PC Upgrade

by Alan Zisman (c) 1993. First published in Our Computer Player, April 16, 1993

book review of:

by Scott Mueller
Que Books, 1298 pages, 1992

by Mark Minasi
Sybex Books, 608 pages, 1991

I don't just write articles for COMPUTER PLAYER. Most of the time, I have to work for
a living, just like the rest of us. I'm a teacher at a small alternative school, part
of the Vancouver School System. We have 100 students, which is a nice way to work,
but it means we're on the short end of the stick for anything that's funded on a
per-student basis.

Like computers.

So when I got a call from Coopers and Lybrand, the big downtown accounting firm,
that they had dismantled a network, and would I like a donation of 26 computers, I
was very excited. (Special thanks to Vanessa Fife and John Francis at Coopers and Lybrand).

These were older technology; a few slower 286s, and a lot of original IBM XTs and
PCs. A couple of boxes of cards. Not enough video cards to go around, and a total
of three hard drives. Getting as many of these as possible up and running became my
summer project. Since I'm a teacher, not a technician, I looked for books to help
me learn what I needed.

These are the two books got me through a bunch of hard times. (And it helped to have the
support of my School Board's Media Services repair department, to back me up...
special thanks to Yvan Ah-Lu and Don Buss).

Both books are aiming at the same audience-- anyone who has a PC, and wants to
upgrade it or fix it themself. Neither assume that you're an electronic wiz... you
don't have to solder anything, or use fancy diagnostic tools. You do have to be
prepared to open up the case without being intimidated. I'd rate them both for '
intermediate' users.

They cover many of the same topics... inevitably, as they're both trying to do the
same thing. And both have a chatty, anecdotal tone. Minasi says, for example, "In
general, it's pretty hard to hurt yourself with the PC, short of dropping it on
your toe..." (He does go on to point out the few exceptions to that generalization).
You may not want to read either as light bed-side reading, but that doesn't mean
that they need to be dry recitations of facts. Of the two, I found Minasi, a
columnist for BYTE and COMPUTE, more fun to read.

Scott Mueller's book sometimes gives the impression that IBM is the only game in
town. In his discussion about video adapters, for example, he dismisses the common
Hercules mono-graphics standard as not supported by IBM, and thus, not worth

On the other hand, his book is twice the length of Minasi's, and it has information on
virtually every IBM model from the original PC to the PS-1s and PS-2s current up to
1992. When a student pulled up with an IBM XT-3270 terminal emulater in her trunk,
as a donation, this book let me know what I was looking at.

And despite his IBM-bias, Mueller's is the only book that discusses the differences
between the most common clone BIOSs: AMI, AWARD, and PHOENIX.

Unfortunately, neither book has everything. When I found that memory parity errors
kept some of the PCs from booting up, only Minasi's book told me how to use the
obscure error code to identify exactly which chip to replace.

I'd find it a difficult decision if I had to choose just one of these books; each
had some invaluable tidbit that the other lacked. Minasi's book is more readable,
and seems a more focussed. Mueller's book has more raw information (300 pages of
appendices!). If forced to pick just one, I'd probably go for Mark Minasi's book,
if only for the better jokes, but I'd hope that I could borrow Mueller's from the
library from time to time.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan