Review: CompTIA® A+ 220-901 and 220-902 Cert Guide, by Mark Edward Soper (2016)

Here’s another in my series on reviews of the textbooks I use to teach my classes. In this case it’s an A+ text from Pearson with some pretty nice online value-adds.

CompTIA® A+ 220-901 and 220-902 Cert Guide, by Mark Edward Soper

Copyright © 2017 by Pearson Education, Inc.

ISBN-13: 978-0-7897-5652-7

ISBN-10: 0-7897-5652-8

Early study materials for the A+ were rough and ready, often terse little volumes that assumed a lot of foreknowledge. We’ve come a long way in the 13 years I’ve held, and later taught, this certification, to the point that you can find great material in book, ebook and online course formats, covering a lot of learning styles. Mark Soper’s CompTIA® A+ 220-901 and 220-902 Cert Guide is an in-depth Cert Guide, in Pearson-speak, as opposed to their usually shorter, drill-oriented Exam Cram series. I’ve taught both formats and generally prefer the greater detail of the cert guides, but I was impressed by David Prowse’s Exam Cram ebook on this same topic.

The “value added” materials have been getting better too. Most publishers have long offered CDs with test and study materials. But as optical drives have been going out of style while online storage has come on strong, I’m seeing almost everyone leaving the CD behind, and using the CD sleeve in the back of books for a slip of paper with an Activation Code, as this book does. I initially thought, Oh, there go the goodies, but I’ve found the reverse is true. More on this below.

Prose style really matters, too. My students make loud noises if reading the text gives them headaches, which magically transfers the headaches to me. From an earlier 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. [Prowse’s] 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 chatty 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?).

The previous edition of this Cert Guide was written by Soper, Prowse and Scott Mueller, and was my text of choice teaching my A+ 801-802 classes. It ran to 950 pages of text, plus end material (and included a CD). In the current edition, Soper goes it alone while Prowse works on the video course and the Exam Cram book, and Mueller apparently works on the 23rd edition of his amazing Upgrading and Repairing PCs series. I wondered if the quality would suffer or improve, and if the character of the book would change, but Soper keeps up the really excellent written material thickly scattered with high-res grayscale photos, screen shots and key topics tables. Possibly to the down side, the book now contains about 1150 pages of text, plus end material. It’s still one of the shorter texts, but they are all becoming behemoths.

I have to say I like Soper’s prose. He sticks to shorter sentences and obviously has a talent for stating things clearly. There is a minority among my students who like the more chatty, informal and sometimes funny language of Meyers, but they have to be willing to make a 1500-page commitment to that book.

Chapters are laid out clearly, and divided into topics with plenty of illustrations. Every book on this topic has to decide how deeply to descend into details. Do students need to know the specifics of the latest upcoming Intel memory controller topology? The hard-core geeks are going to love it. Others are going to find those details quickly obsolete, but do need to understand how the once-literal North and  South Bridges are now mostly theoretical, with chipsets doing all kinds of things differently.

What really matters is that the materials match up to the A+ test objectives, which this book does quite well. Ending each chapter are the Exam Preparation Tasks, which include memory tasks like definitions alongside exercises like using diagnostic tools to research hardware details and upgrade options. Then come Review Questions, with Answers and Explanations conveniently following. The explanations are nice, because they’re really explanations, unlike too many of the ones I see on sample tests.

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.

Here, each book handles this differently. The Exam Cram splits OS topics out among the main test topics, so there’s not one place that solely discusses Windows 7, for instance.

Docter, Dulaney and Skandier do the opposite, with 50-60 page chapters on each major OS, which might be a good idea for organization, but leads to a lot of duplicate discussions of installation and deployment, for instance.

In this book Soper manages to cover the same detail in about 35 pages each for the OSX/Linux chapter and the iOS/Android chapter, with less obvious duplication. Depending on whether you’re using the textbook later as a reference (go with duplication) or as a learning tool (don’t torture me when I have to read the whole book), this book may be the best option for students.

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 invite you to believe wrong answers. Note that tests and questions provided by real CompTIA Authorized Partners (like Pearson) tend to be much more realistic and closely aligned with the actual test questions, for instance the frequent use of scenario questions. There are lots of practice sites and sources of sample questions online, and students should use them – with a healthy awareness that sometimes these questions are wrong: wrongly worded, contradictory or just plain far off topic. Once you’re so advanced that you can spot these errors, generic online practice tests can be useful for learning to spot B.S.

Getting access to Pearson’s online materials takes a few steps, but isn’t any harder than registering for Facebook. You’ll download the Pearson test engine, fire it up, and use the Activation procedure to get and install the sample tests for this book. There are a total of four tests, which you can further tune to concentrate on questions by chapter/objective. Mix and match until you’ve seen every question several times. I always recommend saving at least one of these tests as a final proving challenge before taking the real certification exam; if you can ace a test you haven’t seen before, you’re likely ready for the real test.

Back in the book, there are also some memory drills, but the nicest value-add-on is the three hours of video you can watch from Prowse’s video course. They are highly worth the investment in time, I guarantee.

So I come to the things that matter when I choose a text for my A+ classes.

First, the price. At $60 this book isn’t cheap, but it’s not stratospheric for a college-level text either. Its main competitors are in the $50-60 zone.

Next, does it align closely with the CompTIA A+ Objectives? This book covers them without going in-depth on topics or technologies that will never show up on the test.

Then, how long is it? 1000 pages is tough, and 1500 pages is a huge task for my students, but few books in this area are smaller. At least this one is on the light end of the scale.

Finally, what’s it like to read the actual prose? Does it sound like it was written by an engineer or a  lawyer, or is it more like a friendly discussion of interesting technology? Soper does very well in this area.

Ultimately, you can’t go wrong with this book. All by itself it’s good; with the online materials it’s top-notch. I’ll be trying it out in my next round of classes.

Disclaimer: Obviously I am a teacher, working with two major universities and many smaller clients. Some of the books I review are provided by my employers, but many of them come to me directly through my reviewer accounts with Pearson, Microsoft and Cisco (as this book did). They all know that sending me books is no guarantee mercy on my part.

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