Books on Windows XP

August 31, 2002

David Pogue begins Windows XP The Missing Manual “Despite the many improvements in Windows over the years, one feature hasn’t improved a bit: Microsoft’s documentation. In fact with Windows XP you get no printed user guide at all . . . Help screens are tersely written, offer very little technical depth, and lack examples and illustrations. You can’t even mark your place, underline, or read them in the bathroom. . . . this book, then, is to serve as the manual that should have accompanied Windows XP.” Perhaps you think “Yes, but it will be full of the elementary stuff that I discover intuitively”. This is true; probably you won’t need to read half the book. But did you know that the “Stand By” button on the “Turn Off Computer” dialog turns to “Hibernate” if you depress the Shift key? Or where all your personal settings are stored, so you can delete cookies, customise your Start menu or remove incriminating Web sites from your Favourites list? Or the easy way to have a different program open your JPEG icons when you double-click them? If not, the answers to these and many other unexpected features, tools, configurations and techniques are explained in clear, concise, well-indexed text. Pogue is strong on principles; for example he stresses how important the right mouse button has become and gives keyboard equivalents for each mouse action. And he has a humorously cynical view of Microsoft (“Glaciers exhibit more speed than an underpowered computer running Windows XP”) and recommends sensible minimum hardware. He reflects the widely-held view that upgrading to XP from an earlier version is a recipe for future problems, even though it is cheaper and preserves your settings. However he is weak on security matters. The book is in black-and-white throughout, on somewhat coarse paper, but the type is easy to read and the binding lies flat where opened.

Shelley O’Hara should have read Pogue before writing Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition – 10 Minute Guide. She would not then have written “TIP – Hibernate – To hibernate the computer to conserve power, select the Hibernate button” because she would know that button is not normally visible. She ignores the right mouse button, gives only three keyboard shortcuts (Pogue gives nearly 40) and, in short, covers only the stuff that you know already. For two-thirds the price you get one-tenth the value you get from Pogue.

Greg Perry has published over 60 books on computing and sold over two million copies. Clearly he has grown understandably bored with the process. The result is a prosaic book that contains no inspiration, no excitement, no new ideas and no original thoughts. For example, Perry doesn’t get the Hibernate button wrong because he doesn’t seem to know it exists! In Teach Yourself Microsoft Windows XP in 24 Hours he witters on about “most laptops can go into a hibernate mode” without ever telling you how to do it, or that it is only a key-press away! Nor does he mention how you can pin a program icon to your start menu or how to reverse the order of files listed in the detail view in Windows Explorer. He explains about scraps – selected text from a document that can be dragged to the desktop as if it were an infinitely large clip-board, but never explains how to do it with a Notepad or Excel document whose cursor is no longer an arrow. He gives a spiritless answer to “Do You Have the Necessary Hardware”, with 128 Mb memory and 2 Gb of disc “Recommended”, and ignores the whole matter of installing XP. This is odd, because only a person planning to upgrade to XP from a previous version needs to consider whether their hardware is adequate. He is sycophantic towards Microsoft: “Windows XP, just often called Windows, from the Microsoft Corporation, is colorful, fun, friendly, and powerful”.

In Windows XP Secrets Curt Simmons gets right all the things that Perry fudges – except that he too misses the Shift key for hibernating. However he sorts out scraps (they only work for some Windows-aware apps, so use WordPad, not NotePad) and points out you can also save them in a folder (remember the box your Mother had, with bits of lace and bias binding and knicker elastic). He gives a comprehensive guide to installation, with a thoughtful discussion of whether to go for the Home or Professional edition of XP and whether to upgrade or do a clean install. On hardware he is equally careful: insists “128MB is the bare minimum – get as much as possible” and cites 4GB+ as the “Realistic Minimum” disk size, warning that “If the computer is barely meeting the minimum requirements . . . you are likely to experience severe performance problems”. And he deals with some things that others miss, such as the collection of Support Tools on the Windows CD that you never even discover when you do a normal installation and a whole chapter on the Microsoft Management Console (MMC).

Katherine Murray promises to teach XP in even less time, but Learn Microsoft Windows XP in a Weekend would have more space for content if the waffle was removed; stuff like “Gone are the days when only Mom or Dad used the family computer” and “A mouse is what’s called a pointing device, a little tool . . . that you push around on the desktop in order to move the little arrow on the screen (called, surprisingly enough, the pointer). The purpose of the mouse is . . .”. Enough. You get the idea! Although there is a bland section entitled “What’s New in Windows XP” it contains none of the exciting features readers want to know about. All the sample topics discussed in this review are missing: pinning to the Start menu, scraps or anything about installation or hardware needs. On the topic of Standby and hibernation she gets the two utterly confused. A truly awful book at an extortionate price!

Cowart & Knittel’s Special Edition Using Microsoft Windows XP Professional provides abundant (and somewhat verbose) discussion on hardware requirements and installation procedures. It is also the only one to discuss 64-bit operation using the Itanium chip (Pogue’s index lists Itanium but omits the page number). However they have not discovered how to pin programs to the Start menu and burble that “I certainly have programs floating around on my hard disk that do not appear in my Start button program menus, and I have to execute them directly . . . If you can find and display the program’s icon, just double-click it. It should run”. The clever programmer at Microsoft who developed that excellent feature must have wept to read that! She would have been joined in her tears by her colleague who developed scraps. Again, never a mention! However the authors redeem themselves by things like a solid chapter on network security and the most detailed explanation of Standby and Hibernate. (Apparently you only see Standby if your computer has one of the advanced power management features on the motherboard). This enthusiastic interest in the relationship between the hardware and the operating system is the special feature that makes this book worth the price (plus a CD with a 45-minute tutorial). The front inside cover has an appetite-whetting list of topics like “Join one or more drives to create a huge virtual drive” and “Dual boot your PC between XP and Linux”. At the back is a magnificent 50-page index (a commendable feature of all Que’s Special Edition series, bless them!).

Stewart & Alcott’s MCSE Windows XP Professional will give you an in-depth understanding of the system, even if you have no intention of taking the MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) exam. For example the chapter on “What’s New?” is packed with all the “under the bonnet” issues and the rest of the book follows suit. Try typing MMC in the Run dialog or command window and you enter the environment in which system administrators and security professionals live, where you can manage and monitor and analyse what is going on both on your own computer, on other users’ computers and on the network beyond. Such focus means that user-interface topics get less attention: there is nothing about scraps and although pinning to the Start menu is mentioned, the reader is not told how to do it. Standby and hibernation are explained carefully but there is no mention of that trick on the Turn Computer Off dialog.

Karp, O’Reilly & Mott’s Windows XP in a Nutshell is also excellent on the deeper and more advanced under the bonnet features. The section on the MMS is systematic and detailed and this is the only book to explore WSH (the Windows Script Host) in any detail. Easy to see why! Tim O’Reilly, who is both one of the authors and the publisher, is a pillar of the UNIX establishment and the use of scripts is a long-established UNIX capability whose lack has soured the lives of Windows system administrators for two decades. The downside is that the book is weaker on user interface features. Several are missing (scraps for instance, and the Shift key trick on hibernate) and they make a major bloomer on the Start menu by missing the pinning function and instead advise “waiting until the Start menu is open and then dropping items onto the space above the built-in entries”. The latter is, of course, impossible because the Start menu snaps shut the minute you click on an icon to drag it. In fairness, they also suggest dragging the icon onto the Start button, which works. There is a brilliant set of appendices, covering everything from installation, filename extensions, services and keyboard shortcuts and the index is almost as good as Cowart’s. Combined with layout in a reference format, this makes it the easiest book of all for finding things.


On the user interface, Pogue is the book to give the friend who rings you asking “How do I . . . ?” But read it yourself before passing it on; you’ll be surprised how much you learn. Simmons you should refuse to give away, but guard ferociously in your desk drawer and read a bit every day.

If you are interested in how XP works with the hardware, get Cowart. It is a toss-up whether Cowart or Stewart or Karp is best for those desirous of probing deeply into the operating system. However Karp wins on sheer value for price. On that criterion, O’Hara is so concise it is disqualified, although its slim profile might be less intimidating for anyone under nine or over ninety. Perry doesn’t even have the virtue of being slim and, like Murray, should be avoided at all costs!

The Books

  • Windows XP The Missing Manual by David Pogue, published by O’Reilly at £17.50.
  • Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition – 10 Minute Guide by Shelley O’Hara, published by QUE at £10.99.
  • Teach Yourself Microsoft Windows XP in 24 Hours by Greg Perry, published by Sams at £17.99.
  • Windows XP Secrets by Curt Simmons, published by Hungry Minds at £29.99.
  • Learn Microsoft Windows XP in a Weekend by Katherine Murray, published by Premier Press at £21.99.
  • Special Edition Using Microsoft Windows XP Professional by Cowart & Knittel, published by QUE at £36.50.
  • MCSE Windows XP Professional by Stewart & Alcott, published by Coriolis Press at £34.99.
  • Windows XP in a Nutshell by Karp, O’Reilly & Mott, published by O’Reilly at £20.95.