IDE cables other than to make sure it has the red stripe and it is keyed correctly.

The networking section proved to be technically up to date, but it would have been nice to include more information on Cat 6 and Cat 7 cables. I found it odd that chapter 7 explains how to solder chips on a board, but there is no explanation on properly terminating a Cat 5 cable. After all, four crossover cables could easily wind up paying for the book.

I was hopeful when I found the section on DSL and cable modems but disappointed at the classic refrain against cable modems. Minasi seems unusually concerned that each modem node has "only" 27 Mbps of bandwidth to share between its customers. The fixation on the “guaranteed” bandwidth of DSL seems to have blinded him to the fact that outside of local LAN gaming, you should be more concerned with the ISP’s pipe to the Internet. Does it matter if the 3,000 customers are connected to a single 1.45 Mbps T1 by a 27-Mbps cable modem network or a 2-Mbps DSL link? No, because both will be limited by the ISP.

Software and videos
In addition to the book, you will find the obligatory CDs of self-help videos and diagnostic software. Of the two CDs packaged into the book, one is full of QuickTime videos and the other contains software utilities. I was quite enthused when the inside cover listed Partition Magic as one of the included programs. Partitioning is a tricky thing, even for people who are comfortable doing it, and Partition Magic is one of the few tools that I’ve found that works reliably. The rest of the software was uninspiring. Other than Acrobat and QuickTime, I have not heard of any of the other programs included. I can’t find myself trusting a Windows registry cleaner or password system from a functionally unknown source.

I must say that the video quality was surprisingly good. Also, auditory quality was between acceptable and quite good. Sure, the occasional microphone manages to wander in and out of the frame, but with computer self-help videos running $20 to $50, I really can’t fault them for that. I would have been a little happier had it been a video CD since that could be played on DVD players when the computer is out of commission, but I can’t blame them for choosing QuickTime for the presentations.

With the exception of the introductory video, these are all dated 1999. Most of the time it doesn’t make a difference, but occasionally it does cause a problem. There’s no mention of FireWire ports, Rambus RIMMs, DDR SDRAM, or even PC133 SDRAM. Notable quotes include “256 MB is the largest DIMM available,” “Celerons are available in speeds up to 400 MHz,” and that AMD and Cyrix have “about 3 percent of the PC market share.” As of January this year, AMD alone had 17 percent of the PC processor market.

There was one other addition of note on the CDs: two versions of the A+ exams (the core and the DOS/Win). While there aren’t any review materials included, the tests are a handy thing for the IT professional-to-be.

I must say that I am slightly disappointed in the 12th edition of The Complete PC Upgrade & Maintenance Guide. I don't feel much of the text is very different from the 11thedition, outside of the chapters on the CD. The videos for both editions are probably the same, and I doubt the software is much different. I have the feeling the author spent too much time on other books and this guide was left to staff writers.

Once, I would have recommended this book unconditionally, but the flaws I found make me question whether it is worth $59.99 to the IT professional. However, for the person without a hardware reference on their shelves, this is a logical purchase. I just hope that next year Minasi devotes more time to the next edition of the guide and returns it to the quality found in previous editions.

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