The Secret Guide to Computers
28th Edition for 2003
A Review by Dr. J. D. “Doc” Watson
Christian Computing Magazine
[This review appeared in the November 2002 issue of Christian Computing Magazine. This web page version also includes comments on the review by the author of the book.]
As a writer and computer instructor, I’m always looking for good books. Sometimes, when I can’t find the right one for whatever reason, I write my own for my college courses and other customers. Rarely can I recommend a single book (even mine) on a particular subject. There is one book, however, that comes so close that even with its misses here and there, it’s the most comprehensive reference in the industry. This book is The Secret Guide to Computers by Russ Walter (Figure at left). In this review, I’ll outline its plentiful pluses and minor minuses.
Of itself the book claims, “The only complete computer tutorial. It covers everything important about computers! It explains how to buy, operate, apply, fix, and program computers.” But this is no brag—just fact. In eight major sections, it covers it all.
1. The “Buyer’s Guide” begins by explaining computer technology, computer jargon, and how to buy a great computer cheaply. It analyzes each of the computer’s parts and tells you the best way to buy a complete computer system. It gives an accurate assessment of PC verses Mac (Mac people won’t like it but it’s true) and makes specific recommendations about which brands to buy and where to buy them (all of which I agreed with). It even delves into each manufacturer’s “goodies and not-so-goodies” and points out stuff that salespeople try to hide.
2. “Operating Systems” explains all the popular operating systems (Windows 3.1, 9x, Me, and XP, DOS, Mac, Linux, and even the Palm OS) and tells you exactly how to use each one.
3. “Internet” explains how to browse the Web, send e-mail, and participate in newsgroups.
4. “Word Processing” explains how to use the best word-processing programs: Word, Works, WordPerfect, and even the DOS based Q&A Write (though I have a small complaint a little later).
5. “Tricky Applications” explains how to use spreadsheets (such as Excel, Quattro Pro, and Works), databases (such as Access, FileMaker Pro, Works, and Q&A File), and many other tougher applications.
6. “Fix Your Computer” majors on preventative maintenance but also covers basic repairs for both hardware and software. It even includes a good section on viruses.
7. “Programming” is for the true geek who wants to delve into this nether world by explaining all the popular computer languages: several BASICs, Pascal, C, C++, Java, Dbase, and FoxPro. There’s more, but let’s go on.
8. “Management” counsels you on how to improve your career and your future.
Finally, there’s an exhaustive Index and coupons for getting more stuff.
I don’t know what planet Russ is from, but it must be a planet populated with nice people. He offers free help on any computer subject. All you have to do is call (603-666-6644); he’s in most of the time. While the book doesn’t say that you have to buy a book first (and Russ told me that you don’t), I think it would be good form to do so.
Not only do you get all this help from his book, you can actually copy it for free. You can copy and even distribute as many pages as you wish without paying a thing. For example, you might want to copy the Word pages to use to teach a class. Russ asks only three things: call him first, include a notice at the beginning of the reprint (the required notice appears on page 9), and send him a copy of the reprint.
To make this even easier, you can also buy the CD-ROM version of the book (in Word 7 format), which is useful mostly to teachers. It’s priced the same as the hardcopy version, which leads me to the next point.
The price is absolutely unbelievable—a 639-page, 8-1/2 x 11-inch formatted book that is only $17.50 (including shipping!!!). Additionally, you can get huge discounts on multiple copies: two copies for $14.00 each; four copies for $9.80 each; 60 copies for $7.00 each; and 660 copies for $5.95 each.
You don’t have to buy the book site unseen. Just go to www.secretfun.com to view sample sections. The entire Word section, for example, not to mention about a third of the book, is online.
Finally, if you don’t like it (fat chance), you can send it back for a refund.
There are a few minor issues that I should point out.
First, the writing style is very informal and unconventional and is punctuated with a lot of humor, some of which is a little off the wall (Russ is definitely crazy, but in a good way). Some readers might not like this; others will love it.
Second, there is the occasional slightly off-color innuendo (e.g. top of column 2 on p. 1 and middle of column 2 on p. 16), though nothing as offensive as what you’d see or hear on “NYPD Blue” (which I certainly don’t recommend).
Third, the layout of the book is also unconventional and might take some getting used to. It’s two columns (which “is necessary to squeeze so much info into 639 pages”), a lot of bold face type, many shaded boxes, and clip art that doesn’t seem to go with anything on the page. Kind of like a “Dummies” book on steroids.
Fourth, and this is really nit-picking, the history section (pp. 601-611) could be tweaked a bit. For example, I just can’t imagine a history of computers that doesn’t relate the story of how Bill Gates acquired an operating system. It’s so pivotal, in fact, that it changed not only computers forever, but it also changed American business and commerce. MS-DOS was actually based on QDOS, the Quick and Dirty Operating System written by Tim Paterson of Seattle Computer Products for their prototype Intel 8086 based computer. Microsoft bought the rights to QDOS for $50,000 and the rest is the history of becoming a billionaire. Bill had a deal with IBM to provide them with an OS, a deal he kept secret from SCP. The kicker was that he also talked IBM into letting Microsoft retain the rights to market MS-DOS so that he could also license it to other PC manufacturers. Wow!—how many copies of DOS have sold to date? No hard feelings I guess, because in 1981 Tim Paterson quit SCP and started working for Bill. Also, there could be a little more detail about the development of ENIAC (p. 602) and other early computers.
Fifth, I have three minor complaints with the following on page 2 about word processors: “Word (which performs the fanciest tricks and is the standard for most businesses), Microsoft Works (which is easier to learn and costs less), WordPerfect (which resembles Microsoft Word but costs less and generates fewer hassles), and Q&A Write (which is so simple that it doesn’t even require you to learn Windows).” 1) The last couple of releases of Works omit the old (and awful) word processing module and simply use Word instead, which is a fantastic bargain. 2) As a MOUS certified Word Expert and former user of WordPerfect, I take issue with anything positive about the latter. Yes, it’s cheaper. Then again, you used to be able to buy a Hugo cheap, but who wanted one? Word is clearly superior and is the industry standard. 3) Q&A Write is DOS based, and people really should, in my humble opinion, be encouraged to use a Windows-based word processor, unless all they do is type letters; even then, don’t they at least want a piece of clip art for the letterhead?
Again, all this is minor, and is mentioned only because of my curmudgeonly disposition <grin>. Actually, I spoke to Russ about these issues, which, along with several others, he will address in future additions. I’ll post this review and Russ’ comments to me on my web site.
BUY IT! No kidding—you’ll learn more from The Secret Guide to Computers than from any ten computer books you’ve ever read. Besides the four pages of reviews that appear in the book, here’s my recommendation in a nutshell, (I might even get quoted in the 29th Edition <grin>): To say that this book is “comprehensive” is a staggering understatement. There is nothing else in the industry that even comes close. It’s worth three times what the author charges for it (but don’t tell him).
Here are a few quick comments about your review. More detailed comments will follow in a phone call, if that's okay with you.
1. Thanks for the kind review.
2. Several things in the book need improvement and updating. You mentioned a few of them; there are many more. I feel this book is better than any other on the market, but some parts are still embarrassing and will throw egg on my face. I'll try harder to remove the egg. Perhaps someday a committee of specialists will get together and improve my goofs.
3. I give free help to everybody, even folks who haven't bought the book. But if a question is answered in the book, I take the liberty of referring the caller to the book's pages, since I don't have time to read the book over the phone.
4. About a third of the chapters are on our Web site; but the Web site is less useful than the printed book, since the Web site does not include graphics, special symbols, headlines, appropriate TAB stops in tables, etc.
5. Yeah, I guess I should change my comment about Word versus WordPerfect versus Q&A versus Works. I wrote that comment many years ago. It was true then, but less true now. Learning Windows used to be a pain; now everybody knows Windows already, so Q&A seems "annoyingly different" rather than "a joyful departure from Microsoft's peculiarities". That's what's great about being a monopoly: you can create Windows, tell everybody it's "standard", and everybody believes so, and it therefore DOES become the standard, a self-fulfilling prophecy, even though some parts of Windows are inherently wrong-headed. To praise Q&A is to beat a dead horse: the product isn't being actively sold anymore anyway. But I still use Q&A's database part and find it much more reasonable than Access. By the way, I've read recently that WordPerfect costs OEMs less than Microsoft Works, and HP is therefore moving away from Works toward WordPerfect. If most new machines will come with WordPerfect, and the Linux crowd keeps making noise, and corporations keep refusing to upgrade to Office XP, perhaps Microsoft Word won't stay quite as "standard" as you indicate. Some manufacturers are still providing the stripped-down version of Works, without Word.
6. Sorry about the sexual references. Computers are emotional. I keep trying to find more non-sexual ways to express the industry's emotions. I'm not clever enough yet to figure out how to switch all the sexual references to non-sexual ones.
7. Early editions of The Secret Guide to Computers had lots of clip art. The purpose was to fill blank spots that arose because I didn't want an example of programming code to begin on a right-hand page and continue onto the flip side, which would make the code's structure unable to be seen in a glance. In those early editions, my staff spent lots of time looking for clip art relating to the content and emotion of the nearby text. Some of that clip art was quite nice and generated much praise from readers. Unfortunately, when I had to move from Massachusetts to New Hampshire, I lost the last of my great clip-art employees; now just a little clip art remains, and it seems erratically inserted. If you want to see truly beautiful clip art, go back to the 12th edition, where I had a huge crew working on it!
8. This 28th edition suffers from bad pre-press work: the entire book was shot from camera-ready copy, but was shot too dark. Boldface lower-case "e" on a gray background is an unreadable blob in this edition. Such a shame! The 27th edition was prettier and more elegant -- and so were the colors on the 27th edition's cover. But at least the 28th edition's content is better.
9. The two-column format is necessary, to squeeze so much info into 639 pages. But the gray screens make small text hard to read, and the Arial Black headings look too funereal. I'll try to lighten things up in some future edition.
10. I recommend that readers who "want to learn everything" get both the 27th and 28th editions, since each contains many topics that are not in the other edition. But if you have to get just one book, get the 28th.
11. You're right: the history section is unbalanced. More attention needs to be given to the history of Microsoft. That's on my list of things to do. I wanted to do it for this edition, but I ran out of time and space. Bill Gates and I knew each other -- and in fact he wanted The Secret Guide to Computers to be Microsoft Press's first book. Fate took us on different paths. I think Bill has viewed himself as a benevolent dictator, like Peter the Great, and his career raises many ethical questions that don't have simple answers. He's both a hero and a villain. He's left a bigger imprint on society than most US Presidents. Here's a question for your readers to ponder: if you were in Bill Gates' shoes, what would you have done differently, and would you have succeeded?
Russ Walter, Publisher
The Secret Guide to Computers