The Little Mac Book
Several years ago Robin Williams wrote and illustrated a marvelous book, The Little Mac Book, which in turn spawned an entire industry. Unlike almost all computer books written up to that time, The Little Mac Book went out of its way to break a given subject down into discrete parts, and then illustrate step-by-step instructions on how to do each part of a specific task. Her little book went on to be a best-seller, and also lead its publisher, Peachpit Press, to create a new series of books based on this illustrated, step-by-step approach, the Visual Quickstart Guide series.
While not formally part of the series, William's latest version, The Little Mac Book, 5th ed., sets a high standard: it is probably the best computer book yet written for the general public. While no longer quite so little (she points out that a Macintosh isn't so "little," either), it is still downright slender compared to the tree-killing "Secrets," "Bible" and "Encyclopedia" books that fill the computer sections of bookstores. Virtually everything you could want to know about a Macintosh, particularly a Macintosh running Mac OS 8, can be found in this one volume. Not only can you find the subject (thanks to a superb index and elegant table of contents), you will be able to put that knowledge to use, thanks to her spare prose and restrained, informative illustrations. Mix in a subtle wit and relentless enthusiasm and you have a computer book that people will want to read.
If some modern day Luddite comes up to you and complains that the world is growing increasingly impersonal, and computers, in particular, are to blame, give them a copy of The Little Mac Book. Macs are definitely not impersonal, and neither is this book. As a bonus, the typography and layout are outstanding examples of clarity, a tribute not only to Williams (who did everything but the cover) but also to the world of Macintosh.
Far too many people have read nothing beyond the slim "How to set up your Macintosh" guides that come with their computers. If you are one of these people, or you are a veteran guru of a dozen years or more, or you are something in between: get this book. Then read this book. Then consider some of the books that follow.
Mac OS 8
If Williams' book is the best, where does that leave the rest? For the most part, Peachpit's Visual Quickstart series is more formal in structure and design than The Little Mac Book, but no more so than you'd expect in a book series. All the books have similar cover designs, have similar "to do this, do this" formats, with limited expository lumps and well-selected, informative illustrations.*
Maria Langer's Visual Quickstart Guide: Mac OS 8 is the most obvious cousin to The Little Mac Book. Apple provides somewhere between little and no documentation for Mac OS 8, and Langer's book will fill in virtually every detail, for both new users and veterans alike. One prime example: an extensive chapter on Connecting to the Internet covers the Internet Setup Assistant, the TCP/IP Control Panel and the PPP Control Panel. It also covers the Apple Internet Connection Assistant, Claris Emailer Lite, Netscape Navigator and Personal Web Sharing. Technically, none of these (except perhaps Personal Web Sharing) are "part" of Mac OS 8, but they are included on the Mac OS 8 CD-ROM and, in the minds of beginning users, are part of the package. So Langer covers them, quite nicely, in 25 pages.
While there are differences between Mac OS 8 and Mac OS 8.1, the differences are fairly subtle. New Mac owners, or veterans upgrading to Mac OS 8, would do well to get a copy of this book and find out what Mac OS 8 &endash; and their Mac &endash; can really do. (And yes, Mac OS 8.5 will be out by the time you read this, but you'll procrastinate for many months before upgrading, so do something productive with your time and get this book and learn about Mac OS 8.)
Most Visual Quickstart Guides are written with a focus on a particular commercial program, and one of the most popular programs is ClarisWorks 5, recently retitled by Apple as AppleWorks 5. It is almost impossible to find any school-age child in America who isn't familiar with some version of ClarisWorks. Many Mac owners, in fact, are familiar with no other program: ClarisWorks came bundled with their Performa, and they've never tried anything else.
Many schools and Performa users also haven't upgraded to ClarisWorks 5, which is a shame: it is a solid program, far more capable than previous versions. And C. Ann Brown's Visual Quickstart Guide: ClarisWorks 5 for Windows and Macintosh does a splendid job of covering this multi-talented program. As the title says, the book covers both Mac and Windows versions, but this doesn't detract from the book in any way. In fact, looking at the Windows screen shots, and seeing the Windows interface side by side with the Mac interface may give you warm, fuzzy feelings about using a Mac: ten pages are spent on Windows telecommunications, while the Mac section covers the same material in two and a half pages.
One omission: Brown doesn't spend any time on file formats. ClarisWorks 5 is a very handy Swiss Army Knife for converting files back and forth between different formats, but there is no mention of this capability. ClarisWorks 5 also does a much better than average job of converting files into HTML for publishing on the World Wide Web; again, no mention is made of this capability. While you can't cover everything, Brown probably should have covered these topics. Still, an excellent book.
Third-party software books are intended as supplements to documentation supplied by the software publisher. But what if the publisher supplies no documentation? Microsoft Word 98 comes with a slim volume that does, in a general sense, talk about Word 98, but does it really "document" the program? Microsoft believes, it seems, that users never read manuals, anyway, so by far the vast majority of Word 98's documentation is electronic, brought up within the program via the Help menu or by one of the electronic "assistants" that frolic on the screen.
Given the lack of a Word 98 manual from Microsoft, can you use Maria Langer's Visual Quickstart Guide: Word 98 for Macintosh, as a manual? Absolutely. With the same careful attention to detail she displays in her guide to Mac OS 8, Langer lays out the elements of Word 98, from basic things like what all the different icons and symbols mean to more esoteric items such as how to create complex, hyperlinked documents. As with other volumes in the series, each topic is liberally illustrated, with useful examples.
Not every feature in Word 98 is covered since this kind of depth would make the guide much larger and more unwieldy. For example, Word 98 has a poorly-documented Index function that, in theory, can help you automatically build an index for your next volume on the lives of ancient Mayan basketball players. While I might have, personally, appreciated a step-by-step guide to indexing, Langer made the right choice in ignoring such rarely used functions and concentrating on a more general audience.
If you use Word 98, independently or as part of Microsoft Office 98, you'll probably find this book invaluable.
FileMaker Pro 4
Unlike Word 98, FileMaker Pro 4 comes with a decent manual that, with one glaring exception, does an excellent job of documenting this highly popular database package. That one glaring exception is a dearth of information on CDML (Claris Dynamic Markup Language), a custom superset of HTML (HyperText Markup Language) used by FileMaker 4 to link databases into the World Wide Web.
Nolan Hester's book, Visual Quickstart Guide: FileMaker Pro 4 for Windows and Macintosh, doesn't cover CDML, either. He defers to FileMaker's electronic CDML Tool as a reference, and aside from this, doesn't touch the subject. This is, however, about the only subject not covered; virtually every other facet of the package, on either a Mac or a Windows machine, gets at least some mention.
The dual-platform coverage is valuable, since one of FileMaker's great strengths is its cross-platform compatibility. If a menu or dialogue box or entry differs in any significant way between the Mac and a Windows machine, he includes screen shots of both. What he should have included, but didn't, was a check-off list of possible cross-platform problems. For example, if you use Times as your default font for a database published on a Mac, Windows users will suffer: Times will probably display too large.
Another omission: sample databases. Virtually all the screen shots are of FileMaker menus and dialogue boxes. Populated databases, showing different views of the same data using different layouts, would be invaluable, especially to those just starting in databases, but none are shown. On the other hand, Hester does include a number of appendices of dubious value, some of them little more than information from the FileMaker manual, slightly reformatted.
Nitpicks aside, this is a good general reference to FileMaker for novices. Database pros looking for a quick, visual reference, however, will be disappointed.
One early Saturday morning in 1998, at a Washington Apple Pi General Meeting, a visitor from Apple informally polled the audience on what programs they used. The three most popular were ClarisWorks, Microsoft Word, and PageMaker. While the first two make sense (most people buy a computer for word processing), the popularity of PageMaker was something of a surprise. At $895, list price, PageMaker just doesn't seem like something with mass appeal, yet more people claimed to regularly use PageMaker than Netscape Navigator &endash; and Navigator is free.
Ted Alspach tackles the masses with Visual Quickstart Guide: PageMaker 6.5 for Macintosh. Aided by an excellent index, this guide makes it easy to figure out most common PageMaker tasks, even if you aren't quite certain what to call it or what you want to do. Strictly speaking, the guide isn't just limited to PageMaker, but also covers (briefly) moving things from Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Acrobat to PageMaker.
While he doesn't even mention Quark Xpress, Alspach's guide should be on the bookshelf of every Xpress user. Why? Because, with this guide in hand, an Xpress user can do something useful with PageMaker if they're ever forced to go "slumming."
Quark XPress 4
PageMaker may be the most popular desktop publishing program, but professional designers, typographers and printers prefer Quark XPress. (Well, technically, they prefer Quark XPress 3.1; they aren't quite sure of Quark XPress 4, and tend to actively dislike Quark, the publisher.)
For those brave souls making the leap to Quark 4, Elaine Weinmann's Visual Quickstart Guide: Quark XPress 4 for Macintosh, serves as an excellent parachute. Quark's own documentation is a giant, thick manual, suitable for use as a ship's anchor, and about as approachable as an IRS audit. Weinmann, in contrast, has written one of the best volumes in the Visual Quickstart series. You may well find your XPress manual exiled to a dusty bookcase, used only for occasional reference.
What is there to like? The table of contents gives extensive detail, the index is excellent (and accurate) and even the author's introduction is worth reading. As for the bulk of the text, not only does Weinmann show you how to do the ordinary and routine, she also shows you how to do the extraordinary, including several things you might, intellectually, know XPress is supposed to do, but never quite figured out how to do &endash; until now.
Quark XPress 4 will inspire many books devoted to color separation, design and layout. Many of these will undoubtably be worth reading. But you might get more out of them if you take a look at this book, first. And if you are a PageMaker user drafted into the very different world of Quark XPress, you'll find it a lifesaver.
Of the three most popular graphic design tools &endash; Adobe PageMaker, Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop &endash; Illustrator has long had the reputation of being the most difficult, at times bordering on counter-intuitive. Much of this reputation is based on the simple fact that Illustrator is a drawing tool, and few people know how to draw.
Fortunately for Adobe, many non-artists purchase Illustrator simply because they can't draw, and Illustrator helps them fake it. For these people, plus those who find Adobe's own manuals a bit too obsure, Elaine Weinmann and Peter Lourekas' Visual Quickstart Guide: Illustrator 7 for Macintosh and Windows is a perfect reference.
Most Illustrator books have complex pictures with an accompanying narrative that says, "I produced this picture by [a series of vaguely described steps]." Weinmann and Lourekas have few pretty pictures (there are a few color plates, rare for a Quickstart Guide), but the steps used to create different effects are examined in detail. Of course, describing the steps necessary to do something sometimes has the unintended effect of proving that Illustrator is, indeed, counter-intuitive. Coloring things in Illustrator 7, for example, is an unnatural act. But this is not the fault of the guide.
Note that, though the title mentions Windows, virtually all of the screen shots are from a Macintosh. Presumably Illustrator is similar on both platforms, and this isn't a limitation. If it is a problem, there is an easy solution: switch to a Mac.
Weinmann and Lourekas team up again to round out the Adobe triumvirate with Visual Quickstart Guide: Photoshop 4 for Macintosh. This guide shares many characteristics of the Illustrator guide, including some color plates of sample Photoshop work. Simply because Photoshop is a bit more intuitive, the guide is also easier to follow.
Not surprisingly, this guide has extensive coverage of how to prepare images in Photoshop for use on the World Wide Web. On the other hand, it has surprisingly little information on using Illustrator with Photoshop. Since Illustrator has much better text tools, and can do one thing Photoshop can't &endash; draw &endash;this is a curious omission.
There is excellent coverage of all major Photoshop features, including the often-intimidating subjects of masks and paths. Tips on how to use certain features are liberally sprinkled throughout the guide; in some cases, a particular subject inspires a series of tips, stacked one after another.
Some of the technical tips are both useful and funny, such as the dry notation that, if you use a removable volume as a scratch disk, and then remove the volume, Photoshop will probably crash. While I've never been tempted to use ephemeral hardware for anything, this is still nice to know what might happen.
One final note: almost everything covered in the book seems to work just fine with the recently released Adobe Photoshop 5.0.
Bluntly put, Mark Bell's Visual Quickstart Guide: BBEdit 4 for Macintosh, may be the weakest volume in the series so far. In theory, this volume covers BBEdit 4, a very popular text editor for computer programmers and Web designers, and includes some data on version 4.5.1. Since Bare Bones Software, the publisher of BBEdit, didn't bother to include any kind of paper documentation until version 4.5 was released, a quick guide to BBEdit sounds like a good idea.
But perhaps the guide was a bit too quick. There are many errors in the guide, nearly all of them with characteristics often seen in rush jobs. In some cases, phrases appear to have been pasted into sections &endash; without bothering to go back and edit the sections to make sure the revised text still makes sense. In other cases, phrases or sentences say nothing, and the probable cause is less clear. Bell, in the front matter, has a long list of people who helped proofread, edit, and index the volume. We must take this list on faith, since the book is poorly indexed, and the editing and proofreading are less than stellar.
The guide is also incomplete. Bell's standard answer, when filling in configuration options in BBEdit (and there are many things that can be configured) is: "Edit the fields as necessary." There are no examples, no samples, no hints at what might be necessary, what might be nice, or even what might be unnecessary. Sometimes Bell suggests that you ask someone else how to configure certain options, without appearing to realize that those buying this book probably thought they were asking him.
On the other hand, this doesn't mean the guide is without value. It is certainly more visually oriented than Bare Bone's own manual for BBEdit 4.5. BBEDit has two large communities of users, programmers and Web designers. If you are a Web designer, you may find Bell's guide easier to follow than the publisher's own manual.
* Martha Randall, a science fiction author and editor, introduced me to the concept of the "expository lump" at a seminar in Seattle. Much bad science fiction, she explained, uses women as "recipients of expository lumps." When the plot requires some kind of advanced science, or mumbo-jumbo that is supposed to sound like science, the bad science fiction writer has the male protagonist explain to a clueless damsel how the warp drive works, or the ray gun works, or why the neutron star doesn't appear on the view screen. Aside from some parodies, she couldn't think of any examples in which the female protagonist explained things to some clueless male. In all cases, however, the expository lump is a bad sign: the story, the action and the plot are all detoured, or even derailed, while the author explains that which probably is best left unexplained. Expository lumps are not limited to science fiction novels, however; virtually all commercial books on personal computing contain large, undigested expository lumps. For other examples, try almost anything by Herman Melville or Tom Clancy.
Revised December 13, 1998 Lawrence I. Charters
Washington Apple Pi