Help me update my PC / Windows literacy for the 21st Century
August 6, 2009 4:26 AM   Subscribe

I used to feel pretty confident with computers / IT in general (80s child). Now I need a boost to get back up to speed, especially digging around in the OS / filesystem. Recommend me a good book / website / hands-on project?

I want to improve my general PC knowledge, focussing on the real "under-the-hood" day-to-day stuff, like managing my Windows configuration, playing around with files, building my own website on my own domain etc.

The background is that back in the day (15 years ago!) I felt I knew more than average about computers; I had an Amiga back when they were more cutting edge and could play around with the set-up, etc. I could learn all I needed from Amiga Format and fellow geeky kids.

At university I did Physics, and we learned C++ and basically built a very, very simple memory unit and so forth, so I'm sure I have the "smarts" for this stuff. Plus I passed ECDL with no problems, I work with IT all the time, just not "under the hood".

It just seems the computer world has moved on a bit, and while I'm sure I could handle the ins and outs of Windows / DOS / etc etc, I feel I've missed the boat and there's way too much detail.

I own a fairly decent Inspiron laptop, but is it my imagination or is Windows just not self explanatory? Where is the manual? PC magazines don't seem to help much either.

Can anyone recommend a couple of books, websites, (cheap/free) online courses or whatever to get me back up to speed with this stuff???
posted by KMH to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
One of the handiest things you could do is run either Mac OS X or a solid, boring Linux like Ubuntu... and then run Windows VMs within that.

This is not anti-Windows advice: This would give you a big nifty benefit in that you could keep dozens of different virtual Windows computers handy, and freely mess them up while learning until you break them without fear.

If you trash the Windows badly enough, quit the VM, throw away the disk image, and start up the next one. Thirty second job, rather than reinstalling Windows all the time. It also lets you have many versions (XPSP3? Vista? Windows7? Server?) all one click away for comparison and practice.

Having that level of fearlessness (go ahead, break Windows so bad it's unbootable, no worries) will help you explore a lot more deeply and painlessly.

It's like saving your place in a videogame right before doing something very risky.
posted by rokusan at 5:06 AM on August 6, 2009

(And, of course, you'd learn a little Unix/Linux to boot. Can't hurt.)
posted by rokusan at 5:07 AM on August 6, 2009

Best answer: If you want an under-the-hood 'manual' about Windows, you're probably looking for Windows Internals. This is a low-level guide to the architecture of the Windows OS. In this day and age, though, it wouldn't hurt to branch out and look at Linux and Mac OS X internals as well, even if just to get a feel of what are general principles/practises, and which are Windows-specific. Linux is also a lot more tinkerable, which is a plus if your goal is to have fun by messing around with the OS.

However, while this is certainly 'under-the-hood' stuff, I wouldn't call it day-to-day. Perhaps what you're looking for is stuff on 'system administration'? This is the practical side of managing system-level services, like networking, information servers, etc. I don't know what the Windows go-to here is (although you probably wouldn't go far wrong just searching for 'Windows system administration' on Google or Amazon), but a classic for Unix and Linux systems is Essential System Administration.

You mention C++, which makes me think perhaps you're interested in learning how to program applications for a modern OS. Programming Windows is the classic text for learning about the low-level Win32 API (which I gather is a bit old-fashioned, but might be more to your low-level tastes). Microsoft's MSDN web site also has a Windows Development for Beginners portal which will lead you through the essentials -- I'm guessing this will introduce you to more modern things like the .NET managed framework. The overall kit for writing programs for Windows is now just called the Windows SDK, which encompasses Win32 and .NET.

Finally, you briefly mention building your own web site, which is a completely different topic, really. You'll want to learn about 'front-end' web development first (HTML, CSS and possibly JavaScript -- the bits that run in the browser -- HTML Dog is a good place to start). That'll let you make static web sites. If you want to make web applications, you'll need to learn about 'backend', or 'server-side' programming -- ASP.NET is the Microsoft way of doing this, while PHP is a very popular open-source scripting language that also runs on Windows.
posted by chrismear at 5:12 AM on August 6, 2009 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks @ rokusan, that's a psychologically and pedagogically sound approach ;D

Also big thanks @ chrismear for the little synopsis - that's exactly what I was looking for, some really clear pointers. I guess I just missed being "in the loop" of how things work, and even your answer makes me feel I could get back on the horse. OK, too many metaphors here.
posted by KMH at 6:12 AM on August 6, 2009

To expand on what rokusan has said. You can also run multiple MSWin virtual machines within MSWin. For a cheap entrypoint into this, VirtualBox will work with just about everything but DirectX games.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:40 AM on August 6, 2009

This thread has quite a few suggestions.
posted by CZMR at 7:37 AM on August 6, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks CZMR - I did try to search the old threads, honest! :D
posted by KMH at 7:59 AM on August 6, 2009

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