MCSE test-preparation packages

Each one of the MCSE CBT preparation packages I've reviewed in this series holds some interesting surprises. In this final installment, l review LanCircuit's Examiner and MindWorks' PRELIM.

Examiner Examination simulators are among the most expensive exam-preparation materials you can purchase. However, exam simulators are a necessary component of any MCSE self-study program.

Examiner is a low-cost examination simulation product that tests your knowledge of the material covered in six of the core MCSE exams. The product prepares you for the Networking Essentials (70-58), NT 4.0 Workstation (70-73), NT 4.0 Server Core Technologies (70-67), NT 4.0 Enterprise (70-68), TCP/IP for NT (70-59), and IIS 3.0 (70-77) examinations using a simple, intuitive interface. LanCircuit claims that at least 60 percent of Examiner's questions will be on the Sylvan Prometric MCSE exam "in one form or another." However, exact questions and answers are not available until you take the Microsoft exam.

To test the software, I downloaded the product from LanCircuit's Web site. It took an hour for the 9.63MB demonstration to download and install. I ran the self-extracting executable file to launch the setup program. After I answered questions about where to install the program and what type of installation I wanted to perform, I was ready to begin using the program.

When I launched the program from the Start menu, a graphical menu listed the examinations I could choose from. A small colored block indicates the type of license (e.g., single-user, multiuser) available for each exam.

You click a command button to select a particular exam (different command buttons exist for each exam) and launch a screen that gives an overview of the exam. I chose the TCP/IP for NT exam. The opening screen showed four large boxes, each box describing a section of the examination. When I clicked on the desired section box, the program launched the screen containing my interactive test session.

The test session that Screen 1 shows is straightforward. The test question appears at the top of the screen, and the multiple-choice answers appear below the question. The Marked button lets you bookmark a question. There are several command buttons and a text box at the bottom of the screen. You can return to the previous menu to choose another selection by clicking the Menu button. You can move back and forth between questions by clicking the right and left arrows. Clicking the Answer button places a yellow check mark in the box of the correct answer, and a detailed description of why the answer is correct appears in the text box at the bottom of the screen. The yellow check mark appears in the correct answer box even if you've chosen the wrong answer.

You can enable a randomizing feature within the program's options to vary the order of the exam questions. In addition, you can set the software to Learning mode and click the Answer button for a detailed explanation of why an answer is correct. In contrast, clicking the Testing mode will not deliver an explanation of answers.

A Review screen appears after you complete a series of questions. This screen tallies your correct answers to the examination's questions; to find out if you answered a particular question correctly, you must review each question in your examination. The program lets you know if you passed the exam when you select End Test.

Examiner's retail price for a single-user license is a bargain. LanCircuit offers volume discounts for establishments seeking a 5- or 10-user license. A trial version of the product is available from the company's Web site and offers 20 sample questions.

Examiner
Contact: LanCircuit * 905-709-3466
Web: http://www.lancircuit.com
Price: $69 for one exam
System Requirements: Windows NT 4.0 with Service Pack 3 installed, or Windows 95

PRELIM
MindWorks is a company with a history of providing proven training materials. The company's PRELIM test-preparation software enhances MindWorks' reputation.

PRELIM is a comprehensive testing simulator with an interface that mimics what you will see on the Microsoft exams. PRELIM offers seven examinations: Networking Essentials, NT Workstation, NT Server, NT Enterprise, Internetworking with TCP/IP, Internet Information Server, and Exchange Server 5.0. The software offers two modes of operation. One mode lets you learn and review the material necessary to pass your examination, letting you review answers and information interactively; the other mode challenges your knowledge similarly to an actual exam.

Installing PRELIM is easy. My test software arrived on CD-ROM. I used the CD-ROM to run the setup program. When the installation icon appeared on the screen, I could have opted to change the installation directory. Instead, however, I used the default installation location. When I clicked the installation icon, program files copied to my hard disk, and I had to reboot because some PRELIM files were in use and unable to copy during the installation process.

To run the program, I clicked the MWTest option in the Programs listing on the Start menu. Launching the program calls a screen containing a prompt for a user logon. You can supply a username and password to maintain separate testing results from other users' results. After you log on, a list of exams appears on the screen.

To select a particular examination, highlight the examination name and click the Pre-test or Test command buttons. These buttons do not activate until you provide an unlock code for each examination. To do so, type the validation code you received when you bought the software in a text box on the screen and click the Validate command button. After you unlock an examination, you can take the exam as many times as you want. From the screen that shows the list of the exams, you can review the results of previous tests you have taken and saved as part of your profile.

Each PRELIM test session resembles the Microsoft MCSE test you take at a Sylvan testing center. Screen 2 shows an example of the PRELIM software's interface. All test sessions are timed, as the Microsoft tests are, and contain the same number of questions as the Microsoft tests. The PRELIM program interface is straightforward. The Mark Question feature lets you bookmark a question for later review. Each question appears in a large text box on the screen, and a series of option buttons below the question provide the answer selections. You choose one or more answers and use the Back and Next command buttons to move between questions. After you answer all the program's questions, the program automatically grades the exam. A command button, End Test, lets you grade your examination at any time, whether or not you complete the remainder of the questions.

Depending on how you are running the product­in a learning mode (Pre-test) or an actual simulated test mode­you might have another command button on the screen. Pre-test mode lets you review the correct answers to questions as you are taking the test and receive a detailed description of why a particular answer is correct. Review this information by clicking the Details command button.

After the program grades your exam, the PRELIM software displays a bar graph that contains an analysis of your performance. The bar graph shows the percentage of your correct answers in each section of the test. You can choose to print the bar graph or save your results.

The price of the PRELIM package is somewhat high compared to other examination simulators on the market. You can download a trial version of the product from MindWorks' Web site.

How Not to Get Burned
In my initial article in this series about the different types of MCSE testing solutions (see "Lone Wolf MCSE," August 1998), I made several key points. I want to revisit several of those points.

If you intend to study on your own for your MCSE, I recommend you purchase a CBT program that presents the required knowledge as defined on the various course syllabi published by Microsoft. Different students have different ways of learning. Make sure the program you choose works best for you, whether it's based on interactive PowerPoint-like presentations with an optional voiceover from a narrator, interactive videos on CD-ROM, or is little more than a book published in electronic form on a CD-ROM for you to read through at your leisure.

Most of the products I have reviewed include some form of exam simulator, but these are usually basic simulators. If possible, invest in a simulator that presents the examinations in a manner similar to the actual examination you will take. A good exam simulator helps you learn the material--not rely on rote learning. Purchase a program that includes a large bank of questions and presents questions and answers in random order. A program that scores your examination similar to the way the Microsoft exams are scored and that identifies your weak areas is best.

Exam-preparation materials have a wide price range. Thoroughly investigate products before committing to a purchase. The MCSE self-study market is flooded with new products because many companies require new employees to have MCSE certification.

Stick with Microsoft-approved materials. Look for companies that offer a money-back guarantee, but remember that a guarantee is only as good as the company's reputation. When you find a product you think fits you, download a trial version from the company's Web site before you purchase, if possible.

PRELIM
Contact: MindWorks * 602-874-1500
Web: http://http://www.mindwork.com
Price: $125 per exam, $495 for all seven exams
System Requirements: Windows NT, Windows 95, or Windows 3.11