Monthly Archives: September 2014

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.