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Book Reviews

Upgrading & Fixing Pcs for Dummies

by Andy Rathbone

How to Avoid Buying a New Computer

by Myles White

Upgrade Your Own Pc

by Linda Rohrbough

Pc Upgrade and Repair Bible

by Barry Press

If you’re a computer owner, think about the time you bought your current machine. Chances are good that the salesperson who sold you the thing promised that it could be easily upgraded. Quicker processor? Better video card? A second hard drive? Why, sure. You’ll be able to add all those things whenever you feel the need. If you’re like most people, you thought this sounded pretty good.

If you’re like most people, though, you’re still using your machine in exactly the same configuration that you had on the day you bought it. And when the steady march of technological progress reduces your once state-of-the-art system to a slow, underpowered box that, well, sucks, you’ll probably find yourself back at the computer dealer, shopping for a brand new model. Upgradability is the ultimate vapourware: everyone pays for it, but hardly anyone uses it. The big marketing guns of Silicon Valley should be proud of themselves.

But here’s the thing: most computers that currently suck (say, those that are two or three years old) can be upgraded; they’ll accept new CPUs, new video cards, more memory… in short, they can be made nearly current for a lot less than the cost of a new PC.

Silicon Valley’s fixation with planned obsolescence being what it is, though, computer manufacturers aren’t exactly bending over backward to explain the upgrade process. So there’s a lot of room for third-party instructional books.

How to Avoid Buying a New Computer has its heart in the right place: Myles White begins by helping readers determine whether their computers are appropriate candidates for upgrades (fossils like the PC-XT or PC-AT are, sadly, destined to suck forever), and he does so with absolute clarity. His approach is reassuring, too. No, we’re told, we won’t need anything as intimidating as a soldering iron; a small screwdriver will do the trick.

Once White has us relaxed, though, he dumps us into the deep end of the pool. Ugly and unforgiving things called CMOS and BIOS take centre stage, and we’re warned that “All the information in the CMOS is vital to your system. If you erase it by accident, you’ll be left with a computer that won’t work properly until the data is restored.” Then the book goes right into a comprehensive list of every imaginable connection jack on every imaginable monitor, expansion card, disk drive, and cable, complete with photographs.

This is all-important information; the BIOS (or Basic Input-Output System) is a set of data that lives on a little chip (usually called a CMOS, for Complimentary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor) inside a PC. When you power the thing up, the BIOS tells the computer what kind of hardware is attached. In other words, without the BIOS, your machine wouldn’t even know to look for the hard drive in the first place. When you tinker under the hood of your computer, you’ll probably have to update the BIOS, just to make sure the system knows which bits you’ve added and which you’ve removed.

Likewise, it’s important to be able to identify which thing plugs into what, and what types of plugs tend to be used for which sorts of devices. But let’s be honest here: all this stuff, for all but the most advanced users, is intimidating as hell. White races through it as if everyone will grasp it comfortably on the first try. The whole book goes like this: a belch of terrifying acronyms, followed by some gently humorous reassurances that, for all their good intentions, don’t clear up anything.

Upgrade Your Own PC, on the other hand, is flawlessly organized and very careful with its treatment of the intimidating stuff. In the first few pages, it addresses basic questions like who the book is for, which kinds of computers can be upgraded cost-effectively, and what experience level is required. Then it proceeds, in a shockingly sensible manner, through the components of the PC: How to upgrade a keyboard, how to add memory, and how to install a new video card. There are no out-of-context lists of connectors and ports here; we get all the details we need, but only when we need them.

On the nasty matter of the CMOS/BIOS, author Linda Rohrbough’s treatment is wonderful. The topic’s still scary, of course, but she introduces it gently, and outlines exactly what’s involved in flawlessly clear language.

The book is very detailed, addressing the nitty-gritty of power-supply voltages, system configuration files, and motherboard replacement along with easier tasks like installing a new mouse. But all along the way, Rohrbough is good enough to offer advice about experience level: what sort of people are likely to be able to perform which upgrades with confidence. This may seem like a little thing, but it may be the book’s most important detail.

Upgrading & Fixing PCs for Dummies has the slapped-together-by-a-team-of-third-rate-gag-writers vibe that plagues the entire Dummies line. We’re promised that it’s The Fun And Easy Way™ to learn how to perform upgrades, but it’s really neither, and it fails for exactly the same reasons that How to Avoid Buying a New Computer does. After a coherent review of which computers should be upgraded, the Dummies book leaps into a long, out-of-context list of parts and software details. Important stuff, sure. But it’s only valuable when it’s associated with a task. Reading all about serial ports in the abstract is just not an effective way to learn to do a printer upgrade.

Like many of the Dummies books, this one confuses adolescent geek humour with user-friendliness. A reader who’s genuinely confused about what a part does – or how to install a new one – needs careful, clear explanation. Not Star Wars references or cartoons about butt cracks. This book never grasps that.

When it actually gets around to instructions on how to perform specific upgrades, Upgrading & Fixing PCs for Dummies has the gall to specify an IQ level for each task. Replacing a monitor, we’re told, only requires a 70. Maybe the book’s title is fair warning, but that’s insulting. People who need help don’t deserve to be made to feel like fools for it.

PC Upgrade and Repair Bible is a massive doorstop of a book: nearly 1,000 dense pages, covering the minutiae of computer upgrades in relentless detail. It’s full of technical monstrosities that will scare off novices, but the cover is good enough to warn that only “intermediate to advanced” users should crack the spine.

What kind of intermediate-to-advanced user will want to use the book is unclear, however. While it’s billed as an upgrade-and-repair manual, it’s more of an encyclopedic guide to hardware than anything else. So in the modem section, we wade through lengthy treatises on frequency modulation, the technical differences between V.34 and V.42bis, and updates on the politics of competing Rockwell – U.S. Robotics data standards. What any of this has to do with the practical matter of getting a new modem to work properly is never made clear. In fact, the book doesn’t even try. There are no how-to instructions at all.

As a reference tool, then, PC Upgrade and Repair Bible has limited value. People responsible for making purchasing or upgrade decisions about large fleets of computers might find the background helpful, and technical types might just get a charge out of knowing all this stuff. But what most users really need when they’re contemplating upgrades is missing entirely.

Upgrading a computer, if only to break free of the replace-it-every-four-years straitjacket, is a smart, money-saving thing to do. Upgrade Your Own PC will give most users the instruction they need to tackle the task with confidence.