This July 1st (2016), the CompTIA A+ certification rolls over to the 901-902 version, with some pretty significant changes to the test materials. I’ve been evaluating books for my upcoming classes, and decided I’d try out not just different publishers’ offerings, but different forms of the media. As an instructor, I’ve relied heavily on physical books to run my classes: they’re marked up, dog-eared and riffed with sticky notes for points I want to hit in class. Could I do as well with an eBook?
Pearson hooked me up with an epub version of this Exam Cram, written by David Prowse. I’ve been in this business for many years – and so has he. His materials are pretty darn good, including an online A+ training course I had the opportunity to preview (and review). When it comes to highly technical books, there are plenty of them that are written by committee, and read like it. I’ve got nothing against a dry, factual style, but my students seem to be more willing to read single-author books with a breezier prose style. This book falls into the second category, and has the kind of comfortable, personable text that makes reading 982 pages a lot less of a chore. By comparison, the 901-902 text by Mike Meyers runs 1472 pages of first-person conversation, while the text from Docter, Dulaney and Skandier is 1312 pages of formal discussion (what did I say about writing by committee?). Prowse gets one point for good prose style and one for shortest length, which does in fact matter.
One of the biggest changes for the new certification is the much-changed list of operating systems covered. XP is out, finally, but Vista lingers on, along with Windows 7, 8 and 8.1. Windows 10 is not covered. But OSX is getting a lot more discussion, which matches the workplace I see, mostly Windows but with a contingent of determined Mac users. The three texts I reviewed handled this issue differently. This Exam Cram splits OSs out among the main test topics, so there’s not one place that solely discusses Windows 7, for instance. Docter/Dulaney/Skandier do the opposite, with 50-60 page chapters on each major OS, which might be a good idea for organization, but does lead to a lot of duplicate discussions of installation and deployment, for instance. In my reading all three texts ended up covering the same materials for each OS, because the CompTIA A+ Objectives are so clearly spelled out in this area. Frankly, I kind of like the way Prowse handles things, discussing the topic under a major heading with subheads for each OS’s differences. iOS and Android also get a little more emphasis, though largely along the same lines as the 801-802 tests: checking versions, doing resets and synchronizing. The whole topic of OSs is one of the areas where the eBook really shines, with beautiful full-color high-resolution images.
Color images appear frequently in the text, and put the printed books’ grayscale images to shame. Many of them are close-ups of details, and I had to admire how well I could see things like silkscreen lettering on circuit boards. I wasn’t sure how comfortable I’d be using the eBook, as I’ve mentioned, and I tried more than one e-reader. Windows 8.1 offered a friendly link to the friendly Windows store for an epub reader, and served up an app that got even more friendly by installing a toolbar and search engine, and modifying my network settings, none of which I appreciated. It took some lengthy research to uninstall that crapware, then the research I should have done in the first place: what are the really good eBook readers, for Windows, in 2016? This led me to Adobe Digital Editions, much despised in its 1.x versions but apparently much improved in the current 4.5.x version. I thought I would miss my sticky notes, but the Bookmarks feature fills the gap really well. And it’s nice to click directly from the Table of Contents to a chapter, or even better, easily search for particular terms, something I had to rely on Indexes to do for me in paper books. I had to find the right tips page to figure out highlighting: select text, right-click, voila!
There are a lot of subtle things that get glossed over in a lot of A+ texts, for instance the issue of Northbridge and Southbridge, bridges that were originally real bridges with real, separate controller chips, but which are now “virtual,” in the sense of being absorbed into the main processor or other subsystems. Of the three texts I reviewed, only this one discusses the DMI bridge in Intel-processor chipsets, and none discusses DMA channels (which apply to RAM, not processors); there’s a certain degree of depth that’s being lost as different manufacturers devise very different solutions to the same fundamental problems. Intel’s DMI differs significantly from AMD’s HyperTransport bus, and both differ from Intel’s Quick Path Interconnect (QPI). Prowse gives all these some attention, and he’s the only one in this group who does. And that’s just one example.
The most important work students can do for certification exams is taking lots of sample tests. There are resources online, of course, and many are quite good. Brain dumps, on the other hand, are worse than useless because they’ll mislead you or insist on wrong answers. So the test material that comes with a CompTIA-approved text is actually really important, because for the most part it accurately reflects real question styles, for instance the frequent use of scenarios in questions. The Meyers book uses 10-question end-of-chapter quizzes that are good; they come at the end of lengthy chapters, which means you’ll read for a while before dealing with relevant questions. I have to admit I like Prowse’s Cram Quizzes, short 5-question tests that come two or three times per chapter. That’s a good idea: look at the material, then look at the kind of questions you’ll see for it. And not just multiple-choice questions, but performance-based questions like the ones you’ll be getting on the real exams going forward.
This makes for an interesting point: only Prowse’s online version of this course offers genuine simulations of the performance-based questions, for instance dragging and dropping devices to the correct slots. Obviously you’re not going to do this with either paper books or an eBook, but different writers have dealt with this in different ways. The Sybex book comes with access to an online lab and test bank, which I haven’t explored yet. This Prowse Exam Cram uses write-it-by-hand versions of the performance-based questions, which are actually pretty good substitutes, considering a lot of that drag-and-drop stuff is just silly.
Ultimately, I liked the Prowse book itself the best among this group, and surprised myself that I liked the eBook much more than I thought I would. It’s the shortest of the group I evaluated, yet covers many topics more completely. And Prowse’s writing is easy to read without trying to be too funny or chummy. Every classroom I work in has a projector, so it’s totally feasible to bring the book in digital form and put it up on the screen. When I’m drawing students’ attention to highlights, they can see exactly what I’m talking about, easily. I’m finding myself completely willing to try out this book, as an eBook, this coming term. Maybe the most interesting thing to see will be how well my students like using it. If they do, I’m going to permanently lighten my book bag and never look back.
CompTIA® A+ 220-901 and 220-902 Exam Cram
Copyright © 2016 by Pearson Education, Inc.
ISBN-13: 978-0-7897-5631-2ISBN-10: 0-7897-5631-5