Dissecting the CompTIA A+ Exam

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Editor’s Note: This post is outdated. For an updated guide see Jed Reisner’s A+ 220-801 and 220-802 guide.

Because of the huge amount of ground it covers, A+ requires candidates to pass two exams—one on core PC hardware, the other on operating systems (OS) technologies. It’s designed to identify entry-level PC technicians with at least six months of experience who possess the skills and knowledge necessary to install, configure, diagnose and maintain PCs, and who also understand basic networking.


Given the ubiquitous use and importance of PC technology in IT nowadays, it’s no surprise that A+ certification is one of the most popular credentials around. With more than 600,000 individuals now holding this certification, it’s well known and well recognized around the world.


CompTIA last updated the objectives for the A+ exam in November 2003. As with other exam updates, part of the motivation was to make these exams more current in terms of the platforms, hardware components and technologies they cover. Despite a fair amount of new technical content on both exams, CompTIA states, “changes incorporated in the 2003 upgrade were not major.” That said, the A+ FAQ does state that the exams now cover “…basic network and Internet connectivity, dial-up, DSL and cable…” and “…the latest memory, bus, peripherals, operating systems (Windows Me and XP) and wireless technologies in addition to technologies already represented in the 2001 objectives” (such as Windows 9x and 2000).


Core Hardware Exam Objectives
A survey of working PC professionals drove the creation of the A+ Core Hardware exam and its content. These responses were used to identify and weight the knowledge domains covered in this exam, as follows:



  • Installation, Configuration and Upgrading: This begins with the ability to recognize and identify key system hardware components. It also includes understanding what’s involved in adding or removing replaceable modules in desktop systems, including motherboards, storage devices, power supplies, cooling system components, CPUs, memory, display devices, input devices and adapter cards; likewise for portable components, including storage devices, power sources, memory, input devices, PC cards and mini PCI devices, docking stations and port replicators, LCD panels and wireless networking devices. Candidates must also understand low-level device configuration, including IRQs, DMA and I/O addresses, and how to work with these settings when installing or configuring devices. This part of the exam also includes coverage of names and characteristics of peripheral ports, connectors, cables and so forth, including visual identification, as well as working with IDE and SCSI devices. Issues related to hardware optimization or improvements are also covered, as well as planning and steps involved in performing hardware upgrades. Much of this part of the exam is scenario-based.
  • Diagnosing and Troubleshooting: This domain seeks to establish candidates’ knowledge and skills regarding common troubleshooting tasks related to all PC system modules and interfaces, including I/O ports and cables, motherboards, peripherals, PC case, storage devices, cooling systems and so forth. It also covers basic troubleshooting tools, techniques and procedures, including customer support tasks like documenting user environments, dealing with symptoms or error codes and understanding the problem context.
  • Preventive Maintenance: This includes coverage of cleaning techniques, hard disk maintenance and power regulation/conditioning equipment. It also deals with standard safety measures and precautions when working on PCs, such as avoiding problems related to electrostatic discharge (ESD) and safety procedures to avoid high-voltage hazards when working on power supplies, CRTs or other high-voltage equipment. Covers environmental concerns related to PC repair and disposal, including how to handle batteries, CRTs, chemical solvents and cans and material safety data sheets (MSDSs).
  • Motherboards/Processors/Memory: This requires candidates to identify and understand popular CPU chips in terms of voltage, speeds, cache, sockets or slots, and voltage regulator modules (VRMs). It also requires them to identify and understand memory types, form factors and characteristics, including those associated with Extended Data Output RAM (EDO RAM), Dynamic RAM (DRAM), Static RAM (SRAM), Video RAM (VRAM), SDRAM, DDR and RAMBUS, as well as various form factors and operational characteristics (parity versus non-parity, error correction and so forth). Motherboard topics include types of motherboards, onboard components, memory, cache, bus types and characteristics (ISA, PCI, AGP), and chipsets, as well as CMOS settings, configuration and behavior.
  • Printers: Requires understanding print technologies (laser, inkjet, dot matrix and so forth) and printer interfaces, plus common options and upgrades. Also requires knowledge of common printer problems and related resolution or repair techniques, including printer drivers, firmware updates, print/output errors, memory or configuration problems and so on. Also includes issues related to safety precautions, print job management, preventive maintenance and consumables.
  • Basic Networking: This covers basic network medium types (coax, twisted pair, fiber-optic, wireless) and connectors. It also includes understanding of basic networking concepts including addressing, bandwidth, status indicators, protocols, half- versus full-duplex transmission, networking models and so forth. Internet connectivity topics covered include LAN, DSL, cable modem, ISDN, dial-up, satellite and wireless connections, in terms of communications technologies, bandwidth and connection types.


OS Technologies Exam Objectives
As with the Core Hardware exam, a survey of working PC professionals drove the creation of the A+ OS Technologies exam and its content. These responses were used to identify and weight the knowledge domains covered, as follows:



  • OS Fundamentals: This is where one must distinguish among Windows desktops included on the exam: Windows 9x/Me, NT 4.0 Professional, 2000 Professional and XP (Home and Professional). This includes coverage of the registry, file systems and virtual memory, as well as key interfaces (Windows Explorer, control panel, consoles, system tools, command line, task bar, start menu, device management and more). Candidates must also understand names and functions of key system files, command line functions and utilities, disk partitions, file systems and directory structures, as well as OS utilities (disk, system and file management tools in particular).
  • Installation, Configuration and Upgrading: This means knowing how to install and make operational all the various Windows versions mentioned, including hardware compatibility, OS installation options and types, disk preparation, setup utilities, device driver configuration and standard install troubleshooting. It also means understanding how to upgrade from one Windows version to another, including valid upgrade paths, upgrade startup utility, hardware and application compatibility, OS service packs, patches and updates, and installing additional Windows components. For all versions candidates must also be familiar with boot sequences and boot methods, including emergency boot or repair disk preparation and boot modes. Likewise, candidates must know how to install devices, including working with device drivers (manual and PnP installation and configuration), working with permissions and installing additional Windows components. OS optimization and tuning topics covered include disk defragmentation, virtual memory management, tuning files and buffers, working with various cache settings and managing temporary files.
  • Diagnosing and Troubleshooting: This covers a wide range of topics, from error codes rel
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