Category Archives: CompTIA

Thoughts on the CompTIA Linux+ Exams

A couple of months ago, I successfully completed both of the required tests to obtain the CompTIA Linux+ certification:  the LX0-103 and  LX0-104 exams.  I made the decision to pursue the certification as recent job opportunities have moved me slightly away from the enterprise networking I had been embroiled in, to instead working with Linux servers far more than I previously did.

The exams are the standard CompTIA format 60 questions in multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank.  You have a generous 90 minutes to complete them, and I certainly wasn’t hard up against the clock when question 60 rolled around.  A 500 on a scale from 200-800 is required to pass, the scoring system remains as opaque as it always has been.

I’d say there was as great of a need to split the material into two separate exams as there was for A+, which is to say, there is no need at all.  Let’s not mince words here, it feels like a cash grab and it probably is.  $400 US is a lot of money for someone to pay for a CompTIA certification if the cost comes out of their own pocket.  Obtaining the LPIC certification afterwards, which I discuss more a bit later, carried no additional cost.

In terms of content, I feel like the Linux+ study guide I purchased (LPIC-1/CompTIA Linux+ Certification All-in-One Exam Guide by Robb Tracyprepared me well enough for the exams.  I labbed with the OpenSUSE virtual machine image provided on the book’s included CD, a Ubuntu Server VM I have had for some time, and a CentOS Digital Ocean droplet I’ve been experimenting with.  As with any of these blogs, I won’t discuss any specific questions on the exam.  Overall, I’d say it was a mixed bag, it probably could have had more general admin best practice questions and less (or none) of the neckbeard-y interrogations about command minutiae.
The Linux+ certification does not currently expire.  I would expect, should that change in the future, that existing Linux+ holders will be permanently grandfathered while they likely add a minor “Continuing Education” designation to anyone who obtains the new, expiring version of the cert.   Additionally, I applied for the Linux Professional Institute LPIC-1 System Administrator certification, the Linux+ examinations are based on LPIC-1 content, and I would be curious to know how similar the exams were, had I the money and the time for such endeavours.  There is a simple form that one needs to fill out to link the Linux+ achievement on LPI’s site and the process was fairly painless.

More information about the Linux+ exams, and the process to obtain your LPIC-1 certification after achieving Linux+, can be found on CompTIA’s site here.

New CompTIA Certification Renewals Options for A+ and Network+

comptia-logoThe A+ exam series has moved onto exams 220-901 & 220-902, replacing 220-801 & 220-802 which were retired in June. Network+ has also progressed to the N10-006 exam, which replaced the N10-005 exam in February 2015. CompTIA has recently started to offer “bridge” exams, much like Microsoft has famously provided when they have decided to update their certification offerings.  However, the availability of the CompTIA exams is quite limited, for now you must be provided a Private Access Code (PAC) from CompTIA via email, so make sure correspondence with the group is enabled in your profile!  The other availability factor, although is a very minor one, is that the bridge exams are not available for those who have obtained their A+ and/or Network+ with the current exams.

These bridge exams are the RCO-903 and the RCO-N06, for A+ and Network+ respectively.   The A+ exam is 50 questions and the Network+ is 45, both indicate that they feature the typical CompTIA multiple choice questions.  The cost of the RCO-N06 is $100 USD versus $175 for the RCO-903, my assumption is that the higher price of A+ exam reflects the fact that it allows you to recertify a typically two-exam cert with only one test.  Passing the exam will also waive any Continuing Education fees that would be required if you are actively participating in the CE program.

I have not completed either of these exams as it is my intent, and my recommendation, to always recertify at the highest level of the linked CompTIA linked exam hierarchy (found in this FAQ) as you can.  As an example, I have obtained my CASP certification, so when the time comes, my plan is to renew that, taking care of all of the “lower” exams.  However, everyone learns at a different pace, has different certification goals, and different resources such as time and funding available to them so having more certification renewal options is always good thing.  In this regard, CompTIA has strong offerings, as the CE program has been around for years now as an alternative to booking an exam to recertify.

The exams must, of course, be completed before your current certifications expire, otherwise you will essentially be started from scratch in your CompTIA certification chain.   Employ whatever method works for you when it comes to keeping track of your cert expiration dates, be it calendar reminders in your calendar app, sticky notes on your monitor, etc.!

I’m curious as to what kind of market there will ultimately be for these renewal certifications.  As of now, there is no study material specifically for the bridge exams, but the exams are based around the objectives of the current entry exams in the certification, with adjusted weights for the various competency categories.  So any available study guides for the current series will work, but you may be able to save time by focusing less on areas that have seen little change from the last versions of the exam objectives or are areas that you are currently very strong in.

Thoughts on the CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner (CAS-002) Exam

It’s been a long time since my last blog update, but as a young father, it’s been a struggle to find cert study time in between all of my new parental duties. I imagine there are a lot of IT professionals, not to mention other career paths, that have to come to grips with the fact that with a new child, or perhaps children, in your life there is a definite change in your priorities that takes place. With that said, this has been the first cert study/exam cycle I’ve been able to complete, and I hope to get things back on track, albeit at a little more relaxed pace!

CASP Logo

CompTIA’s Advanced Security Practitioner cert currently lies at the top of their CompTIA Certification Hierarchy, thought it’s worth noting that not all of their offerings are linked into that same ladder. As my CompTIA certs are now into their last year before expiration, I decided that I would choose a new cert from their catalog to work towards and renew everything below it. My choices were Storage+. Cloud+, and CASP. Storage+ has definitely been of interest to me in the past, but I decided that with my background of security certs that I should just go for the gusto and take a shot at their highest ranked cert.

As with any cert exam, the NDA prevents one from getting too in-depth about the exact content of the questions, so I will keep things fairly general. The exam documentation mentioned that simulations were a part of the exam, and it turned out they were all at the beginning. I definitely have mixed feelings on these sims, but I do think it’s important for exams, especially those that are for “higher level” certifications, to challenge people beyond simple multiple choice questions. To that extent, the simulations in this exam are somewhat successful. There are some clever tasks that challenge you to complete a set of objectives in the most secure many possible. Conversely, I found some of the other tasks to be a little vague, with no clear way to tell you if you’ve completed your goal or not, or even if you’re on the right track. An example of what I was looking for was what would be found in many Cisco certifications tests where they provide a simple tool, such as a ping test simulation, to verify that you have completed the necessary steps. The biggest issue I have with the CAS-002 sims is that the background documentation for all of the questions could be more in-depth. Maybe CompTIA believes that having to infer what some subnets in a network are used for is part of the challenge, but it came across as incomplete documentation. You shouldn’t have to attempt to guess at information that you need to complete the task, the challenge of the sim should be to put your knowledge to use to complete the task with either all of the needed information, or at least a clear understanding of what missing information you must gather as part of the process of completing the task.

Following the simulations, the remainder of the exam was made up of the typical multiple choice questions that you would expect to find on a CompTIA exam. These felt more challenging than the Security+ questions, but sometimes the challenge came from large amounts of acronym memorization or, worst of all, vague wording. I will give credit where it is due in that there didn’t seem to be any eye-rolling easy “gimme” questions in the pool I was presented with. I have no idea what the weight of the multiple choice questions is versus that of the sims, but I suspect it was my performance in the multiple choice section that allowed me to squeak out a pass.

In an interesting change from most certification exams, you do not get to see a final score, only a simple Pass or Fail statement. The exam will tell you what exam objectives were related to questions that you got wrong. In some ways, it is better than the vague percentage of correct answers you selected for a particular category (a la Cisco), but ultimately still somewhat obfuscates what you need to focus on if you need to rewrite the exam, mostly because exam objectives don’t always get mapped one-to-one with sections of a study guide. However, if you were to tell me that I did really lousy in the Encryption category, I would easily know where to start my refresher studies.

Lastly, and this is something I try to avoid focusing on, but I feel needs to be addressed in this case, is the cost of the exam. CompTIA also does not currently offer the Deluxe packages that can be purchased for A+, Net+, and Sec+ that provides a re-take voucher and access to CertMaster training material (which I have briefly reviewed previously). There is currently no CertMaster material for CASP, so that makes sense, although a retake voucher sure would be nice! The current cost of the exam voucher is $402 US, which came out to nearly $500 Canadian with our current exchange rate. I was fortunate enough that my workplace covered the cost for me, but many others will not be able to take advantage of such a situation. It really is a high asking price for an exam that frankly is not as desired in the job marketplace as CCNP Security or the grandmaster of them all, CISSP.

It was good to get into the swing of cert studies again after too long a hiatus, and I hope to keep the momentum going. My overall impression of the CASP study experience is middling, however, I’m always happy to learn new things and I will certainly explore any opportunities to apply my new found knowledge and use CASP to further my career!

Network+ Training Lab Recommendations – A Look At Software

Previously, this blog has looked at both software and hardware recommendations for the CompTIA A+ exams, today we will take a step further up on the ladder and tackle Network+. For this article, please note that I am using the CompTIA Exam Objectives for the most recent update to the Network+ exam. One important thing to remember as you browse the objectives is to keep the old saying, “a mile wide and an inch deep,” in mind. The exam, as the objective list will plainly tell you, can throw questions at your from a wide range of topics, but the chances are many of them don’t go beyond a simple “What does acronym X or concept Y really mean?” You won’t be tasked with correctly complex BGP routing issues in a simulated environment or anything like that. Working from the list of types of software to be familiar with (beginning on page 32 of the objectives document), here are my recommendations for each category:


Protocol Analyzer and Packet Sniffer: Wireshark

Wireshark is a powerful packet analysis tool, and although it can look daunting when a packet capture session starts flooding information onto your screen, you won’t find another free tool that can offer you this kind of insight into exactly what’s in a packet.

Terminal Emulation Software: PuTTy

Good old PuTTy has never failed me, and although there are some really strong alternatives such as SecureCRT if you are willing to spend some money, PuTTy is rock solid and totally free. Learn it, use it, develop a Stockholm Syndrome-like love for it!

Linux/Windows OS
I’d recommended sticking with Windows, either 7 or 8.1, if you’re not already a Linux user. All of my other software recommendations in this article will be for Windows. Focus your work on configuring your network connections (IP addressing, DNS servers), and common troubleshooting/information gathering commands such as: ipconfig, netstat, tracert, and nslookup.

Software Firewall, Software IDS/IPS, and Antimalware Software
With too many vendors and offerings to choose from, I highly recommended you stick to mastering general knowledge of these items, specifically their strengths/weaknesses and when it is appropriate to use them based on an analysis of network security requirements.

Network Mapper – Spiceworks

I don’t have a lot of experience with Spiceworks, or really any network mapping software. But, for the price, or lack thereof, I have heard good things about this offering. This is another topic where you will want to know the general purpose of such software.

Virtual Network Environment – Virtualbox and GNS 3

The business of virtualization is a topic that has spawned dozens of websites and millions of conversations all by itself. Virtualbox is free, runs on a variety of platforms, and most importantly, can support a wide range of guest OSes. There’s a bit of a learning curve in creating virtual disks and controlling your keyboard/mouse input across multiple windows, but it is a very effective tool.

While many vendors will offer paid virtualized network labs, Cisco VIRL would be an example of such a thing, GNS 3 has served me well all the way through to my CCNP studies. You’ll likely come upon some difficulties as you configure a lab in GNS 3, so be sure to use the support of the software’s very active community for help.

WiFi/Spectrum Analyzer – Acrylic Wifi Free

Again, not a tool that I often use on a Windows PC, so I will refer to the consensus pick of Acrylic Wifi Free. Network World has an article containing recommendations Network World – 7 Free WiFi Tools.

Network Monitoring Software

“Network monitoring” is something of a nebulous term, and there are a lot of product offerings that all offer different scopes of feature sets. This is another topic where you should focus more generally on the benefits of monitoring software and when/where to best implement it. Here is an article with recommendations for free network monitoring software.

A Look at CompTIA CertMaster

CertMaster Trial

In the summer of 2014, CompTIA launched a new learning system called CertMaster, which was a fairly large step for them. They have offered official training in the past, but it was always through the use of authorized third party vendors for live training or providing their stamp of approval for guides from publishing companies.

CompTIA’s information page for Network+ CertMaster

CertMaster is an interesting idea, you begin by taking a multiple choice test with clickable buttons for the answers. You indicate you are sure about an answer by clicking the selection twice to completely fill the circle. If you are unsure, you must select at two different answers (creating half circles) before you can submit your response. You can also simply choose the option that you do not know the answer. If you answer incorrectly, even partially, or that you do not know, the system will flag that question and you will eventually cycle back to those incomplete questions to re-attempt them. During this second (or third, or fourth…etc.) attempt, a “What You Need to Know” section with appear at the bottom, with a bite-sized blurb of information of a suitable length for a flash card about the question. An “Additional Learning” section is also available that delves deeper into the question’s subject matter.

I selected Network+ as my test unit, and it allows you to complete nine questions in the trial. In my limited exposure to the additional learning material I thought it was generally well done, expanding on the topic but still making sure to keep brevity in mind. I tried the course through a browser and the iOS app, and both worked extremely smooth. Once you have completed a module you can review your answer history, and it will show the complete log of how many times you answered for the questions that you did not get completely right on the first try. You can jump to the learning material for each question from this section as well. You can also refresh yourself by retaking the section as many times as you like.

CompTIA believes that the learning methods and theories used to construct CertMaster provide advantages to both the speed of reaching an understanding of the material and of the ability to retain information. Referring to Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle I believe that it focuses too heavily on Concrete Experience (useful for actual exam situations, to be sure) and Reflective Observation, while being weak on Abstract Conceptualization and offering basically no Active Experimentation at all. You’ll still need to supplement the course with practical hands-on work when possible. These criticisms can be applied to almost any online training, but I bring it up to highlight some of the issues I have with CompTIA’s “revolutionary learning tool.”

At the price of $139 US dollars, the cost of an individual CertMaster course feels a little steep. One of the issues that spring to mind is the question of how one would use this as an ongoing study resource. I can refer to a section of a paper study guide or go back to Professor Messer video at almost any time (with an internet connection, admittedly) without logging into anything, and without having to worry about a license expiring on me. I remain unconvinced about the value of the program in relation to other options out there. Really, is it more interactive than books or videos? I don’t mean to come across as too reductive, but what you are doing is taking a pre-assessment test that takes you directly to the written study material that deals with the question at hand. It’s definitely convenient, but the issues I have all come back to the current price.

It’s always good to have options when it comes to training material, and despite what I feel are the flaws in CertMaster, CompTIA has a competent offering here, if you can stomach the cost. I hope to revisit the product at a later time, perhaps I will consider buying a license if CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner becomes available through it so that I can provide a thorough review of a full course.

A+ Training Lab Recommendations – Focusing on Software

My last article looked at a few simple recommendations for putting together a low cost hardware solution for your A+ lab activities, so now I’ll take a look at software. By software I generally am referring to operating systems, youe studies will mostly focus on maintenance and administrative functions that are built into operating systems, but will also look at general questions regarding things like anti-virus, anti-malware, and virtualization software. My hardware recommendation was to buy or build a system that would run Windows 7, the newest version of Windows listed in the A+ exam objectives. So, we’ll look at installing Windows on a physical PC first, and then a virtual one.

If you have built a lab PC, then you’ll need to have your Windows installation ISO on a DVD or USB drive. If it’s your first time installing an operating system from scratch, here is a guide for Windows 7, and one for Windows 8 (this one includes instructions on getting a USB drive prepped). Since I recommend that you do not attempt this (at least as a first timer) on your main personal computer and most definitely not on any kind of work production system, you might even want to just wing it without a guide, jump in! The Windows installation process is pretty refined at this point, and you should be able to get through it with relative ease.

An even safer way to experiment with Windows installation, and certainly any of the other administrative tasks that the A+ exams want you to know, is via a virtual machine. My personal recommendation is to use VirtualBox, remember that to run an OS like Windows well on a virtual machine, you’ll need a decent PC. Here’s a good walkthrough on installing Windows 8 to a virtual machine in Virtual Box. I recommend learning VirtualBox or another virtualization tool, not only because it’s a handy lab tool, but IT is trending towards virtualization and you should take any experience, however far removed from commercial use it may be, that you can.

Virtualbox Windows 7
Windows 7 running on Virtualbox

The resource I was hoping to refer you to use for evaluation operating systems was Microsoft Technet, but I was disappointed, though not surprised, to see that Windows 7 is no longer available for download there, instead they have a 90-day trial of Windows 8.1 Enterprise. Now, you can make Windows 8.1 work for you, most of the tested functions lie with the same System and Control Panel paths. An example would be that you might need to use Ctrl+Q to bring up the search for your Command Prompt instead of simply navigating from the Start Menu to Accessories to the Command Prompt as you would in Windows 7. Windows 8.1’s menu that appears when you right-click on the Start button contains a lot of shortcuts that will be useful to you in your A+ labbing.

I did find a Windows 7 trial link, but I recommend to use extreme caution if you choose to download from the site, and make sure that you do not install any “helpful” add-ons they might offer you: Softpedia

Now that you’ve got Windows installed, what’s next? Well, start working through activities related to the A+ exam objectives. Some things that stand out to me to try include: partitioning a hard drive, creating new user/group accounts, tinkering with file and folder permissions, driver/firmware updates, and learning the command line interface. Only you know when you feel comfortable with a topic, so begin with walking through what you see in a training video or read in your guide, and then just try to experiment with different settings from there!

You’ll notice that in the 220-802 objectives that iOS and Android are mentioned, these questions should hopefully be very general (Note: I have sat the 220-701 and 220-702, not the current exams), hopefully your familiarity with whatever mobile devices you happen to own currently can see you through. There is a general trend I’ve noticed regarding A+ that they are attempting to make it more relevant in the dying age of the desktop PC by covering more mobile computing topics. If you experience a large number of smartphone or tablet computing related questions I would sure like to hear from you in the comments section!

A+ Training Lab Recommendations – Focusing on Hardware

An important part of any technical certification is completing practical lab work, whether it’s a lab you design yourself or access to a professionally maintained training lab that you have purchased. Lab work falls strongly into the Experience quadrant of the Adult Learning cycle, and for many people, it’s the most productive part of the learning process. Even if you do nothing but simply parrot a step-by-step Windows process that you see in your study guide, you are increasing your engagement in the study process. How much this hands-on work benefits you depends on what kind of adult learner you are (this is a big topic, but some reading can be found at this link) , some people can pretty much just internalize what they see or read and translate that into a successful exam attempt. For the rest of us, lab early and lab often.

Now, a lot of people who attempt the A+ exams already have a lot of experience in building PCs, installing operating systems, and troubleshooting components. If that describes you, you’re in great shape for the exams already. This advice is for mainly for those people that may not have dabbled in those topics as much. I would still recommend that veterans scan the A+ exam objectives and consider labbing any subjects that they may feel a little weak on.

So how do you “lab” (from this point on I will simply use lab as a verb) for A+? Well, to start I would recommend getting your hands on a cheap used computer that you don’t mind potentially being sacrificed if some of your hardware and software experimentation goes irreversibly wrong. Check for cheap machines on Craigslist, Kijiji, or whatever popular used goods site is in your area. Another option to consider is a PC retailer that sells cheap off-lease PCs that have been returned and refurbished from businesses. Try to spend as little as possible, but make sure the system you pick up can at least run the current versions of Windows that you will be tested on. For the current 220-801 and 220-802 exams you can potentially be tested on Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7. Additionally, the more cards (video, sound, or network) and drives (SSD, hard disk, and CD or DVD ROM) the system has, or spare ones that you have to attempt to install, the better. I would not recommend buying new components for a lab if you can avoid it, there is no need to spend excessive amounts of money to lab for the A+ exams.

For a person that has not assembled a PC before, I recommend a complete teardown and rebuild of your lab PC as a start. If you still feel a little hesitant about the process, Youtube has both disassembly and reassembly videos. This practical work will help you gain much needed confidence in handling hardware, which may not necessarily benefit you on the exam, but will benefit you in entry level IT jobs (if that is your goal after obtaining your A+).

Now, will these activities cover all of the hardware that you will potentially be tested on? Sadly, they will not, but I believe if you attempt to seek out old CRT monitors, printers, and tablets that you will begin to experience diminishing returns. I did not attempt to get hands-on with the more obscure hardware and I don’t believe it was a significant hindrance when it came to test time.

Here is one of the machines that I used to lab for my A+, it was a simple refurbished unit that was purchased cheaply used from a private seller. It’s nothing fancy, but it was something to rip apart, reassemble, and install operating systems on:

Lab PC Complete

Next time, I’ll take a look at what software you can use to prepare you for the A+ exams.

A+ Video Training Resources

Two posts ago, I took a look at three CompTIA A+ study guides for the current 220-801 and 220-802 exams. A study guide makes a good foundation for your exam preparation, but adults learn in a variety of ways and hacking away at a thick text book isn’t for everyone. One alternative to consider is training videos, but to be clear, I believe videos works best as a supplement to a study guide and not as a complete replacement. If you find the multimedia presentation alone serves you better, you should play to your own strengths. However, reading, watching videos both serve the same essential function in the adult learning cycle, and even if you both read a study guide and watch a full video course it’s not likely to be enough to achieve success when writing a cert exam. I’m going to drop my first mention of the adult learning principles that I follow, and these are principles that I plan on becoming quite important on CertManiacs going forward. While I don’t want to stray too far from the titular topic, consider this, studying a guide or passively watching training videos qualify as Experiences in this four stage process:

Experience – Something happens.
Reflection – What happened?
Generalization – Why did it happen?
Application – Make that thing happen yourself.

I’ll be returning to that process quite a bit in the coming months, but back to training videos. Today, I will take a look at two excellent A+ training video sources today, one free and one that can be a little pricey, depending on your point of view.

Professor Messer

I discovered Professor Messer when I first began searching for A+ training material during the very start of my certification career. I was thrilled to find FREE video training to complement my study guide (see my A+ study guide reviews here). As it turns out, it turned out to be quality content, Professor (James) Messer has created a comprehensive course that he updates for each new revision of the A+ exams, when I first used his content it was still for the 220-701 and 220-702 versions. He keeps each video segment fairly short (most are under 15 minutes) and very on point for the target concept, which helps keep the content digestable. The videos follow a fairly simple format, a camera records a full face shot of him speaking, which plays in a small window in the corner over his presentation, which is often a slideshow but he does live capture processes in action when it’s appropriate. At a total video run time of 19 hours, there’s a fair bit of content to be watched, but if you do, it will go a long way to preparing you for the exams. In addition to the videos, Messer will run A+ pop quizzes and study groups. I noticed there was a lull in his site updates over the past few months, but it appears he’s back in full swing. I should note that he seems to be working on updating his Network+ and Security+ content at the time of this writing. You are able to view replays of old study groups, and I recommend that you check out at least one to see if they will be of any benefit to you.

The only issue is that the videos must be accessed online (via Youtube), which depending on your mobile data capability, may be something of an issue. The site does offer a solution to this problem in the form of a downloadable training course for $200 that includes: the video training on DVDs, MP3s of the audio from them, and his slides in PDF format. The price seems a bit steep compared to the cost of one of the printed study guides I’ve previously review, however, Messer does offer PDF study guides of his own for $10 each, certainly a reasonable price and likely a good supplement to the video course. I cannot say how the guides stand on their merit (or for that matter as a companion to the videos) based on the small sampling provided, but they appeared to be formatted in a “quick study” manner to concisely review exam topics. If you’ve purchased them then please feel free to comment and add your opinion.

CBT Nuggets

We go from a free resource to one that has a subscription fee. CBT Nuggets is a reputable video IT training provider that covers a large number of vendors. I’ve been lucky to enough to get access to a subscription through my workplace, but the first thing we should discuss is the cost for their training. For individual learners who don’t believe they’ll need ongoing access to the catalogue, the cost is $99/month for the Basic plan, and while what “expensive” is for everyone is relative, it’s not an insignificant cost if you’re paying out of pocket. For that fee you get access to the complete video catalogue (must be viewed online (mobile apps are available) and their NuggetLab supplementary materials. I signed up for the 7 day trial to take a look at the A+ videos and unfortunately they do not make the NuggetLab material for the course available for trial so I cannot comment on the quality of that content. There is a higher tier plan available that requires a 12 month commitment that is actually cheaper per month and includes extra features such as offline video viewings (allowing you to download up to 20) and practice exams.

CBT Nuggets puts something of a focus on their trainers as personalities, and I will say for IT trainers, the CBT Nuggets instructors are pretty good. Jeremy Ciora is perhaps the most famous (or is it infamous?) instructor from the site, but James Conrad, the instructor for the A+ material, is a well spoken and engaging guide through the material. I’d give him the edge in presentation skills over Professor Messer. The video course, as with Messer’s, is comprehensive but between the two I’ll give the free course the nod in terms of layout. Its videos are shorter and dedicated to more focused topics than the CBT videos, which often exceed 25 minutes in length. The formatting of the videos for CBT is largely the same Messer’s, the instructor has a slide deck or whiteboard running as they lecture and will bring up pictures or live screen captures as necessary. Nothing revolutionary, but it works. I tested out the CBT Nuggets mobile app for iOS on my iPhone and it synced up my video progression from my PC to the mobile device perfectly, the app is simple to use and seems to work quite well.

So why bring up CBT Nuggets as the pay option? Well, it’s the one that I am most familiar with. Do not take my review of it or Professor Messer’s site as any kind of endorsement over any other free or paid option, my goal is to simply make you aware of training resources that are available for your A+ studies. While I’m not thrilled that you have to supply a credit card for their free 7 day trial, which does NOT automatically start a subscription when it lapses, I understand the barrier exists to stop people from repeatedly abusing the trial period.

You might ask, “Between these two options, which should I use?” For the A+ exams, I believe Professor Messer’s free video training will serve you quite well, and I can’t recommend paying the subscription fee solely for just the A+ material on CBT Nuggets.

A look at A+ Study Guides

Your first step after deciding what certification is choosing a good study guide to use as the starting point for your learning.  Your study guide is the introduction (or refresher, in some cases) to the topics that will be covered in your certification exam.  One thing you will notice about these A+ guides is that the introductory segments will often seem too simplistic in their explanation of their topics, but that is by design as a book for this ENTRY-LEVEL cert would ideally by written making no assumptions about previous knowledge as the exam has no prerequisites and is intended for ENTRY-LEVEL (emphasis mine as you might guess) IT jobs.

I’ve included Amazon.com links to each of the mentioned guides as they have a generous preview mode to allow you to review the guides and make your own decision on which book is right for you. If you sign in with your Amazon account you can view even more and I recommend this as these books tend to have lengthy Tables of Contents.

CompTIA A+ Certification All-in-One Exam Guide, 8th Edition (Exams 220-801 & 220-802)

Author: Mike Meyers

Although I have never used one of Mike’s study guides during my own exam preparation, I have read many recommendations for his work.  After reviewing his guide for this post, I can see where those recommendations come from.  His writing style is very easy to digest and comes off quite natural, nothing really feels stilted or robotic.  The book is about as engaging as a certification study guide can get while still providing the information you need to be ready for the exam.  Plenty of black-and-white photos and diagrams help to break up the tedium of solid blocks of text.  One critique that I would level against this book is that it is not segmented into sections for each of the two A+ exams, rather what the author does is occasionally mention if a topic will matter on one or both of the exams. What’s the problem, you ask? It’s not so much a problem, but as we’ll see in a later review, there’s a more eye-catching way to perform the same function. If you’re planning on just writing both exams in one go, and it’s not unthinkable to do so for a cert as basic as A+ if the exam center allows you to do so, this may not be a big deal. Ultimately, this “issue” with the structure hasn’t affected the popularity of this guide, so take my (very, very minor) concern about it as just one person’s opinion, and I’ll bring up a guide that I believe does it better.

The book includes practice exams (the most valuable “bonus” content for certain), free PC utilities that Mike recommends for A+ technicians, a small library of training videos, and a PDF copy of the book that appears to be hampered by Adobe DRM.

CompTIA A+ Complete Study Guide Authorized Courseware: Exams 220-801 and 220-802

Authors: Quenten Docter, Emmett Dulaney, and Toby Skandier

One advantage, at least as I see it, that Mike Meyers’ study guide has over this book is that it’s a littler more illustration heavy.  Yes, us adults often enjoy reading a long novel, but there’s a difference between walls of text about the design concepts of motherboards and the contents of a bestselling mystery novel.  Plus, screen captures of things like Windows management tools allow the author a bit of a chance to show rather than simply just tell, and make a great guide when you want to walk through a process on a test machine. There’s nothing terrible about this guide, and the material provided will get the job done, I just think the Meyers guide does everything a bit better. There is both a Standard and a Deluxe version of the guide available, both include a 10% off coupon for the exams, practice exams, and flashcards. The Deluxe edition includes a CD with instructor videos, which doesn’t appear to be comprehensive for all exam topics but is a nice bonus all the same, and eBook versions of the guide.

CompTIA A+ 220-801 and 220-802 Authorized Exam Cram

Author:  David Prowse

This next guide is a little more to the point than the other guides.  Why is that a factor? It’s because it makes this guide lose some value as a general “learn about PC hardware and Windows” book. That’s not to say that it cannot be used for that purpose, but this book in particular is designed to cover the basic knowledge needed to achieve the certification exam’s objectives.  You could level a similar criticism to all the other reviewed guides, but the Exam Cram guide takes this notion to a further extreme than the others, basically saying “Look, this is all you need to know for the A+ exam regarding this specific topic, now we’re moving on.”  As an example, the author spends about 1.25 pages on motherboard installations with no pictures, whereas Mike Meyers spends about 5 pages and includes pictures of several steps in the installation process.  Now, if you know how to install a motherboard from past experience and you just want to know what CompTIA is going to expect you to know about the process, the Exam Cram book achieves that goal quicker.  For my hard earned certification training dollar, however, I prefer the more in-depth approach taken in the other books. The book includes a companion CD including something that I really like, the Cram Sheet, which serves quite well as a refresher in your final week or two of exam prep, as well as practice exams.

A+ Guide to Managing & Maintaining Your PC

A+ Guide to Hardware

Author: Jean Andrews

The last guides, which are unfortunately sold separately, are the ones that I used in my own A+ studies. I was given hand-me-down copies from a friend for the 220-701 and 220-702 exams. Thankfully, the guides have been updated for the 220-80X exam series and it looks like they’ve retained their previous level of quality. What’s the first thing you notice about this guide? Color! The extra step up in print quality helps the book visually stand out from the competition. As with the Meyers guide, the author combines both exams across the books, the key difference here is that the when a topic or sub-topic is relevant to a specific exam it is marked with a very noticeable icon. Again, I don’t mean to imply that the Meyers guide does a poor job of calling out a topic’s relevance to a particular exam, this guide simply does it better. In terms of the quality of the material provided, the guide compares favorably with its competitors. The guide covers topics with a suitable amount of depth, and that’s something I would say about all of the books except for the Exam Cram guide, which falls in line with the entire intent of that guide being leaner and meaner. For colleges that offer A+ certification training as part of a computer/networking technician course, these will often be the textbooks used. The print version is hardcover but no bonus materials are provided.

My final recommendation between these four books is that Mike Meyers’ guide is the best choice in terms of value for your dollar. As much as I like the Andrews guides, you are paying quite a bit of money for the two of them. If you’re willing to invest in them I believe you won’t be disappointed. Before you make any purchase, however, take some time to review Amazon’s (or whichever site you purchase from) user feedback to help get a further grip on what the book offers.

Lastly, remember that a study guide is only one component of a successful cert exam preparation plan. What are those other components? Well, I need to milk this whole certification thing for a little longer so those will remain topics for another day!

The CompTIA Mobility+ Beta Experience

What better way to start this blog than with a somewhat unique certification exam experience?  With 3 CompTIA certifications under my belt (A+, Network+, and Security+), the organization guessed, quite correctly as it would turn out, that I might be interested in participating in the beta exam process for their new certification, Mobility+. I’m also sure the fact that I had failed to unsubscribe from their various newsletter also played a small role in receiving the offer.   Now, I’m not trying to imply that I was one of the few, the proud, and the elite of the certification world, not at all.  In fact, I suspect I was simply one of thousands who received this email invitation.  The caveat to the invitation was that simply grabbing the registration code (needed for the Pearson Vue registration process) and booking a nice and safe time a few months in the future was not good enough, you had to be one of the first 400 people to write the exam and if you were not, your booked time would be cancelled.

Regarding the exam itself, the only preparation material provided by CompTIA prior to the beta commencing was the typical exam topics list that they would provide for any of their exams.  There was no real context to the list provided nor was there anything resembling a usable study resource at the time.  In addition to the topic list, CompTIA also recommended that exam candidates have their Network+, which I had obtained previously, and some mobility experience.  In the dark days of my past, I was…fortunate enough to have spent some time on a cellular provider’s Tier 1 support desk.  As such, I had become fairly comfortable with current cellular terminology and also had some mobility troubleshooting experience, both items being a part of the exam topic list.  
With no handy study guides available and with the beta costing nothing to write, I took the worst possible approach to exam preparation…I did nothing!  On exam day I went to our only publicly available testing centre in the city and sat down, I had no idea as to what to expect.  I quickly progressed through well over a hundred questions and if I had to guess, likely exhausted the majority of the beta exam’s question pool .  To avoid breaking any sort of NDA, I will simply state the exam focused more on Mobile Device Management (MDM) than I suspected it would, with very little emphasis on understanding current cellular technologies.  It could have simply been a result of the questions that happened to be assigned to me, time will tell.
Upon completion of the beta exam, a participant did not received a mark, nor any indication of a pass or a fail.  This was because that CompTIA had not even determined a passing mark as of yet.  I wrote the exam on June 16, 2013 and it wasn’t until late November that I found out, via snail mail from Pearson Vue, that I had passed the exam.  The CompTIA certification kit followed shortly after and I (somewhat) proudly posted the contents of the package on Facebook and Twitter!
Mobility+ will be a certification that I’ll try to keep an eye on in the coming months.  There certainly seems to a gap in tech certifications when it comes to the mobility world.  If I had to guess, I imagine the large vendors have been preparing their own certification programs, but in the meantime, CompTIA has drawn early blood in another round of the cutthroat tech cert battle!  

For more information on CompTIA’s certificate programs, check out this section of their site: http://certification.comptia.org/