Earning an IT certification requires commitment, and candidates must invest both time and money in the pursuit. Savvy consumers will save up front by cementing their commitment with the purchase of bundled toolsets.

A number of publishers offer customers a discount when they’re purchasing a bundle that collects a series of books, practice tests, and/or review guides. The new Microsoft Press self-paced training bundles do all of the above: They collect self-paced training books, readiness reviews, and practice exams in a single, bundled set. Microsoft Press doesn’t stop there. It sweetens the deal even further by including e-book versions of its Networking Encyclopedia and each study guide in the set, along with a voucher for 15 percent off Virtual University Enterprises (VUE) exam fees. The MCSA training kit I sampled also included an evaluation version of Windows 2000 Server.

Competition is thinning out
There’s no question that Microsoft Press has upped the ante. The publisher must sense competitors are on the ropes. That would explain why it’s marketing such an aggressive collection of content designed to capture IT professionals’ business.

Early this year, of course, Coriolis imploded. Its failure sunk the popular line of original Exam Cram and Exam Prep books. New Rider’s certification line has been integrated at Que Publishing. CIC Prep practice exams are no more. And O’Reilly hasn’t published an MCSE prep book since its 2001 MCSE in a Nutshell: The Windows 2000 Exams, which in my opinion is too light to use alone.

Reflecting on the wreckage, it’s clear that a distinct shakeout has occurred in the certification publishing market. Microsoft Press is doing more than just launching a shot across the bow of the remaining competitors. It’s maneuvering to own the category, which should come as no surprise.

Turnkey solution
Rather than spend time driving all over town or shopping online for the next set of study guides, simulation exams, and other tools you need to earn your next certification, I recommend that you invest in bundled sets. The savings you enjoy typically equate to receiving at least one of the exam texts for free. More important, and easily overlooked, is the fact that you’ll also save valuable time by not having to shop around to find the next title on your list; you’ll already have it. The time you would have spent searching for a text can go toward studying.

By incorporating readiness reviews and sample tests into its self-paced training kit, Microsoft Press is delivering a turnkey solution. The books aren’t an old version the publisher is trying to clear out of inventory. The training kits include continually updated books. If you work regularly with the technology and have practical hands-on experience, it’s hard to argue that you’d need any other supporting products to earn certification.

Like all of the self-paced training books, the Microsoft Press guides are mapped to each respective exam’s objectives. This means book chapters are broken down in a manner that matches the topics tested on each certification exam.

Review questions appear at the end of each chapter. Answers for each question are provided in the back of each book, along with readiness reviews. The books also walk you through simulation exercises that mimic real-world situations and force you to gain more experience.

In addition to featuring the simulation exams and e-books, the CD-ROMs contain more tools, such as relevant Requests for Comments (RFCs), white papers, practice files, and other information. Using these tools will help you expand your knowledge and better understand the technologies you’re studying.

When your exams do roll around, you’ll enjoy further savings as a result of the VUE voucher included with each training kit. While saving 15 percent on an exam might not sound significant, earning MCSA or MCSE accreditation requires passing multiple exams, and the savings quickly add up.

The new bundled collections are available for the full range of Microsoft certifications, including MCSA and MCSE. Bundles are also available for CompTIA certifications. In addition, you can get kits for individual exams.

Eckel’s take
Before you send me e-mail asking if I’m on Microsoft’s payroll, know that I am not. The principal reason I think these new Microsoft Press bundles are so valuable is that they collect not only the study guide books but also include matching readiness reviews, practice exam software, and exam discounts. That’s a hard combination to beat, and I’m not aware of anyone else offering such a package. If you know of another publisher with a similar offering, send me a note. I’d be happy to review similar bundles.