PC Hardware in a Nutshell. An oxymoron, as it turns out. When Robert began work on the first edition of this book in late 1998, he planned to write a 300-page book in five months. Barbara joined the project early, at first as the researcher and later as the full coauthor. After more than 18 months of working seven days a week, including last-minute rewrites to make everything as current as possible, we finally completed the first edition.

Robert decided to write the first edition because he couldn't find a good answer to what seemed to be a simple question. Robert, who has extensive PC experience, wanted to buy his first CD burner but didn't know much about them. He needed information about how to choose, install, configure, and use a CD burner. It would have been easy to check articles about CD burners in hardware-oriented magazines and enthusiast web sites, but Robert didn't trust them to provide accurate and unbiased information.

He next checked the shelf of PC hardware books he owns. What he found in those books was lots of interesting information, but a surprising dearth of useful information. For example, one very popular title devoted less than five of its 1500+ pages to CD-R and CD-RW, and most of these pages described only the history and low-level functioning of these devices. Advice on how to choose a CD burner? Advice on how to install it, configure it, use it, or troubleshoot it? Next to nothing. That same book devoted nearly 70 pages to a list of vendors?information easily accessible on the Web?so the shortage of information couldn't have been a result of page-count constraints.

We were determined to write a book filled with useful information. You won't find tables of drive parameters for hundreds of obsolete disk drives, instructions on how to change the interleave by low-level formatting of an XT hard drive, charts of keyboard scan codes, and so on. As interesting as those things might be, they fail the useful test. Pruning stuff that was merely interesting was painful because we like to read interesting stuff as much as the next person. But we quickly found out why there's so much interesting information and so relatively little useful information in most PC hardware books. Interesting is quick and easy to write. Useful is slow and hard, because you actually have to do all the stuff.

We found numerous errors repeated nearly verbatim in more than one book?things that were clearly wrong, but that an author had simply repeated instead of verifying it by taking the time to check for himself. We were guilty of that at times, too. When we listed the pinouts for a gameport, for example, we got that information from published sources. But surprisingly often, we found that these sources disagreed, and so were forced to check for ourselves.

And, boy, did we expend an incredible amount of time and effort checking things for ourselves. Rather than simply repeating what others had said about CD burners, for example, we decided to find out for ourselves. Doing that required building four computers?two IDE and two SCSI, one each with Windows 98 and Windows NT?and testing each configuration with different drive models by burning numerous CDs with each. About ten 14-hour days and 400 CD blanks later, we finally had a handle on CD burners. All that work turned into just a few pages and some specific product recommendations. But all that work was necessary if we wanted to write something more than just a me-too book.

Our efforts were rewarded. The first edition of PC Hardware in a Nutshell sold well, and was widely acclaimed by readers and reviewers alike. For example, Barnes & Noble had this to say:

Here's one PC hardware book that pulls no punches. It even recommends specific brands and models, and tells you why?so you can evaluate whatever's on sale when you're ready to buy. The authors speak to you as if you're planning to build your own computer from scratch. That's the "big kahuna" PC maintenance project, so the book's easily up to any "smaller" challenges?like adding a CD burner, or maybe replacing your motherboard. And it's all new?not padded with obsolete data and techniques. Specific, comprehensive, and relentlessly useful?superb!

Given the success of the first edition, we considered doing just a quick update, but we decided that our readers deserved better. So we spent nearly a year building the second edition. We spent weeks on end doing detailed testing and comparisons of numerous products, the results of which often boiled down to a couple of paragraphs of advice or a single product recommendation. We greatly expanded both the breadth of topics covered and the level of detail presented. The second edition was, in every respect, twice the book that the first edition was.

Of the second edition, Barnes & Noble said:

O'Reilly's straight-shootin', no-holds-barred, quality-focused PC hardware book is back, in a Second Edition that's even more indispensable than the first.

The "Hardware Guys"?Barbara Fritchman Thompson and Robert Bruce Thompson?have updated PC Hardware in a Nutshell to reflect pretty much everything that's come down the pike in the two years following the first edition, including Athlon XP/MP microprocessors, USB 2.0, and the "Big Drive" initiative for ATA drives larger than 137 gigs.

Want someone to make sense of all the DVD writable/rewritable standards and give you some decent advice about buying one? Look here. Want honest and specific advice about the latest motherboards and chipsets from both sides of the Pacific? Look here. Want troubleshooting help? There's even more of it than in the first edition.

Want to put together your own PC? The Thompsons walk you through it in extraordinary detail (how to make sure your system's multiple fans are working together, not at cross-purposes; why you should only use three screws instead of four if you're mounting a drive in a cheap case; which add-on cards generate the most heat and should be given the most breathing room).

In the first edition, the authors ended most chapters with an "Our Picks" section offering specific hardware recommendations. But hardware changes so fast that they've revamped these sections to be a bit more general and moved the specific advice to the book's companion web site. Don't worry: The book's as opinionated as ever, and when the Thompsons don't like something (Sound Blaster Live! PCI cards, generic memory), believe us, they say so.

For this third edition, we again set to work, testing new components and updating the existing material. PC hardware changes fast. We ended up completely rewriting material we originally thought would need only minor revisions. This new edition required much more time and effort than we expected when we set out to write it, but at least we had fun doing it.

We wouldn't have started this project unless we thought we could write the best PC hardware book available. We think this third edition of PC Hardware in a Nutshell meets that goal, and we hope you will too.