Many Features Great & Small: Two New Microsoft Windows 7 Books – #bookreview

Here’s the long and the short of it, and the big and the semi-little.

Microsoft Press recently has released two helpful new books focusing on the features of Windows 7. One book, a hardback, weighs nearly five pounds and has 1,323 pages. The other, a paperback that weighs nine ounces and has 194 pages, is supposed to fit in a pocket and does, if it’s a pocket in a big coat.

The books are: Windows 7 Inside Out Deluxe Edition by Ed Bott, Carl Siechert, and Craig Stinson (hardback, list price $59.99; Kindle, list price $47.99) and Optimizing Windows 7 Pocket Consultant by William R. Stanek (paperback, list price $24.99; Kindle, list price $19.99).

If you use Windows 7 in business or at home on an at least semi-serious basis, you may want to consider getting at least one of these books, maybe both. The same goes if you are studying to be a Windows expert or if you have just been saddled with the job of managing a bunch of computers running Windows 7 in a corporate or small-business setting. 

The big book is an excellent desk reference (as well as physical workout accessory), and the small one can be tossed into a laptop bag, briefcase or carry-on travel bag. The cover binding on the big book appears to be underpowered, so be prepared to handle this book with the same care you might give a big dictionary or encyclopedia intended for long-term use. (For the next edition, Microsoft Press may want to consider a tougher binding system for the book and cover.)

Windows 7 Inside Out Deluxe Edition is organized in six parts, 31 chapters and seven appendices. The parts are:

  • 1. Getting Started
  • 2. File Management
  • 3. Digital Media
  • 4. Security and Networking
  • 5. Tuning, Tweaking, and Troubleshooting
  • 6. Windows 7 and PC Hardware

The appendixes are:

  • A.  Windows 7 Editions at a Glance
  • B. Working with the Command Prompt
  • C. Fixes Included in Windows 7 Service Pack 1
  • D. Windows 7 Certifications
  • E. Some Useful Accessory Program

The goal for Windows 7 Inside Out Deluxe Edition is to provide “a well-rounded look at the features most people use in Windows.” As with most other works from Microsoft Press, this book has numerous illustrations, practical tips and how-to descriptions, and it offers a good index.

One Inside Out tip, for example, explains why Windows 7 won’t let you run more than one antivirus program but why you can run more than one anti-spyware package if you really feel you need to.

The book includes a CD that offers Windows PowerShell scripts, a handy (and infinitely lighter) eBook version of the hardback, and additional resources.  

MeanwhileOptimizing Windows 7 Pocket Consultant, also assumes that you have a little experience with Windows. It is aimed at users, information managers, administrators, help desk personnel “and others who support the operating system,” as well as application developers.

The book’s focus is centered on showing you how to tune and optimize Windows 7 for best performance in your setting and usage.

Optimizing Windows 7 Pocket Consultant has eight chapters, plus one appendix titled “Firmware Interface Options.” The chapters are:

  • 1. Customizing the Windows Interface
  • 2. Personalizing the Appearance of Windows 7
  • 3. Customizing Boot, Startup, and Power Options
  • 4. Organizing, Searching, and Indexing
  • 5. Optimizing Your Computer’s Software
  • 6. Tracking System Performance and Health
  • 7. Analyzing and Logging Performance
  • 8. Optimizing Performance Tips and Techniques

Stanek’s book delivers numerous helpful hints that range from making better use of your start menu to fine-tuning automatic updates, fine-tuning virtual memory and enhancing performance.

For example: “To reduce the performance impact related to reading and writing the system cache from virtual memory, you can configure your computer to uses Windows ReadyBoost.” That feature, Stanek notes, “lets you extend the disk-caching capabilities of the computer’s main memory to a USB flash device that has at least 256 MB of high-speed flash memory.”

Many new Windows 7 users — and many experienced ones, as well — likely will rate these two books as “keepers” for their technical libraries. 

Si Dunn

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The IDA Pro Book: The Unofficial Guide to the World’s Most Popular Disassembler – #bookreview

The IDA Pro Book: The Unofficial Guide to the World’s Most Popular Disassembler
By Chris Eagle
(No Starch Press, $69.95, paperback; $55.95, Kindle)

The popular interactive disassembler IDA Pro helps reverse engineers, malware analysts, vulnerability testers and others dissect computer programs when source code is not available.

Unfortunately, IDA Pro is updated so frequently, it’s impossible for writers to keep up and present complete guides to this “complex piece of software with more features than can even be mentioned, let alone detailed in a book of reasonable size….”

Chris Eagle, author of The IDA Pro Book, adds in the introduction to this second edition that he was inspired to update his well-respected guidebook when “a new, Qt-based graphical user interface” was added to IDA Pro 6.0. Yet, true to form, before his new edition could hit the shelves, IDA Pro version 6.1 was released, he notes.

To his credit, his book does not try to be an up-to-the-dot-release user manual. Instead: “My goal…remains to help others get started with IDA and perhaps develop an interest in reverse engineering in general. For anyone looking to get into the reverse engineering field, I can’t stress how important it is that you develop competent programming skills. Ideally, you should love code, perhaps going to far as to eat, sleep, and breathe code. If programming intimidates you, then reverse engineering is probably not for you.”

This updated edition of The IDA Pro Book is well-organized, smoothly written, and nicely illustrated. Eagle avoids the use of long code sequences. He zeroes in, instead, on “short sequences that demonstrate specific points.”

His 646-page book is heavily indexed and is divided into six parts, with 26 chapters and two appendices.

In Part I, “Introduction to IDA,” the focus is on the whats, whys and hows of software disassembly, reversing and disassembly tools, and some background on IDA Pro.

Part II covers “Basic IDA Usage,” including getting started, IDA data displays, disassembly navigation and manipulation, datatypes and data structures, cross-references and graphing, and “the many faces of IDA,” which covers common features of console mode, plus console specifics for Windows, Linux and OS X.

Part III takes the reader into “Advanced IDA Usage.” These chapters examine IDA customization, library recognition using Fast Library Acquisition for Identification and Recognition (FLIRT) signatures, “augmenting IDA’s knowledge” and “patching binaries and other IDA limitations.”

Part IV is devoted to “Extending IDA’s Capabilities.” The topics covered include IDA scripting, the IDA software development kit, IDA’s plug-in architecture, binary files and IDA loader modules, and IDA processor modules.

Part V’s focus is “Real-World Applications.”The chapter subjects include: compiler “personalities”; “obfuscated” code analysis; vulnerability analysis; and real-world plug-ins for IDA.

In Part VI, Eagle looks at the IDA debugger. Chapter subjects include the debugger, disassemble/debugger integration, and additional debugger features.

Appendix A is an overview of IDA Freeware 5.0, “a significant upgrade” from the 4.9 release of the free version of IDA, yet still “a reduced capability application that typically lags behind the latest available version of IDA by several generations and contains substantially fewer capabilities than the commercial version of IDA version 5.0,” Eagle notes.

Appendix B provides a table that maps “IDC scripting functions to their SDK implementation. The intent of this table is to help programmers familiar with IDC understand how similar actions are carried out using SDK functions.”

IDA Pro software’s creator, Ilfak Guilfanov, has hailed this book as “profound, comprehensive, and accurate.” It’s hard to do much better than that with an “unofficial guide” to a powerful and complex software package.

 — Si Dunn

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Designed for Use: Create Usable Interfaces for Applications and the Web – #bookreview

Designed for Use: Create Usable Interfaces for Applications and the Web
By Lukas Mathis
(Pragmatic Bookshelf, $35.00 paperback)

There’s no code inside this well-written book for programmers and visual designers. Instead, the focus is on usability — how people use things — and how you can make big, modest or subtle improvements to their experiences with digital interfaces.

You may be designing a software product that you think will be user friendly. Yet how good, really, is your knowledge of efficient and effective design? And what do you really know about how users will respond to what you create? Are you relying on formal focus groups to tell you what your users supposedly will want?

If you are, you are not doing nearly enough research, insists the author, Lukas Mathis, a developer and user interface designer for Numcom Software. “[P]eople often aren’t able to tell us how we can solve their problems. Worse, people may not even be able to tell us what their problems are. And worst of all, people are pretty bad at predicting whether and how they would use a product if we proposed to build it for them,” he writes.

Instead of depending on focus groups, you should spend some time doing “job shadowing” and “contextual interviews” to help you shape a better interface.

“Since people don’t know what they want, a good approach is to simply observe what they do. The idea of [job] shadowing is to visit users in our target audience at the place where they will use our product. The goal is to find out how our product will help them achieve their goals.”

He adds: “With usability testing, the goal is to find issues with the user interface. When you are shadowing someone, the goal is to figure out what kind of product to create or how to change your product on a more fundamental level.”

In contextual interviews, you interview a user after doing some job shadowing. And: “What you see is more important than what people say. Still, by asking the right questions, you can often get some useful information out of people….The kinds of things you’re looking for are areas where improvements seem possible. Don’t ask for opinions, and avoid questions that force the person to play product designer.”

Mathis has structured his 322-page book into three parts – research, design and implementation – and 36 short, nicely focused chapters that deal with everything from “[c]reating documentation as soon as possible” to “learning from video games” to doing “guerilla usability testing,” overcoming common testing mistakes and dealing with bad user feedback.

Designed for Use has numerous illustrations that highlight common interface design mistakes. The book also shows major, minor and subtle ways to improve customers’ understanding, acceptance and appreciation of what happens when they use product interfaces on their computer screens or phones.

The author also emphasizes the importance of keeping in mind “that you don’t have to own 100 percent of your market. It’s true that adding more features to your product allows you to target more users, but doing so comes at a cost. Your product becomes more desirable to the people who would not be able to use it if it didn’t offer a specific feature. However, it also makes your product less desirable to the people who have no use for that specific feature.”

In his view: “It’s OK to let some people go to your competitors to get what they need; you can’t be everything to everybody.”

Si Dunn

I.M. Wright’s “Hard Code”: A Decade of Hard-Won Lessons from Microsoft – #programming #bookreview

I.M. Wright’s “Hard Code”: A Decade of Hard-Won Lessons from Microsoft
By Eric Brechner
(Microsoft Press,  $44.99, paperback; $35.99, Kindle)

Good news, Eric Brechner fans. His alter ego “I.M. Wright” is back in print with an updated edition of “Hard Code,” a collection of columns that frequently delivers the “hard” truth about the ongoing battles among software developers, software testers and project managers facing tight deadlines to deliver (mostly) bug-free products.

This second edition contains 42 columns written since the first edition of “Hard Code” was published in 2007. Brechner’s “I.M. Wright” columns have appeared in a Microsoft internal magazine, Interface, since 2001 and are read, he says, “by thousands of Microsoft engineers and managers each month.” Brechner has held posts that include development lead, development director and director of engineering learning and development at Microsoft.

Gathered in book form for public consumption, his “Hard Code” columns by “I.M. Wright” have gained many fans, because Brechner’s alter ego rips straight into the “brutal truth” about the difficulties, turf wars and inefficiencies that frequently arise during software development and testing. But “I.M. Wright” also is unafraid to tackle high-sounding yet unmeasurable goals put forth by Human Resources, as well as various time-wasting processes that can lengthen rather than shorten product-release cycle times.

His goals are to stimulate discussion and debate and fuel imagination and change, when change will benefit and streamline the sometimes-warring processes of developing and testing software.

The new edition groups “I.M.  Wright” columns by topic into 10 chapters. “The first six chapters dissect the software development process,” Brechner points out, “the next three target people issues, and the last chapter critiques how the software business is run. Tools, techniques, and tips for improvement are spread throughout the book….”

The chapters are:

  1. Project Mismanagement
  2. Process Improvement, Sans Magic
  3. Inefficiency Eradicated
  4. Cross Disciplines
  5. Software Quality – More than a Dream
  6. Software Design If We Have the Time
  7. Adventures in Career Development
  8. Personal Bug Fixing
  9. Being a Manager, Yet Not Evil Incarnate
  10. Microsoft, Ya Gotta Love It

Being a great manager is hard, but being a good manager is not, “I.M. Wright” argues. “Being a good manager is easy. A good manager only has to focus on two things—two very simple things that anyone can do…[e]nsure her employees are able to work…[and] [c]are about her employees.

“That’s it. No magic, no motivational videos, no 24-hour days are necessary. A good manager just needs to ensure his employees can work, and he must care about them.”

(As someone who used to work in software development and testing, I can attest to the truth of that “I.M. Wright” basic wisdom. In different two companies, I spent several weeks just waiting to receive the right tools and software so I could work. And I got little help from managers each time I asked for some useful assignments. They were bogged down in the problems of their own little worlds and didn’t really care that I had nothing worthwhile to do at my empty, unequipped desk. So I got paid well for reading, re-reading and re-re-reading corporate policy manuals and taking frequent walks to explore the various hallways, floors and break rooms.)

If you work in software development, software testing or software project management, you need this book.

If you are connected to any aspect of a company where software and “progress” are supposed to be the most important products, you need this book.

And if you are planning to pursue a career anywhere in the world of software development, you definitely need this book.

Si Dunn

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Microsoft Access 2010 VBA Programming Inside Out – #bookreview #access #vba #programming

Microsoft Access 2010 VBA Programming Inside Out
By Andrew Couch
(Microsoft Press, $49.99, paperback; $39.99, Kindle)

Critics of Microsoft’s Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) often contend that it is too “simple” a programming language, particularly when stacked up against C++ and C#.

But Andrew Couch, a Microsoft MVP (“Most Valuable Professional”) with extensive experience in Access and VBA programming, is quick to differ with those critics in his new book. “Quite to the contrary,” he states, “the big advantage of VBA is that this simplicity leads to more easily maintainable and reliable code, particularly when developed by people with a more business-focused orientation to programming.”

He concedes that “[i]n the .NET world, the conflict between using VB.NET, which originates from VBA, and C# continues, because even though the objects being manipulated are now common, there are subtle differences between the languages, which means that developers moving from VBA to C# can often feel that they are being led out of their comfort zone, especially when they need to continue to use VBA for other applications.”

He also notes that Access has gotten bad raps regarding “poor performance applications,” IT department support “nightmares,” network bandwidth consumption and low corporate trust for handling “mission-critical applications.”

Couch’s new book asserts that these problems stem more from the “successes” of Access and VBA, as well as “those lacking some direction on how to effectively develop applications.” For example, “[t]he big problem with Access is that the underlying database engine is extremely efficient and can compensate for a design that normally would not scale.” Therefore, “the existing application design techniques for searching and displaying data [may] need to be revised,” if Access database data is converted to be located in Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft SQL Azure or Microsoft SharePoint.

The author’s two goals for this book are (1) helping create “a better informed community of developers” and (2) showing “how to better develop applications with VBA.” 

Couch also has aimed his work toward two types of readers. The first are those who have worked with Microsoft Access and developed applications and now want to “more fully develop applications with a deeper understanding of what it means to program with VBA.” The second are experienced VBA programmers who want to explore “the more advanced aspects of VBA programming.”

Special attention is paid in the book to helping readers who are “developing with both SQL Server and cloud computing.”

So this not a beginner’s book. Yet it is written well enough and provides enough illustrations and steps that newcomers to Access and VBA may want to add it to their libraries, particularly after reading Microsoft Access 2010 Inside Out, written by Jeff Conrad and John Viescas.

Couch’s 700-page VBA book is divided into seven parts and 18 chapters:

Part 1: VBA Environment and Language

  • Chapter 1: Using the VBA Editor and Debugging Code
  • Chapter 2: Understanding the VBA Language Structure
  • Chapter 3: Understanding the VBA Language Features

Part 2: Access Object Model and Data Access Objects (DAO)

  • Chapter 4: Applying the Access Object Model
  • Chapter 5: Understanding the Data Access Chapter Model

Part 3: Working with Forms and Reports

  • Chapter 6: Using Forms and Events
  • Chapter 7: Using Form Controls and Events
  • Chapter 8: Creating Reports and Events

Part 4: Advanced Programming with VBA Classes

  • Chapter 9: Adding Functionality with Classes
  • Chapter 10: Using Classes and Events
  • Chapter 11: Using Classes and Forms

Part 5: External Data and Office Integration

  • Chapter 12: Linking Access Tables
  • Chapter 13: Integrating Microsoft Office

Part 6: SQL Server and SQL Azure

  • Chapter 14: Using SQL Server
  • Chapter 15: Upsizing Access to SQL Server
  • Chapter 16: Using SQL Azure

Part 7: Application Design

  • Chapter 17: Building Applications
  • Chapter 18: Using ADO and ADOX

The book also has a well-detailed, 25-page index.

Couch emphasizes that “[a] significant strength of VBA is that it is universal to the Microsoft Office suite of programs; all the techniques we describe in this book can be applied to varying degrees within the other Office products.”

He maintains: “To successfully work with VBA, you need an understanding of the language, the programming environment, and the objects that are manipulated by the code.”

His book can get you going on that track, starting with a detailed look at the VBA Editor, which “is more than a simple editing tool for writing programming code. It is an environment in which you can test, debug, and develop your programs.”

The VBA editor, he points out, allows you to change application code on the fly, while the code’s execution is paused. You also can switch to the Access 2010 application window while the code is paused. There, you can “create a query, run the query, copy the SQL to the clipboard, and then swap back to the programming environment to paste the SQL into your code. It is this flexibility during the development cycle that makes developing applications with VBA a productive and exhilarating experience.”

The book provides a link to sample database files. Meanwhile, the code examples are designed to run with Access 2010 32-bit.

Most examples also can be used with Access 2010 64-bit. But there are some required changes and exceptions noted in the front of the book.

Just in case you don’t want to lug around a paperback copy of Microsoft Access 2010 VBA Programming Inside Out, it is available on Kindle, too. But the paperback edition also comes with access to a fully searchable Web edition, through Safari Books Online.

Si Dunn

Windows Sysinternals Administrator’s Reference – #bookreview #software #techsupport

Windows Sysinternals Administrator’s Reference
By Mark Russinovich and Aaron Margosis
(Microsoft Press, $49.99, paperback; $39.99, Kindle)

To the uninitiated, the title may sound a bit ultra-geeky and scary. Particularly the “Huh?” word “Sysinternals.”

But this book may benefit you “whether you manage the systems of a large enterprise, a small business, or the PCs of your family and friends,” Mark Russinovich and Aaron Margosis contend.

The Sysinternals Suite, it turns out, “is a set of over 70 advanced diagnostic and troubleshooting utilities for the Microsoft Windows platform” written by one of the book’s authors, Mark Russinovich, plus Bryce Cogswell.

The 70+  Sysinternals tools can be downloaded free from Microsoft TechNet at http://www.sysinternals.com.

The book’s goals are to make you more familiar with the Sysinternals Suite and learn how to use the Sysinternals to “solve real problems on Windows systems.”

Russinovich’s and Margosis’s Windows Sysinternals Administrator’s Reference is well written and has a good number of illustrations that provide amplifying “how-to” information. The book has a hefty 25-page index, as well, to  help you find your way through the Sysinternals’ maze of available features, capabilities, verifications, files, drivers, states, fixes and more.

The Sysinternal tools work with the following versions of Windows:  Windows XP (with Service Pack 3); Windows Vista; Windows 7; Windows Server 2003 (with Service Pack 2); Windows Server 2003 R2; Windows Server 2008; and Windows Server 2008 R2. The authors note: “Some tools require administrative rights to run, and others implement specific features that require administrative rights.”

Following its introduction, the book is divided into three parts, containing a total of 18 chapters:

Part I: Getting Started

  • 1. Getting Started with the Sysinternals Utilities
  • 2. Windows Core Concepts

Part II: Usage Guide

  • 3. Process Explorer
  • 4. Process Monitor
  • 5. Autoruns
  • 6. PsTools
  • 7. Process and Diagnostic Utilities
  • 8. Security Utilities
  • 9. Active Directory Utilities
  • 10. Desktop Utilities
  • 11. File Utilities
  • 12. Disk Utilities
  • 13. Network and Communications Utilities
  • 14. System Information Utilities
  • 15. Miscellaneous Utilities

Part III: Troubleshooting – “The Case of the Unexplained”

  • 16. Error Messages
  • 17. Hangs and Sluggish Performance
  • 18. Malware

The book is aimed mainly at “Windows IT professionals and power users who want to make the most of the Sysinternals tools.” And it includes real-world case studies to illustrate several tough problems.

If you are not yet a power user, but wrestle with Windows on a frequent basis (as many of us do) and are ready to tear into it, the Windows Sysinternals Administrator’s Reference can help you learn how to diagnose and troubleshoot your system and also optimize it.

If you work in a small business where there is little or no tech support, or if you are tech support in your small business, add this book to your library. You’ll likely put it to good use.

Si Dunn

New MOS 2010 Study Guide for 4 Microsoft Office Certification Exams – #bookreview

MOS 2010 Study Guide for Microsoft Word Expert, Excel Expert, Access, and SharePoint Exams
By John Pierce and Geoff Evelyn
(Microsoft Press, $44.99, paperback;  $35.99, Kindle )

In today’s depressed job market, employers have the upper hand. So, many companies now demand that job candidates and current workers have a wide range of computer skills and training certifications – gained mostly on their own and at their own expense, of course.

This new MOS 2010 Study Guide from Microsoft Press can help you prepare to take four different Microsoft Office Expert and Specialist certification exams: Word Expert (Exam 77-887), Excel Expert (Exam 77-888), Access Specialist (Exam 77-885) and SharePoint Specialist (Exam 77-886).

To benefit from this book, you must have – or have access to – Word 2010, Excel 2010, Access 2010 and SharePoint 2010.

You should download book’s practice files, which are organized by chapter and sometimes by section number, when necessary, and do the book’s exercises. No practice files, however, are provided for the SharePoint section.

“To work through the SharePoint section,” the authors emphasize, “you need full access to a SharePoint 2010 team site, and because SharePoint 2010 is a server-based platform rather than a desktop application, you need access to a server or an online application where SharePoint 2010 is installed or hosted. You can find information about SharePoint hosting services and the SharePoint trial edition at the start of that section of the book.”

The chapters for each of the four Microsoft products focus on preparing you to “demonstrate that you can complete certain tasks rather than simply answering questions about program features,” the authors note.

Indeed, the certification exams have been designed from studies of “how the Office 2010 programs or SharePoint are used in the workplace.”

Even if you do not plan to pursue Microsoft Office certifications, this 691-page book can help you better master an Office program or SharePoint. It is well-written and nicely illustrated, and it offers clearly defined steps and expert advice for completing specific tasks within the software.

In Word 2010, the areas covered are: (1) sharing and maintaining documents; (2) formatting content; (3) tracking and referencing documents; (4) performing mail merge operations; and (5) managing macros and forms.

The four chapters devoted to Excel cover: (1) sharing and maintaining workbooks; (2) applying formulas and functions; (3) presenting data visually; and (4) working with macros and forms.

The five chapters focusing on Access examine: (1) using the Access workspace; (2) building tables; (3) building forms; (4) creating and managing queries; and (5) designing reports.

The book’s four SharePoint chapters focus on “the general skills required to create, edit, and manage content on a Microsoft SharePoint team site,” the authors state.

The book includes a Certiport coupon good for a 25% discount on an MOS exam fee. Also, you get access to a free PDF version of the book that you can download from O’Reilly Media.

Si Dunn