Books on Computer Hardware

January 1, 2003

”Hans-Peter Messmer’s The Indispensable PC Hardware Book, 4th edition, published this year, is massive, with nearly 1,300 pages, but the six-page index is far too brief. It omits topics U really need, like USB, Ultra2 SCSI and UTP. The layout is excellent, with helpful, unfussy diagrams, sharp photos and a clear, conversational style that avoids gush or verbosity. The hard-cover binding lies flat at any page but there is no CD. After 40-odd pages about basics come five heavy-weight sections, on microprocessors, memory, architecture and buses, storage and peripherals, plus appendices with tables of command sets: for example for EIDE and SCSI interfaces. The section on processors, for example, starts by explaining binary units, then goes on through the entire Intel history, from 8086 to Pentium III, Celeron and Athlon (although not the very latest P4 or Itanium). The ‘Indispensable’ in the title is justified; this is a prince among reference books, but is not (Part 1 apart) for novices and there is no advice on building your own PC or troubleshooting or upgrading.

Norton & Clark’s New Inside the PC replaces the fatter Inside the PC series that ran to eight editions. It gets over 600 pages into a manageable, kilogram book with a sumptuous index of over 40 pages containing all the Us. The pictures, though more professional than Messmer’s, are far less informative and there are few detailed data tables. The style is tediously verbose: why write “What, exactly, is a SCSI device? It can be almost anything .” (11 words) when you could write “A SCSI device can be almost anything .” (7 words)? Likewise “We have now told you about all the important elements of an early x86 CPU” could be omitted with no loss of understanding. Part 1 surveys the different types of computer, including PDAs, describes the various interfaces and gives the obligatory explanation of bits and bytes. Part 2 goes through the main sub-systems: motherboards, video, storage, etc. It is very up-to-date: for example the section on ports covers both USB2 and Firewire and that on modems includes the cable variety as well as ISDN and ADSL, although not in great detail. In Parts 3 and 4 the wordy style serves some purpose, to soften explanations of the interactions between hardware and data: such as how does a PC boot itself? How are network messages addressed? Does an AGP (advanced graphics processor) speed up Windows or only Formula-1 games?

Scott Mueller’s Upgrading and Repairing PCs, (13th edn) is the heavyweight champion: two-and-a-half kilos, over 1,500 pages, of which nearly a hundred form the index (with all the Us and, indeed, 20 entries for USB), a CD and an excellent trouble-shooting index that will end up well thumbed. The breakdown is straightforward: two chapters on PCs and components, then some 20 chapters running down the list from microprocessors, through BIOS, memory, storage and audio and ending with power supplies. Finally come four chapters on portables, build-your-own, testing and data recovery. The amount of detailed hardware data is slightly less than in Messmer but substantially more than in Norton. The text is dense, with little verbal padding, so the book contains a huge amount of information: concise and accessible but not quite as up-to-date as Norton; for example Windows XP hardware management is not covered.

For experienced PC technicians, who need the data but not the explanations, Mueller has distilled the 12th edition of the massive tome down to a (just) pocket-sized handbook: Upgrading and Repairing PCs, Technician’s Portable Reference. So it doesn’t tell you how a hard disk works, but it does list the various jumper positions and explain what to do if the BIOS does not appreciate the lordly size of your latest 80 gig purchase.

The Books

  • The Indispensable PC Hardware Book – 4th Edition by Hans-Peter Messmer, published by Addison Wesley at £39.99.
  • New Inside the PC by Norton & Clark, published by Sams at £28.99.
  • Upgrading and Repairing PCs, Thirteenth Edition by Scott Mueller, published by Que at £43.23.
  • Upgrading and Repairing PCs, Technician’s Portable Reference by Scott Mueller, published by Que at £14.50.
  • PC Hardware in a Nutshell by Robert & Barbara Thompson, published by O’Reilly at £19.95.
  • Fix Your Own PC – Seventh Edition by Corey Sandler, published by Wiley at £29.99.
  • Understanding Personal Computer Hardware by Steven Roman, published by Springer-Verlag at £30.50.

Robert & Barbara Thompson’s PC Hardware in a Nutshell is my favourite because it is opinionated. It says, straight out, that for short range “Logitech Cordless series keyboards are the best we’ve seen .” but for “cross-the-room range the best cordless keyboard we know of is the IR-based Wombat Wizard .”. Similar candour is applied to PC cases, graphics cards, hard drives and the rest. The authors also extract innumerable practical tips from their massive experience. So, when hunting for the fastest CD drive, they explain why you should disregard published access times, except in the case of Plextor who give a truthful figure. They deprecate whoring after the latest, fastest Pentium, because SCSI discs or more memory do far more to make things go faster: “When Windows swaps to disk, performance takes a major hit. . RAM is cheap. Install enough of it to minimise use of the paging file.” The chapter structure supports this practical approach. The second one contains guidance on how to proceed once you have taken the covers off a PC and the last two are a superb tutorial on designing and building your own machine. Between, come 21 chapters covering all the sub-systems. The style is clear and crisp, personal but not gushing, but a shortage of illustrations in all but the final chapter mars the excellent text.

Nobody could say the same of Corey Sandler’s Fix Your Own PC (7th edn), which is bursting with excellent photos and, best of all, has diagrams of every known connector in a helpful appendix. Instead of phoning up for ‘one of those telephone connectors with six wires and a square bit sticking out’, you can reel off ‘Three RJ11s, two RJ12s and a DB-15 female, please’. The helpful trouble-shooting charts also demonstrate where diagrams win over text. Especially when the text is woffly: “Welcome to anatomy class. It’s time to prepare for open-case surgery on your computer.” Fortunately, once you have waded through this slush, you find hard ground of useful content on repairing and upgrading. However the Foreword is specific that “We are not going to be building a PC from nuts and bolts.” There are 20 chapters on the principal sub-systems, plus a few dealing with the main operational matters: viruses, backups and operating systems. The main criticism is that the book is printed in landscape format, which is easy on the reader’s eye but damnably inconvenient in the bookcase.

Steven Roman’s Understanding Personal Computer Hardware is intended for users, buyers and upgraders, not for designers, builders or technicians. It is also intended to be read through, not kept for reference, so its 1998 publication date is not too much of a drawback. Some parts are gently technical; this is the only book to include program code; little chunks of QBASIC to run small experiments, like seeing how the keyboard works or examining the contents of memory. Roman cogently argues that this empowers readers who, otherwise, may connect black boxes together but never understand what happens to the data inside them. However not all readers will get a kick from snooping on the bytes that stream through the parallel port or the modem’s setup codes. The production is excellent, with clear diagrams instead of fuzzy photos. The language is clear and, where technical expressions are used, they are in bold type but, sadly, there is no glossary to make this purposeful. Finally, but unforgivably, the Preface’s brief history of computers only describes American work and ignores Turing, Wilkes and other British heroes.

That excellent old faithful The Winn L. Rosch Hardware Bible, is currently being rewritten. Watch out for the forthcoming Fourth Edition from Brady.


It is essential to be clear what you need a hardware book for. Messmer is too big and too techie; it is aimed at computer engineers. Those concerned with litigation or intellectual property concerning hardware might find it helpful but would do better with Mueller which (at a hefty price) is the ultimate hardware encyclopaedia. For those who just want to understand, or who take computers apart but do not design them, either Norton or Sandler will serve. Roman is a bit tougher going, but those with a technical background in another field would manage it. For those who want to design and build, as well as repair, their own machines, Thompson is head-and-shoulders the best, as well as being of manageable size and price. However they will still need Mueller from time to time. Anyone who works on PCs and travels by public transport will covet

Buying Memory

I needed masses of fast memory, to run Windows XP. There are so many different kinds; how could I know which to buy and from whom?

Mueller devotes a massive seventy-page chapter but, in among the tables of every pin on a 184-Pin DDR DIMM, it was difficult to find what would match my system. His pocketbook also explains all the different memory types but still left me too scared to move. Messmer is equally intimidating, while Norton devotes much of his memory space to technical issues such as Protected Mode and the 640K barrier, which I have, happily, long forgotten. Thompson proved far the best, gave an initial list of every known type and followed up with a section entitled ‘Memory Selection Guidelines’ that led me by the hand through the decision process. Sandler’s explanations, of SDRAM, RDRAM, RIMMs, EDO RAM and the rest, were good but too general while Roman is cursory; does not even explain what DIMMs are.

Fitting Floppy Disc Cables

I could not work out which way round to connect the floppy cable.

Both Mueller books illustrate a terrifying (and obsolete) five-connector cable but do not mention this problem. Messmer gives the function of every pin but also ignores it. Norton never discusses disc drive cables and Sandler of course only repairs, so he tells you to carefully mark the cable before disconnecting. No help if you are inserting a drive where none has gone before! Thompson again proved the best, although the nuggett is hidden in the chapter on building, not in the chapter about floppy drives. Roman only devotes a couple of pages overall to floppies, and says nothing about connections.

Oh, did you want the answer? Well, pin 1 is often (but not always) adjacent to the power connector, so connect that to pin 1 on the motherboard. If it works, good. If the floppy disc drive stays on from when you boot the computer, it is the wrong way round (but no damage done), so reverse it.

DVD Writers

Few PC vendors provide a backup device (which is why so many users lose vital data). The DVD writer should make backup easy but there are too many varieties: DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD-RAM or DVD+RW? Which format should I buy?

Mueller backs DVD+RW, after a most thorough and informative discussion (but does not cover the topic in the portable book). Messmer says only DVD-RAM is both affordable and available and DVD+RW is ‘far too expensive’. Norton says DVD-RAM will be first to leave the market and DVD+RW at $599 is a ‘phenomenally good price’. Roman was published too early to discuss this issue. Sandler describes the formats but gives no advice and Thompson, apparently writing two years ago, would go for DVD-RAM if pushed but prefers to wait and see what the market decides.

In short, this problem needs a prophet, not a textbook. So buy some of the textbooks reviewed here but, on crucial hardware decisions, always follow up with a chat with an informed dealer!

Mueller’s portable book. How better to pass time waiting for Virgin Trains than mastering IRQs on Monday, video resolutions on Tuesday and becoming an MCSE with a pay rise by Friday fortnight!

To ensure these recommendations were sound I used all the books to build a new, high-performance forensic PC. The boxes show how they helped with three particular issues. n