Sample-examination software

Last month I began a series of reviews of MCSE computer-based training (CBT) self-study materials with an introduction to the world of MCSE self-study choices. This month I'll examine four popular self-study sample-examination programs. These programs include IBID Publishing's Interactive Test Guide: MCSE Core CD, LearningWare's The Edge Tests, PC Age's MCSE TestMaster, and Transcender's MCSE Suite #6. Each program helps you prepare for your MCSE certification examinations by testing you in advance. You can then use the test results to identify areas in which you need further study.

Interactive Test Guide: MCSE Core CD

Two products in IBID's interactive test guides product line target MCSE certification: a core CD-ROM helps you study for the MCSE core examinations, and an elective CD-ROM helps you study for the MCSE Systems Management Server (SMS) and TCP/IP elective exams. For this review I evaluated the core CD-ROM.

The core CD-ROM contains preparation material for nine MCSE core examinations: NT Server 3.51 and 4.0; NT Workstation 3.51 and 4.0; NT Server, Enterprise Edition (NTS/E); Networking Essentials; and the three Windows client exams--Windows for Workgroups (WFW), Windows 3.1, and Windows 95. The CD-ROM preparation material mirrors IBID's hard-copy study guides on the same topics.

Installation of the software is a snap. Simply insert the CD-ROM into your CD-ROM drive and the autorun task will begin installation. On my home-built American Megatrends MegaRUM dual-processor NT 4.0 Workstation system with a 24X CD-ROM drive, the installation took slightly less than a minute. You must keep the CD-ROM handy, because you'll need it to execute the program.

After you launch the program, you can study for a particular examination or take a sample examination. The study guide feature uses an interface similar to Microsoft's InfoViewer. You navigate through the study guide using command buttons to move to the next or previous pages. Pages might contain only text or text mixed with graphics (usually screen shots) to illustrate vital information. Each examination's study guide contains several chapters, and each chapter comprises several sections. The Activities page of each section displays a list of review topics, as Screen 1, page 88, shows.

When you're ready to take a sample examination, you exit the study guide and select Begin from the Interactive Test Guide's main window. I found the sample examination portion of the program disappointing. The test software does not simulate the examinations you must take as part of the certification process. Rather, each exam category contains a fixed number of questions, and you program the software to present any number of questions to you. However, instead of selecting questions in a way that would resemble an actual MCSE test, the software selects questions either sequentially or randomly from its question pool. After you've answered the questions, you receive a report on your score. You can review your answers, and you can program the software to automatically display the correct answer to any question you answer incorrectly. The ability to review your answers is the most useful feature of this product. However, a drawback to the review process is that, given the small size of the question pools, you can end up learning the correct answers but not why the answers are correct.

The Interactive Test Guide is a useful product. However, the structure of the testing component needs work to make it more similar to the Microsoft certification tests. Serious MCSE students might want to supplement IBID's product with a product from another vendor that more closely parallels the design of the Microsoft MCSE examinations.

The Edge Tests

LearningWare's The Edge Tests offers an interactive learning system comprising four subject areas: Networking Essentials, NT Workstation 4.0, NT Server 4.0, and NTS/E. Thirty examinations prepare you for the Microsoft MCSE examinations. Several of the program's examinations are learning-based, which means that as you take one of these exams, you can use the interactive Show Help and Show Info buttons to receive help in answering a question or the correct answer to the question.

Installing The Edge Tests CD-ROM is simple. After popping the CD-ROM into the CD-ROM drive, I answered a few installation questions, let the program copy the necessary files, and was ready to begin using the program. After installation, you launch the program from a program group on your Start menu's Programs option.

When you launch the program, a list of options displays on the right side of the screen. You'll find a basic tutorial about how to use the software, then the exams for each of the four subject areas. Among the topic exams are several learning-based exams and several final exams. When you take a final exam, you cannot receive help or correct answers.

The product's exam questions concentrate on the material you must know to pass the MCSE examinations. The program presents several question types: single answer, multiple choice, and scenario (in which you must deduce the correct answer to a problem a particular situation presents). As you move through the questions, the software indicates whether you answered each question correctly. When you complete an exam, a summary screen shows you how many questions you answered correctly and what your problem areas are.

Perhaps the best part of The Edge Tests package is the Tracker feature, which lets you monitor your progress. As you take the tests and answer questions, Tracker stores the data in a special database by username. Tracker will display the information in several report formats: For example, summary reports display your performance on each examination, and detail reports display your answers to individual questions.

Overall, I find The Edge Tests disappointing. The product's graphical interface has a Visual Basic (VB) beginner's look, with arrow icons for moving forward and backward through questions, as Screen 2 shows. The product literature announces that The Edge Tests incorporates interactive answers, page references, more graphical exhibits, and multimedia sound and graphics. However, the interactive answers and page references are little more than one-line answers to test questions with references to third-party study guides. The only graphical exhibits I encountered were pop-up boxes that read "not quite." And the multimedia sound and graphics are simple sound effects the program produces whenever a user answers questions.

You can purchase a CD-ROM-only version of The Edge Tests; a version with several study guides in addition to the CD-ROM is available at a higher price. The CD-ROM product has the feel of an advertisement for the study guides, rather than being a true sample-examination program. This program's most serious flaw is that it targets only four core MCSE examinations.

Interactive Test Guide: MCSE Core CD
Contact: IBID Publishing * 800-725-9816
Price: $599.95 (core CD-ROM), $299.95 (elective CD-ROM)
System Requirements: 33MHz 486 processor or better, 486DX4/100 or higher processor, Service Pack 3, 2X CD-ROM drive, Super VGA video graphics adapter and monitor, 40MB of hard disk space
The Edge Tests
Contact: LearningWare * 800-684-8858
Price: $399
System Requirements: 386 processor or better, Windows 95 or later, VGA graphics, 5MB of hard disk space plus 1MB of hard disk space per program

MCSE TestMaster
PC Age is a relative newcomer to the sample-examination software market. The company offers six programs that you can purchase separately or bundled at a discount price: Networking Essentials, Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Workstation 4.0, Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0, Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 Enterprise Technologies, Internetworking Microsoft TCP/IP on Windows NT, and System Administration for Microsoft SQL Server 6.5 for Windows NT.

Each TestMaster program has hundreds of multiple-choice questions, and this design makes the examination process easy to complete but tasking mentally. The exam software fits on one 3.5" disk, so you can install it on your laptop and test yourself any time--a multimedia powerhouse PC isn't necessary.

I reviewed the Internetworking Microsoft TCP/IP on Windows NT sample examination. This test prepares you for test #70-59 in the MCSE certification process--an elective examination. Installing the software was simple. I ran setup.exe on the 3.5" disk, answered a few questions, and was ready to launch the program from the Start menu.

The TestMaster program includes the kind of single- and multiple-selection questions that the Microsoft exams contain. TestMaster also includes a Mark box, which I have not seen on other CBT sample-examination software. The Mark box lets you flag questions you're unsure of, so that you can find them easily. Using the Mark box is a good test-taking strategy. You can answer the questions you know how to answer, returning later to the questions you've marked that you need to think about. Screen 3 shows a typical TestMaster multiple-choice question.

An Exhibit button accompanies many of the questions in the TestMaster programs. Clicking Exhibit opens a window containing information to help you correctly answer the question. The Microsoft examinations offer this feature, but it's not found in many sample-examination programs. After you complete a TestMaster examination, the software presents a report detailing your performance by section.

I encountered several small annoyances while running the TestMaster software. First, on the Previous button, P is underlined, which is the typical indication that Alt+P serves as the Previous shortcut. However, whenever I used Alt+P to move to the previous question, an Explain window, containing the correct answer and an explanation of the question, popped up. Clicking Previous did not summon an Explain window. Having to click Previous to move backward between questions requires more mouse action than I prefer. In addition, when I opened Exhibit windows, the contents of some windows would not adjust to my screen resolution. I used TestMaster's "stretch" mode, which shrank the interface but also made it unreadable in some instances.

TestMaster is excellent sample-examination software but offers test packages for only four of the core MCSE certification tests. Another limitation is that, by default, TestMaster quizzes you on 151 questions per exam in a total allotted time of 151 minutes, which doesn't mirror the method of the Microsoft MCSE tests.

MCSE Suite #6

Transcender's MCSE Suite #6 has a reputation for being the best exam-preparation software available. MCSE Suite #6 is a collection of 15 different programs that highlight the core technologies targeted by the MCSE certification process, including NT Server 3.51 and 4.0, NT Workstation 3.51 and 4.0, Win95, Windows 3.11, Exchange, Internet Information Server (IIS), and TCP/IP for NT 3.51 and 4.0. MCSE Suite #6 also highlights the elective technologies of the MCSE curriculum, such as SQL Server and SMS. Each program contains several sample examinations that simulate the Microsoft MCSE exams. (After I completed my review, Transcender released a new version of the software, MCSE Suite #8, which contains 18 programs.) Transcender claims its exams are more difficult than Microsoft's exams, because to pass a MCSE Suite #6 exam, you must achieve a higher score than you need to pass a Microsoft certification exam.

Each MCSE Suite #6 program fits on a 3.5" disk. Installation consists of running the setup program and selecting the destination directory for the program files. I didn't like two aspects of the installation. First, I wanted to install the software into \mcse\trans\programname, but I had to manually create the \mcse and then \mcse\trans directories--the installation program did not create them for me. Second, each time I installed a new examination program, a separate program group would appear on my Start menu, which rapidly became crowded.

After you launch an MCSE Suite #6 program, you can select among many sample exams. Each exam contains several question formats. Like the Microsoft examinations, many questions are vague and require you to make assumptions. MCSE Suite #6 exams are timed to reflect the testing environment you'll encounter in the Microsoft certification tests. You can expand the time limits, but if you stick with the default times, you'll have a good idea of what it feels like to take the timed Microsoft certification tests.

When you complete a sample examination, MCSE Suite #6 compiles an Examination Score Report that rates your performance. The product organizes the report by exam section and shows the percentage of questions you answered correctly in each section. A bar graph gives you a graphic representation of your progress. For each exam, you receive an overall and a passing score. If your overall score exceeds your passing score, you pass the examination. Screen 4 shows the Examination Score Report for someone who did not study very much before taking the sample exam.

After you take an exam, you can go back and review the questions you answered incorrectly. When you review questions, the program will display the answer you gave and the correct answer. You can't review your answers without also seeing the correct answer. A negative side effect of this kind of review process is that you will quickly learn the sample exam's correct answers, and as you do so, the program will become increasingly ineffective in accurately gauging your knowledge.

The cost of the complete MCSE Suite #6 set of 15 programs is steep for a product that tests your ability to pass $600 worth of examinations. However, you can purchase each of the 15 programs separately, concentrating on the specific exams you feel are necessary to complement your self-study program.

MCSE TestMaster
Contact: PC Age * 800-722-4360 or 732-287-3622
Price: $139 (1 test), $695 (6 tests)
System Requirements: 386 processor or better, Windows 3.1 or later, 4MB of RAM, 10MB of hard disk space
MCSE Suite #6
Contact: Transcender * 615-726-8779
Price: $1499
System Requirements: Windows 3.1 or later