Book Review: PC Hardware in a Nutshell

By SmallBusinessComputing.com Staff | Posted August 20, 2003

A longtime companion of PC users, the third edition of PC Hardware in a Nutshell, published by O'Reilly, now contains information for people running either Windows or Linux operating systems. Written for novice and IT experts alike, the book is packed full of useful, unbiased information, including how-to advice for specific computer components, reference materials, and a comprehensive case study on building a PC.

Written by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson, the book covers the essence of PC fundamentals and provides general tips about working on PCs. The 874-page book is broken up into 28 chapters focusing on motherboards, processors, memory, floppies, hard drives, optical drives, tape devices, video devices, input devices, audio components, communications, power supplies, and maintenance. Special emphasis is given to upgrading and troubleshooting existing computer equipment so cast-strapped small businesses can get the most from their hardware investments.

The first two chapters, Fundamentals and Working on PCs, provide an overview of PC hardware and standards, as well as detailed advice about buying, building, upgrading and repairing PCs. The next three chapters cover the core components of any PC — chapters three, four and five provide detailed insights into Motherboards, Processors and Memory, respectively.

The next four chapters — six, seven, eight and nine — cover removable magnetic storage, including Floppy Disk Drives, High-Capacity Floppy Disk Drives, Removable Hard Disk Drives and Tape Drives. The next three chapters — 10, 11 and 12 — cover optical storage devices, including CD-ROM Drives, CD Writers and DVD Drives.


Chapters 13 and 14 cover Hard Disk Interfaces and Hard Disk Drives, paying particular attention to determining whether higher priced items automatically correlate with better performance. Next, the authors discuss sight and sound elements in PCs. Chapters 15 through 18 look at Video Adapters, Displays, Sound Adapters and Speakers and Headphones.

Input devices are covered in chapters 19 through 21, including Keyboards, Mice and Trackballs, and Game Controllers. Chapters 22 through 24 address connections to external peripherals and which technology works best to suit your needs. These chapters include Serial Communications, Parallel Communications and USB Communications.

Chapters 25 through 27 cover three different components of computing, this includes Cases, Power Supplies and Backup Power Supplies. Finally, Chapter 28, Building a PC puts all of the components together, illustrating how to turn a pile of parts into a working PC.

In his introduction to the book, Jerry Pournelle, a writer for BYTE Magazine, said there's not another book like this on the market.

"If you do much with computers you need a good reference on Hardware," Pournelle said. "Of course, there are massively larger books on the subject, but that's just the point; most of the time you're not looking for a long essay on the subject, you need information, and reliable judgment, both of which Robert Bruce Thompson is highly — I am tempted to say uniquely — qualified to give. It's really the best book on the subject."

The Thompsons wrote the first edition of the book when Robert tried to find an answer to a simple problem — he wanted to buy a CD burner, and he needed clear information on how to choose, install, configure and use it. What he found was an almost overwhelming amount of interesting information, but a surprising lack of useful details.

"'Interesting' is quick and east to write," Barbara Fritchman Thompson said. "'Useful' is slow and hard, because you have to weed through all the available information — with varying degrees of reliability — and actually do all the stuff you write about."

The newest edition of the book has been expanded to include:

  • Detailed information about the latest motherboards and chipsets from AMD, Intel, SiS and VIA.

  • Extensive coverage of the Pentium 4 and the latest AMD processors, including the Athlon XP/MP. (Chapter 4, Processors is available online for free.)

  • Full details about new hard drive standards, including the latest SCSI standards, ATA/133, Serial ATA, and the new 48-bit "Big Drive" ATA interface.

  • Extended coverage of DVD drives, including DVD-RAM, DVE-R/RW and DVD+R/RW.

  • Details about flat panel displays, including how to choose one — and why you might want to stick with a CRT-style monitor.

  • New chapters on serial, parallel and USB communications (including USB 2.0).

  • Enhanced troubleshooting coverage.

PC Hardware in a Nutshell, Third Edition provides practical advice in a no-nonsense manner with specific recommendations on PC components. Based on real-world testing over time, the book will help you make intelligent, informed decisions about guying, building, upgrading and repairing PCs in a cost effective manner for your small business or home office. It's loaded with just the type of information you need, without having to search the World Wide Web over and over again.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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