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Windows XP Pro reference shootout

Choosing the right technical reference for your help desk staff or desktop management personnel is crucial if you expect them to have the right answers and procedures at their fingertips. But the task is not as easy as it may appear.

The majority of the technical references available for Windows XP Professional are written for the larger audience of users who may be struggling with Outlook Express, using Windows Media Player, burning CDs or connecting the Internet. For the support professional, there are fewer choices.

Bernie's BooksA good desktop technical reference needs to cover a wide variety of topics, such as desktop deployment, management, networking, OS architecture, security and -- above all -- troubleshooting. Unfortunately, I found only four books that fit these criteria. At first glance, they may all look the same. The table of contents are similar, they all run about 1,000 to 1,500 pages and they cost $50 to $60. As in my recent "Windows Server 2003 Shootout," I spent a little time with the 5,000-plus pages in these books to find out what the best overall reference might be. Here's what I found:

Windows XP Professional Resource Kit -- 2nd Edition
(Microsoft Press, $59.99)

The "official" documentation by Microsoft is the place most administrators start when looking for a technical reference. The primary advantage of this text is that the content is focused primarily on the needs of the administrator, and not the "power user" who can't figure out Windows Media Player. Emphasis is given to deploying and managing large numbers of PCs in business environments, including managing multilingual solutions, and working in mixed Novell and Unix environments. Troubleshooting is also given a larger emphasis, and the large appendix is an invaluable resource. If lugging this 1,700-page tome around the office doesn't appeal to you, the companion CD-ROM includes a completely searchable version of the entire text and 120 tools and utilities. Overall, Resource Kit is a good general guide, but it doesn't have the depth of the many online resources available on the Web site or Microsoft's TechNet site. And the 1,700 pages of text are the result of large print rather than technical depth. The other disadvantage is that because Resource Kit is from Microsoft Press, it doesn't always address the real-world pitfalls and shortcomings of its products.

Platinum Edition Using Microsoft Windows XP
(Robert Cowart and Brian Knittel -- Que, 1,327 pages, $59.99)

Que prints a number of Using Windows XP editions that are designed for specific audiences (basic, advanced, administrator), and the Platinum Edition is an upgrade that focuses on the needs of the network administrator. The technical depth in this edition is excellent, and the book covers many third-party tools that may be useful to administrators. The introduction to networking is well written, and the chapters on Macintosh, Linux/Unix and Novell interoperability are excellent. The authors also place a strong emphasis on security and troubleshooting skills. In addition, the companion CD features more than an hour of instructional videos from, featuring the authors, Brian and Bob.

Windows XP Professional Administrator's Guide
(Jerry Lee Ford Jr. -- Premier Press, 861 pages, $49.99)

At a "mere" 861 pages of large print, this administrator's guide is the lightest of the comparison group in weight, but not in content. The book is split into five sections based on function: basics, desktop management, advanced administration, networking and an appendix that covers command reference and troubleshooting system startup issues. The functional organization and focus of the book are excellent. The authors cover the needs of desktop administrators with a minimum of fluff and include plenty of tips and callouts along the way to keep you from making rookie mistakes. In addition, the appendix features an invaluable command reference, as well as an excellent startup troubleshooting guide. Overall, this is an outstanding reference, but it could use more technical depth to compete with the other books in this comparison.

Mastering Windows XP -- 2nd Edition
(Mark Minasi – Sybex, 971 pages, $39.99)

Mark Minasi's Mastering series of books is easier to read and understand than most technical books, and they are a great place to start for new help desk techs and other entry-level administrators. This series has become so popular with administrators over the years, I felt compelled to include it in this review, even though its editorial focus has shifted over the years. For understandable business reasons, the book tries to reach a broader audience, and has become more focused on the power user and small network administrator than on the needs the typical help desk or desktop management personnel. While still incredibly useful, administrators working in an enterprise environment will require more technical depth than provided here.

Conclusions … Overall, Using Windows XP Platinum Edition was my choice for best overall guide, followed closely by Microsoft's Windows XP Resource Kit. Competing with Microsoft's Resource Kit is tough in this narrow field, but the strong focus on the needs of the administrator, good writing and a real-world prospective gave Using Windows XP Platinum Edition a well-deserved edge.

The other books in this comparison are no slouches, by any means. They simply either lacked focus or technical depth (or both). The Que publishing house may be on the right track in publishing several editions of essentially the same work to appeal to specific audiences. Their "bestseller" and standard editions of Using Windows XP are geared for the average user, and are excellent references for that community. Perhaps Mark Minasi will follow a similar lead and create an administrator's edition of Mastering Windows XP.

Unfortunately, none of the books were as comprehensive as I would have liked. While they serve as a good foundation for technical skills, "real world" administrators working in enterprise environments will find the online documentation to be more comprehensive when dealing with specific technical challenges related to deployments, migration, management, interoperability, security and troubleshooting.

About the author: Bernie Klinder is the founder and former editor of, a comprehensive resource index for IT professionals who support enterprise Windows and BackOffice products. Before joining as a contributing editor and operating system troubleshooting expert, Klinder worked as a technology consultant for several Fortune 500 companies in northeast Ohio. For his contributions to the technical community, he was reselected as an MVP (Most Valuable Professional) by Microsoft in 2004.

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