New Riders’ ExamGear exam prep software offers lively questions for the discerning MCSE-to-be.

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New Riders’ ExamGear exam prep software offers lively questions for the discerning MCSE-to-be.

This test preparation software is the newest offering from New Riders in an already crowded market of MCSE exam preparation products. Despite the plethora of choices, I welcome new products, as long as they combine quality technical content that promotes learning with a full-featured testing engine that has the essential bells and whistles. This review evaluates how well ExamGear meets the criteria and whether it receives my stamp of approval.

The installation is a breeze. Pop in the CD, run an EXE, and you’re off to the races. If you’re online at the time of install, you can register the product over the Internet. According to the documentation, Internet Explorer 4.01 or higher must be installed in order for the product to work properly. Since I had IE5 already on my system, I didn’t bother to find out if the skull and crossbones warning in the online documentation was really serious about this requirement.When you launch the product, you’re presented with three choices. Study mode feeds you random questions from the pool of 177 available. One option lets you end the test after a certain period of time has elapsed. Although this can be adjusted and even turned off altogether, I found it annoying when going through the exam in this mode that I couldn’t continue the exam when the time did run out.

When taking the exam multiple times, you can exclude questions that you’ve previously answered correctly x number of times or include only those questions that were missed in the past; the engine keeps track of your progress. Since the engine doesn’t provide a user profile option (it’s licensed per computer, not user), having more than one person taking exams on the same computer would render this feature useless.

Product Information
ExamGear
(MCSE Windows 98 version 1.0 module reviewed)
New Riders,
ISBN 0-73570-860-6, $75
167 questions

While in study mode, you can show the answer before moving to the next question. I really liked the format used in displaying the correct and incorrect answers. Rather than showing the explanatory verbiage on a different screen, the correct answers are highlighted and the explanation for each answer, right or wrong, is displayed immediately under each choice. Randomizing questions from the pool is a must for study purposes, but it would have been nice had New Riders also randomized the order of the answers. Maybe they’ll add this feature to a future version.

Practice mode lets you take a test that simulates an actual certification exam. This is the standard, “Don’t show me answers until I end the exam,” sweatshop mode of gauging exam readiness. No peeking allowed.

Last, in adaptive mode, you take an exam simulation using ExamGear’s adaptive testing technique. This is useful for understanding how adaptive testing works, but isn’t really very helpful overall for study purposes. For true exam preparation, I would stick to the first two modes.

Overall, New Riders has done a pretty good job with the ExamGear testing engine. In test preparation software, accurate question content is more important than test engine bells and whistles, although some of the right bells can make the test preparation experience a little more enjoyable (or should I say less painful?).

One of the unique things this test engine offers is the innovative way in which scenario questions are displayed. Rather than restrict you to a single, lengthy scrollable screen, ExamGear provides tabs for each section of the scenario, allowing you to narrow down the question view to just the required result, or the optional results, or the proposed solution, or just the answers. This is a neat feature that alleviates eye and brain strain during the exams.

Talk About Bad Timing...
New Riders barely had its product on the market for a month when Microsoft announced the formation of the “Microsoft Certified Professional Practice Test Provider program” with the stated goal of “encouraging the development of the highest-quality practice materials for candidates seeking Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) status. Microsoft will provide program participants with technical and content support for developing practice tests, render quality checks, and assist in marketing the tests to MCP candidates.” In other words, Microsoft is putting its stamp of approval on test preparation software vendors, with two of New Riders’ existing competitors—MeasureUp Corp. and Self Test Software—as the chosen ones to meet these lofty ideals.

Now here’s the interesting part, Microsoft has already stated on its Web site that it’s currently not accepting any more applications for the program. If this by-invitation only party continues into the foreseeable future, maybe Janet Reno will be studying for her MCSE; this doesn’t appear to be a fair practice, at least as far as other exam vendors are concerned. If quality is the issue, then all exam vendors that want the Microsoft stamp of approval should have the opportunity to submit their products for evaluation. That would be one small step off of my soapbox, one giant leap for MCP kind. But that’s another story. Back to the review.

—James Carrion

It’s also interesting that this product integrates with IE to allow you to open a Web browser in the application. You get links to the New Riders home page and a link to “Direct Help Discussion Groups,” a Web-based discussion forum that allows test takers to interact with peers and online mentors. At the time I wrote this article, I didn’t see much forum activity, and it appears that the earliest posts dated to August 1999. You also have the option to go directly to the ExamGear Web page and download sample questions for other exams or even to purchase additional question databases. A final option lets you check for exam updates online.

Along with the standard single/ multiple-choice questions, the exam also incorporates basic simulation questions in which you perform a task using a graphical utility. These questions aren’t actually graded when you choose “Show Answer,” but simply show you what the correct input should have been. Since the real exam incorporates simulation questions, this is a valid practice feature, but I generally found these simulation questions unchallenging; the interface only allows you to click on the areas that are correct answer-focused.

For instance, answering one question was a no-brainer since the only button that worked was the “Add Port” button. Clicking on the other tabs in the dialog box didn’t display any additional properties. In order for simulation questions to be challenging and more like those on the real exam, New Riders should have allowed the other tabs to be clicked on and their properties shown.

The “hotspot” or “click on this area” questions were better structured and also show up on the real Microsoft exams. You’re presented with a scenario and asked to click on the relevant area of a graphic or dialog box that will provide a solution to the problem.

Any of the various tabs or areas of the dialog box could be selected and would be highlighted in red. This click was recorded as the answer to the question.

In this “Build List and Reorder” question type you’re presented with a scenario and asked to move items from the right pane to the left pane in the correct order. Even though I moved the items in the correct order, the exam graded the question as incorrect. Figure 1 includes their explanation and doesn’t reflect the order in which I placed the items. Be careful; some of the item options are “fluff” and aren’t needed.

Figure 1. The Build List and Reorder questions don’t always function correctly in ExamGear. Here, the program has moved the reviewer’s responses and graded them incorrectly.

In the online documentation, ExamGear claims there are no “fluff” questions. I’m not sure if this means all questions map directly to exam objectives or that the questions themselves are straightforward with little or no “fluff” within the question content. I found a good number of the questions to be complex and somewhat lengthy (partly because of the fluff they included), but technically accurate overall. The explanations were adequate and thorough.

The question in Figure 2 is one of the more complex ones offered, but still manageable. The main problem here is that a system policy file (config.pol) was created, but the restrictions defined in the policy aren’t being applied to users for some reason.

Figure 2. This is one of the more complex questions offered. The main problem: even though a system policy file exists, the restrictions it defines aren’t being applied.

Answer A doesn’t make much sense. Setting up centralized policy restrictions should have nothing to do with the local Windows directory.

Answer B could be the correct answer if the users were logging on to an NT domain and being authenticated by an NT domain controller. The path shown in answer B is the folder shared as NETLOGON and is exactly where the policy file should be saved if we were dealing with an NT Domain environment. The scenario describes three Novell Servers that will eventually be migrated to NT, but this hasn’t occurred yet. There’s mention of an NT Server hosting printers, but doesn’t explicitly tell us what role this NT computer plays (member server or domain controller).

Answer C is a correct answer if the Windows 98 machines are using the Novell servers for primary logon. Since it’s not absolutely clear that this is the case, we must make some assumptions here and guess what the logon sequence is for these client computers.

Answer D isn’t a possibility. Enabling user profiles allows users to manage their local desktops environments on a shared computer. System policies are applied to the computer and user portions of the registry when a user logs on to a server-based environment, irrespective of the profile settings.

So we’re left with either B or C. When taking a Microsoft exam, sometimes you have to play the role of assumption manager. Since it appears to be a primarily Novell environment and doesn’t mention the role the NT computer is playing, let’s assume that the 98 users are logging on to the Novell servers for resource access and that answer C is the most correct. The ExamGear test agrees.

One More Question, Dissected
The following figure shows a fairly easy question from ExamGear; the question in the figure follows:

Question: You are the recently hired network administrator for a new network that needs to be installed. You will be installing two servers running Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 and 45 desktop client computers running Microsoft Windows 98. You have chosen the single domain model for the network.

As you set up the client computers, you want to ensure that a user can share one or more folders on their computer running Microsoft Windows 98. You also want to ensure that the users can assign specific access permissions to groups of related users from the Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 domain.

What should you do to accomplish these goals?

Select one answer.

  1. Configure share-level access control.
  2. Configure user-level access control.
  3. Configure the Client for Microsoft Networks for Quick Logon.
  4. Configure the Workgroup setting in the Network Properties dialog box to match the name of the Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 domain name.

Answer A is incorrect because Share Level security is based on passwords. When sharing out a folder using share-level security, you can assign a Read Only password or a Full Control password, but there's no way for you to deny or grant access explicitly to users based on their credentials (access token). So if your Full Control password leaks out and gets spread around via rumor-net at the cafeteria, any company employee who knows the password will be able to get access.

Answer B is the correct answer. When you choose to implement User Level security, you need to specify a Windows NT server that will act as 98's back-end security provider. Since Windows 98 can't authenticate users based on credentials (access token), the 98 computer can pass through the request to the NT server to perform the authentication. Setting up User Level security essentially gives the share an access control list that can be populated with accounts from the NT SAM database.

Answer C has nothing at all to do with the question. Quick logon affects a user sitting down physically at the 98 computer, not accessing the share remotely from across the network.

Answer D is also a setting that only affects the local workstation and not the users that will eventually remotely accessing the share.

In summary, I like this program. The testing engine is sound, with some nice extras. There’s room for improvement, especially with the simulation questions and making sure that questions are correctly graded. The technical accuracy is fairly good overall with an occasional ambiguous question thrown in here or there. The explanations are thorough and conducive to learning. I found some of the questions to be challenging although too lengthy at times (concentration is essential). On a scale of 1 to 10, I rate the Windows 98 ExamGear technical content and exam engine a rousing 8.

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