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Heavyweight Book Bout

About once every nine months, Adam and I buy a new bookshelf. This practice seemed reasonable at first, but as our wall space fills up, we have become more selective about the books we keep. When it comes to large reference works about the Macintosh, three books have not only made it onto the shelves, but also have made themselves useful on multiple occasions.

I decided to write this review after Sharon Zardetto Aker’s "The Mac Almanac" saved me a great deal of fuss and bother twice in one month. The other two books I’m going to talk about are David Pogue and Joseph Schorr’s "Macworld Mac & Power Mac Secrets, 2nd Edition," and the venerable "Macintosh Bible, 5th Edition," by DiNucci and a team of known Macintosh writers. All three of these massive books cover the Macintosh operating system, Apple hardware, fonts, printing, trouble-shooting, and more.

Just for fun, I tested each book to see how it answered eleven questions. I tried to pick questions that would bring out the strengths and weaknesses of each book.

In this table, "MB" is the Mac Bible, "MS" is Mac Secrets, and "MA" is the Mac Almanac. The table shows whether each book answers a given question: "Y" means "yes," "S" means "sort of" (some information was provided, but was either not as good as that offered by the others, or incomplete), and "N" means "no."

  Question                                                 MB  MS  MA
  -------------------------------------------------------- --  --  --
1. How do PostScript printers decide what font to print? Y Y Y
2. How do Chicago TrueType's special characters work? N N Y
3. How do I allocate RAM under System 7.0 and 7.1? S Y Y
4. How does the PowerPC's Modern Memory Manager work? N N N
5. What is the Mac TV? Y Y S
6. What monitor should I buy? Y S Y
7. Does the Mac have any accounting software? Y N N
8. How do I connect to the Internet? Y N N
9. What's PlainTalk and how do I use it? S S N
10. How do I type an em-dash? Y Y Y
11. What's the name of the Chinese Mac OS? N Y N

The test results provide data points, but they in no way replace reading each book, and since I’ve read portions of each book, here’s what I think of them:

The Macintosh Bible — Thumbing through the Mac Bible reveals a boring layout, but the Mac Bible does sport a large type size, which should make it popular in some circles. The Mac Bible’s strength lies in its broad coverage of the Macintosh world and its efforts to cover third-party products (both software and hardware), and it reads as though it were written for users, not for experienced computer consultants. The Mac Bible has an adequate discussion of the bare bones basics of using a Mac, which should be of use to many new users, though Robin Williams’s "The Little Mac Book" (also from Peachpit Press) stands out as better choices for a new user looking to get up to speed with mousing and general Macintoshing.

The Mac Bible has been around for years, and I expect it remains successful because it has good mass appeal and because it has established a reputation as a best-selling book. The Mac Bible still offers a coupon you can send in to receive an update (a cool feature), and it does come with disks, but you must fill out a coupon and pay $14 to get them. It’s a fine book, but I’d like to see Peachpit work on a more exciting layout and re-instituting the personality and enthusiasm in earlier editions. The Mac Bible is especially appropriate for people who want a book that gives general guidance for hardware and software purchases, or for novice to intermediate level Mac users.

Mac Secrets — Opening Mac Secrets for the first time reveals an attractive layout, though I wonder if the people who did the witty key-and-lock motif throughout the book particularly communicated with the people who did the icon graphics in the margins. Based on the minimal size of the bottom margin and tight layout, I’m guessing that David and Joseph turned in a longer manuscript than anticipated.

Mac Secrets has a great deal to offer in its exhaustive look at Macintosh CPUs and general coverage of most everything under the auspices of Apple, with a particular emphasis on subtle tricks and Easter eggs. In many ways, Mac Secrets is like the Mac Bible, but for a more technical audience. Mac Secrets doesn’t try to help new users, a refreshing approach for people who wish more books would use the "simple overarching concept" that "under no circumstances" should the book define the term "scroll bar." If you work in a Macintosh consulting capacity and can only buy one book, you won’t be sorry if you buy this one. If you want to learn tips, tricks, and Easter eggs – or if you are an intermediate level user who wants to be a power user – this book will take you where you want to go in a friendly, personable manner.

The Mac Almanac — Open the Mac Almanac, and right away you notice the slightly off-white pages, the unusual (though highly legible) fonts, the numerous fanciful graphics and sidebars, and the overall dreaminess of the design. The Mac Almanac rates as the most beautiful computer book I’ve ever seen.

The Almanac reads as though it was written by a Mac-based desktop publisher who – back in 1990 – knew a tremendous amount about everything Macintosh (and, after all, in 1990, desktop publishing was a lot of what was cool about the Mac). Imagine that same person continuing to stay up-to-date on desktop publishing and System-related topics, but blocking out all that new-fangled AV and telecommunications stuff. The Mac Almanac’s astonishingly excellent coverage of the System, fonts, printing, and the like make its merely above-average sections on hardware look weak. The coverage of topics such as audio, video, and telecommunications could use additional depth.

The Mac Almanac won’t turn off new users who are motivated and curious, though the depth of detail in some areas may overwhelm some. However, the book has much to offer to anyone who has jumped the initial hurdle and started turning into a confirmed Macintosh user. For example, the book begins with eight pages on how to turn on your Mac, covering power switches, power strips, startup devices, startup screens, and so on. No topic is too basic, and Sharon makes the complicated topics seem simple.

The Almanac has personality, class, warmth, empathy, and technical depth. It’s well-organized and practical, but it would also make a wonderful gift. Mac Secrets and the Mac Bible are books most any TidBITS reader would enjoy, use, and get a lot out of, but the Almanac stands out as one of the best books I’ve ever had the pleasure of owning.

  • "The Macintosh Bible, 5th Edition" DiNucci et al, Peachpit Press, 1-56609-140-3. 3.75 lbs. (1.7 kg), 2 inches (5 cm) thick, 1160 pages. Also sold with a CD of shareware and various utilities. The CD is also sold separately. (I haven’t played with the CD, but I’ve seen it for sale.) $30 U.S., $42 Canadian.
  • "Macworld Mac & Power Mac Secrets, 2nd Edition," David Pogue and Joseph Schorr, IDG Books, 1-56884-175-2. With disks in back cover: 4.25 lbs. (1.85 kg), 2.25 inches (5.5 cm) thick, 1100 pages. 39.95 U.S., $54.96 Canadian
  • "The Mac Almanac," Sharon Zardetto Aker, Ziff-Davis Press, 1-56276-143-9. 3.25 lbs. (1.5 kg), 1.5 inches (4 cm) thick, 943 pages. 29.95 U.S., $41.95 Canadian.

(Measurements are rounded, and, yes, book paper can be of different thicknesses!)

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