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Steinhart's Book Reviews

Part of my role as editor at Computer Retail Week involves reviewing computer-related books for our magazine. Below are some of my book review columns to date:


Children and Computers: Smart Reads for the Small Fry

Computers are an integral part of education and recreation for today’s youth. PC networks and Internet stations are cropping up in schools, libraries and community centers everywhere. Gone are the days when bound-book encyclopedias provided information for reports and projects. Kids know exactly how to research topics on the Web, or use electronic study tools to get ahead in class.

Software publishers are releasing titles aimed at the 3-year-old set, and grade-school kids are already building home pages and writing programs. In an era where technology is growing far more quickly than ever before, children are best-suited to adapt and embrace the new tools.

Parents, on the other hand, are often at a loss when confronting computers. They are not necessarily familiar with the latest advances, and don’t have the advantage of in-school computer labs and classes. There are many guides indicating what foods, games, schools and activities are good for children, and now there are similar books to help bring parents, kids and computers together.

As summer vacation approaches, some kids will need remedial work and others will want a head-start for next year. Children will be e-mailing each other and surfing the Web on rainy days and evenings. In every case, they’ll be using computers to do it. Education is one of the primary reasons given for computer and software purchases, and these books help parents and children understand the ins and outs of hardware, software and age-appropriate Internet content. If a child is pulling an adult through the PC section of your store, these books would be a perfect resource to help the parent compete in an intimidating world.

Dummies Guide to family computing SERIES •

The people over at “Dummies” cover every conceivable aspect of home computing in their “For Kids & Parents” series. We looked at three titles; each is priced at $24.99, so customers probably won’t buy more than one. Find the title that best suits the family to which you’re selling.

PCs For Kids & Parents• by the Dummies Press Family • IDG BOOKS • 1997 •ISBN: 0-7645-0158-5

This book gives readers a basic overview of what a PC is and how it can work for the family. Like all the Dummies titles, it assumes you know absolutely nothing. The book discusses the components of PC systems, buying a computer, peripherals, Internet, software, games, the future of computing and recommended Web sites and titles. The series uses plentiful illustrations and icons to highlight different paragraphs (i.e., tips, warnings, family ideas, etc.) and each book includes a CD-ROM with related software demos and Internet service software from AT&T.

Great Software For Kids & Parents • by Cathy Miranker and Alison Elliott • IDG • 1996 • ISBN: 0-7645-0099-6

This title is aimed directly at parents of 2-12-year-olds who want software for their kids. It teaches readers the elements of good software, the basics of using most titles, and the benefits each provides children.

The chapters work in age order; starting with software for 2-5-year-olds, then moving to titles that reinforce basic reading, writing and math skills, then research tools for most subject areas. The final sections list recommended titles and activities. Appendixes complete the picture with a roster of all the titles mentioned in the book. The CD-ROM has demos of the educational and creativity titles the authors liked the most.

Windows 95 For Kids & Parents • by Lisa Price and Jonathan Price• IDG • 1998 • ISBN:0-8645-0277-8

Here's a guide that focuses on how to maximize the popular OS for family computing.

The sections start with the most basic instructions on how to use Win95, written so even a 7-year-old can get started. The chapters explain desktop customization, document production and Internet navigation using browsers designed for the OS. It includes a “Sneak Peek at Windows 98” section, with screen shots and notes on expanding a system’s Web capabilities with the soon-to-be-released upgrade.

The CD-ROM contains over a dozen demos of edutainment titles for kids ages 3-18.

Creating Web Pages For Kids and Parents • by Greg Holden • IDG • 1997 • ISBN: 07645-0156-9

Computer-savvy parents know their kids spend hours on the Web. Instead of staring at other people's creations - why not sit down together and make your own? This title gives readers a conceptual and technical look at Web design.Unlike the other books, this one assumes the reader has a modem and some exposure to Web technology. It starts with basic dos and don’ts and leads customers step-by-step through basic page design, color choice, graphics posting and advanced techniques.

The book is for kids aged 7 and up, and the CD-ROM contains trial versions of Web page building software and graphics titles sepcifically designed for young users.

Young kids and computers-a parent’s survival guide • By Warren Buckleitner, Ann Orr and Ellen Wollock, • Children’s Software Revue •1998 • ISBN: 1-891983-00-8

This 96-page paperback claims to answer all the basic questions parents of 2-7-year-olds have about their kids and computers. Written by the editors of Children’s Software Revue, the book outlines the computer skills and software titles that are age-appropriate for toddlers through second graders. An additional chapter deals with young kids and the Internet, and the last covers peripherals. A directory of children’s software is also included. The book is illustrated with relatively ineffectual black-and-white screen shots and fuzzy photos. At $10, this book is a bit pricey, but if your customer has a pre-schooler that wants to “play computer,” this title is a good recommendation.

Kids.exploring.on.the.net • By Diane Sylvester • The Learning Works • 1998• ISBN: 0-88160-305-8
and
Kids@school.on.the.net • By Karen Krupnick•The Learning Works•1997•ISBN: 0-88160-303-1

These two titles are superb companions for kids and teachers in grades 3-6 who want to surf the Web constructively. Each features a general overview of the Internet and its components, then highlights numerous Web sites (listed and updated on thelearningworks.com,) and provides guidelines and suggestions of what to accomplish while visiting them. Kids.Exploring covers educational and fun sites, is written in an engaging style and illustrated with lively sketches. Kids@ School can be used by children or teachers and includes worksheets and assignment ideas, for all subject areas, based on research kids can do over the Web. Each has 128 pages and is priced at $14.95. Your customers will love these books, and the activities will keep kids occupied for many hours.

Kids do the web • By Cynthia Bix, Mary Anne Petrillo, Tom Morgan and John Miller • Adobe Press • 1996 • ISBN: 1-56830-315-7

This 208-page book offers a tour through dozens of kid-designed sites and tips on how youngsters can create their own. Unfortunately, the authors sacrificed readability and utility for “cool” and photo-intensive page layouts. The book alternates between outlining a tip and profiling a Web site. Each site is analyzed and any innovative ideas are highlighted. But the tips are all software-specific; your customers may not have the expensive SKUs. The site breakdowns are printed in stylized, hard-to-read italics. The overall effect hurts the eyes. If your customer is looking for a helpful kids-and-computers title, suggest a Dummies book instead. They’re the same price, and far more instructive.

Books to Help Make Heads and Tails of a PC's Nuts and Bolts

With the fourth-quarter selling season upon us, novices and technophiles alike will be shopping en masse for new PCs, peripherals, upgrades and add-ons. What better way is there to say “Happy Thanksgiving” than with a new graphics-accelerator card? And who wouldn’t love to see a 32MB memory upgrade in their stocking? The range of information you’ll need to provide your customers—newbies and do-it-yourselfers alike—is vast. One shopper will ask if the mouse needs to be fed regularly and another will want to compare clock speeds and refresh rates of competing add-in boards. To best meet their needs, stock a variety of reference books—easy sales that will enlighten any user. Here are some of the latest retail offerings. —By Michael Steinhart

Teach Yourself PCs in 10 Minutes • Shelly O’Hara • 1998 • Sams • ISBN: 0-672-31322-7

This text is a basic primer for the customer who has never before seen a computer. The subject matter is broken down into 22 “lessons,” each easily read in 10 minutes or less. From the fundamental question: “What is a computer?” through desktop basics, file management, Internet navigation and rudimentary network terms, the book is easy to understand and very straightforward. Instead of bogging the reader down with lengthy explanations and technical details, this title lays out the bare-bones basics that any PC owner should know.

The language is elementary and simple, and highlighted tips and text alert readers to important sections. Step-by-step instructions follow every task description, and clear illustrations match what readers should see on the screen while learning about their new PCs.

This book does not take readers into the nuts and bolts of the PC, nor does it offer any do-it-yourself repair or upgrade tips. But when first-time buyers are quaking at the intimidating sight of a shiny new PC, this 160-page, $12.99 title will settle their fears and ease their apprehension.

Tom’s Hardware Guide • Dr. Thomas Pabst • 1998 • Que • ISBN: 0-7897-1686-0

Prominent cyber-guru Thomas Pabst is widely hailed as an independent expert on computer hardware. His popular Web site, tomshardware.com, offers news and reviews about the latest components and products on the market. This title takes the reader through each piece of a computer system and compares performance speeds and general quality of many high-profile brands.

The Hardware Guide is not designed for first-time buyers and novices. It is more attuned to customers who are familiar with the inner workings of their systems and want to maximize performance and efficiency.

The book is thoroughly indexed and easily navigated through part and section breakdowns. Starting with an explanation of how the Guide works, Pabst goes on to evaluate operating systems, CPUs, chipsets BIOSes and motherboards. Further chapters explore storage devices, graphic and audio systems, modems, network cards and peripherals.

All the complicated terms are explained clearly, but Pabst expects his readers to grasp every nuance of clock speeds, benchmarks and performance standards to understand which component is right for them. The book is replete with techno-jargon and comparison charts, while product photos (of chips and hardware boards) and dim screen shots do little to alleviate its dense, information-intense feel. One plus is the “Tom’s Pick” page, which follows every section. In it, Pabst explains which product he’d recommend, based on performance and price criteria. Customers who are looking for a complete guide to available hardware and aren’t afraid to get technical will enjoy this 603-page title. It sells for $29.99.

Upgrading and Repairing PCs • Scott Mueller (with Craig Zacker) • 1998 • Que • ISBN: 0-7897-1636-4

One and a half million readers can’t be wrong - and that’s the number proudly emblazoned on the cover of this tenth anniversary edition of Upgrading and Repairing PCs, a reference many experts consider the bible of PC hardware.

The book covers all aspects of the system, and includes two CD-ROMS, the first of which contains specs and information on thousands of hardware components. The disc also has previous editions of the book recorded in electronic form, so users can access information about older systems and networks. CD-ROM number two features how-to videos of the author taking users step-by-step through many common upgrade and troubleshooting tasks.

After a 27-page table of contents, the 1,531-page book starts with a basic outline of each system element, what it does, and how it works. The language is easy to understand, but novice readers will have a hard time slogging through the technical jargon and complicated instructions as the book progresses.

Mueller delineates common and uncommon problems that may arise, and provides clear instructions on how to fix them. Diagrams help readers in performing the actual repair work. The book moves through the motherboard, chips and buses, then goes on to memory, input devices, data storage, printers, diagnostics, upgrades, operating systems and troubleshooting. A “Final Word” section informs readers of manuals, classes and online resources that will help supplement the material in the book. Mueller also provides a list of all the vendors mentioned in the book, with contact information. An extensive glossary and index round out the volume.

A customer has to be very serious about do-it-yourself if he or she wants this book. Its intimidating size and $54.99 price tag make it a good recommendation for professionals and hard-core hobbyists, but not for the average first-time buyer.

Upgrade and Maintain Your PC • James Karney • Microsoft Press • 1998 • ISBN: 1-55-828585-7

Here's a book that is hot off the presses and suited for users at almost any experience level. This guide shows readers how to access critical hardware information and troubleshoot common problems. It covers installing and upgrading hardware, memory, peripherals and software, and tries to keep the jargon and difficulty level at a minimum.

The 944-page third edition adds expanded sections on the latest operating systems and portable computers. The book's goal is to teach the reader which system features are important, how to look for them when buying, and how to add them to existing computers. Karney writes that first-time PC owners should start at the beginning and read until they feel more comfortable approaching their PCs, but his writing style is fairly bland. Nonetheless, the instructions and explanations are thorough and easy to understand.

In 20 chapters and nine appendices, Karney discusses basic PC components, OSes, hardware maintenance and usage tips. He follows with several chapters devoted to the inner workings of the PC - motherboards, processors, and floppy, hard, and CD-ROM drives. Peripherals such as monitors, mice, keyboards and printers are also extensively covered. The appendices include lists of error codes and troubleshooting flowcharts. A full glossary and index round out the title.

A CD-ROM, included with the book, carries shareware versions of various anitivirus, productivity, finance and entertainment titles. The book sells for $39.99, and can be recommended even to first-time buyers, provided they are looking for an information-intensive volume that approaches the subject in earnest.

PCs for Dummies • By Dan Gookin • IDG Books • 1997 • ISBN: 0-76-450269-7

True to its mission of de-mystifying technology and serving as advocate for novice users, this fifth edition of PCs for Dummies works as a handy reference for basic computer knowledge. Updated with information about Pentium processors and speedy modems, the book explains everything in a "fun," humorous style and highlights important tidbits with special icons and colors.

Gookin takes readers through setting up hardware and peripherals, organizing files, establishing network connections, adding memory, using the Internet and avoiding viruses. He even includes some troubleshooting tips for common problems such as blank screens and printer malfunctions.

Customers don't need to read this volume cover-to-cover. Rather, it is best used as a reference point when one aspect or another of PC use requires some explanation. Irreverent chapter headings and lively prose take readers through 432 pages of information, step-by-step instruction and helpful tips. Gookin starts at the "I have been in a cave since the 60s" user level and builds from there. First-time buyers will find a friend in the book that calls monitors, "boxy things" and answers the burning question: "The manual tells me to boot my computer: Where do I kick it?"

PCs for Dummies covers setup through peripheral installation and Windows through upgrade purchases through what to do if something goes wrong. A final section, "The Part of Tens," lists ten common mistakes, ten things best avoided, ten peripherals worth buying and ten important tips to ensure a long and productive relationship with computers.

The title retails for $19.99, and will be an easy add-on sale for any first-time buyer who wants in-depth beginner instruction in an enjoyable and lighthearted package.