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117 - Computer Manuals - What to Expect

This week's tips can save you hundreds of dollars. Largely driven by shortcomings, there are literally thousands of computer manuals in print today. You already know the first reason. Little, if any, documentation comes with today's computer, or its software. The only manuals available are sold separately, and they aren't cheap. At $50 apiece, you would like to get a good one at least. At this price, and needing to learn about Windows, Word, Outlook, Excel, and PowerPoint, you could easily spend $200 or more on manuals. Is this a wise investment or should you consider some training instead? If the manual answers your questions, it sound more economical, for sure. But there are dozens of books to choose from, on each topic. It's safe to assume there are good books and bad books, right? What if you don't end up with a good one? Maybe you should take a training class? Maybe you need to have some one-on-one instruction? You'd really like to know if these manuals are the way to go?

The question is: Are these manuals worth their cost?

The general answer is, probably not. I'm sorry to say that, but it's the truth. Even the "... For Dummies" books are sorely lacking. If you don't believe me, pick one up the next time you are in a book store, and take a look at it. Page one is likely to begin by telling you what the keyboard is for (duh). By the time you reach page ten, you are following some 14-step technical process where one false step leaves you in la-la land.

Commonly used software applications today have thousands of features and the steps to achieve the desired results are unforgiving. Operating a computer successfully requires precision on your part. Not knowing what to do next, or how to recover from an error, can be a real exercise in futility. Are manuals the answer here? Sometimes. Just understand that there's no magic bullet in a manual. You can't make something complex into what it isn't by declaring it to be "simple". The only time it's simple is when you already know exactly how to do it. Until then, figuring out how to do things can be an arduous task. Sometimes a manual helps, but not as often as we would like. Here's some more about manuals, along with a couple of tips. Mainly though, I'd be happy if you just understood what to realistically expect from computer books.

Types of Books -
First, there are two major types of computer books. They are: teaching guides and reference manuals. Unfortunately, many computer books are touted as serving for both, but they do a poor job in both roles. Do not fall for this claim. Decide whether you are looking for a training guide or a reference manual, and stick to your decision.

Teaching Guides -
The most well known of the teaching guides would be the "...for Dummies" series of books. To get value from a "...for Dummies" guide, or any book titled, "Learn XYZ in Ten Days", be prepared to work it from cover to cover. Remember, it will not make a great reference manual later on.

Tip #1 - Before you invest in a second "...for Dummies" type training guide, ask yourself how far you got in the first one you bought? If the answer is, "chapter two", don't waste your money on a second one! You probably won't get any further in the second one. For you die-hard student types, with time to devote to this, feel free to dive in!

Reference Manuals -
A good reference manual needs to be thorough and understandable, with each topic standing alone so you don't need to flip back and forth to get your question answered. It also must be extremely well indexed (also meaning accurately indexed), so you can easily find what you need to read about. I have found very few computer reference manuals which meet that minimum criteria.

When it comes to computer reference manuals, the biggest shortcoming is finding the useful information. I believe there are two big reasons why this is true. While I concede that the answer to my question is likely to be in there somewhere, finding it is too often near impossible. Why? Well, to start with, if the reader doesn't know, or guesses incorrectly, what they call something, then the reader can't look it up. Ask yourself, do you know lots of precise computer terms? I don't, and I do this for a living. Worse than that, I cannot tell you how many manuals I own where the author fails to index a topic with the same terms used by, let's say, the error message you just received. The message tells me to "do the integration step first", but the manual calls it the "file matching" step. I would estimate that I give up on finding helpful information two-thirds of the time.

Okay, even if you have had better luck than I have with your computer books, here's one thing I know is a problem for everyone. These books (and the on-screen "help" functions) only tell you how it works when it's working as expected! They tell you nothing about what to do when it isn't working as expected. That's when you really need help and that's when the manuals come up totally lacking. Since every single computer is unique, the unexpected happens all the time and your guide or manual will be no help at all. Kiss that fifty bucks good-by. There'll be no satisfaction to be had here.

Tip #2 - Either learn to use Internet bulletin boards to research your problems, or call someone like Computer Skills Group once a quarter to straighten out the list of issues you wrote down. Hopefully, this advice saved you enough money on books to cover a one-on-one training session from time to time. Your frustration level should be much lower too.

Tip #3 - Doing what I do for a living, you would correctly guess that I do have to have a library of manuals. And that means that I can help you in deciding where and how to shop for manuals. If you really want to add a book to your library, go buy it at a store where you will get great advice about which one is best. In the Denver area, that store is:

Softpro Books
Southgate Shopping Center
6862 South Yosemite Street
Englewood, CO 80112

Once you see the store, which sells nothing but computer books, you will understand why I recommend it. I have no affiliation with them beyond being a loyal customer. We are fortunate to have them in our area. The people who work there are all computer folks who have either used the manuals themselves or have gotten feedback from their customers. They are more than willing to share their information with you. Walk up to the counter, grab a free cookie, and tell them what you are looking for.

The bottom line (no pun intended) is, if you do want to buy manuals, spend your dollars with realistic expectations.

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