On Monday morning I took the Vista upgrade exam (70-621). I passed it with a healthy margin (pass mark was 700/900 and I scored 820/900), so I’m happy with that, and it gives me two extra certifications:

  • Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (Microsoft Windows Vista: Configuration)
  • Microsoft Certified IT Professional (Enterprise Support Technician)

This is now listed on my Microsoft transcript (transcript ID 678048, access code dZVB7fvb); they say that it can take up to 7 business days, so this was sooner than I’d expected. Meanwhile, I had an email from CompTIA on Monday afternoon granting me access to the CareerID section of their website. This means that I should get various certificates etc. from both organisations in due course.

I went off to Lewisham College for this exam; I’ve been there before (visiting a friend’s art exhibition), but not for exam purposes. I tend to roam around different test centres, mainly based on location and availability on particular dates. However, this is now a bit more complicated than it used to be, due to policy changes. Basically, there are two big companies that run computer based exams: Pearson Vue and Thomson Prometric. A particular test centre can be registered with either or both of these. In the past, you could go with either company for your chosen exam, but now you can only take Microsoft exams through Prometric and you can only take Cisco exams through Vue (you can take CompTIA exams through either). Living in London, it’s not a major hassle for me, but other people are complaining that they now have to travel much further to the nearest test centre.

Personally, I think that the Vue website is a lot easier to use: the Prometric site just says “here are 4 pages listing all the test centres in the UK”, whereas the Vue site will list the nearest centres to me based on my postcode. Beyond that, there’s not much difference between them, given that the actual exam is the same. Prometric have the advantage that they allow people to wear watches in exams; on the other hand, they explicitly say that you aren’t allowed to bring a backpack with you.

Anyway, I turned up at Lewisham College on time, i.e. 30 minutes before the exam was due to start. Wandering along a corridor, I saw signs up for Performing Arts classes; definite Fame flashbacks! I found the relevant room, which just resembled an ordinary office (rather than a reception area), so I knocked on the door and opened it. It turned out that there was someone teaching a class in there; oops. Fortunately it was a computer class, so he was wandering out to help people out rather than delivering a speech at the front, and I wasn’t too disruptive. Anyway, he didn’t know anything about exams, but he said that his class finished at 10:30 (the time my exam was due to start), so I waited outside. About 20 minutes later someone else walked past, saw me standing there, and said that the computer exams had been relocated to the basement of the adjacent building. I went over to the other building, and checked with the security guard at the front desk. As it turned out, both guys were a bit off in their directions, but at least they got me into the right general area, so I found the room in the end.

After I signed in (and handed over my contrabrand items), I sat down at my assigned computer to start the exam. At this point I would normally be under exam conditions, i.e. I shouldn’t talk to anyone else. The slight snag in this plan was that the testing room (full of computers) was nearer to the staircase than the admin office, so when other people turned up for their exams they came in and spoke to me, and I had to redirect them next door.

Before the real exam, there was an option to do a practice test: the idea is that this will demonstrate the various types of questions, e.g. single selection vs multi-selection of all correct answers. This is the same practice test they’ve had since 1999 (maybe even earlier), and there are some question types that I’ve never seen in any of my exams. In one case, the sample question has suffered from the march of progress: it’s supposed to show you when you need to scroll, by having a long list of possible answers, but nowadays all the answers fit onto one screen without scrolling! After I finished the practice, the software said that there might be a short delay before the real exam started, which is fair enough. This was then replaced by a timer, saying that I only had 5 minutes left to finish the exam. I watched this count down, and at 1 minute remaining it displayed a dialog box as an extra warning. I was a bit concerned at this point, but after acknowledging that dialog the real test began (i.e. I didn’t have to wait for the final minute).

Fortunately, this was my 9th Microsoft exam, so I chose to be amused by all of this; if it had been my first exam then I’d probably have been a bit more stressed by all these hiccups.

One slight snag with this exam is that there aren’t any self-study books available for it (yet). While I was preparing, I did a Google search on the exam code to see what other people recommended, and two websites which came up in the search results were www.pass4sure.com and www.ucertify.com. These both looked a bit iffy, so I did some separate digging on those two sites. This page didn’t reassure me:
“I used 70-290 from Pass4sure, every questions WORD 4 WORD was on the test.”

Both sites are listed at Certguard:
Pass4Sure.com – Braindump
UCertify.com – Unethical Behaviour

In other words, these are the type of websites which lower the value of certifications by helping people to cheat; I can’t stop other people from using them, but I’ll certainly avoid them. Now that I’ve taken the exam, I’m bound by the usual NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement), but I think there are some things it’s safe to discuss, and hopefully this advice will be useful to anyone else who is studying for it.

Following on from my previous comments, the actual exam format was a bit confusing. The intro screen said that there would be 54 questions in 2 hours. When I saw the first question, it was numbered as “1/32”, and I had 1h 12m remaining. This seemed a bit odd, but I went through all the questions. When I’d finished reviewing my answers, I clicked on the button to end the exam, expecting to fill out a survey and then get my results. Instead, I saw another question: this was numbered as “1/22”, and I had 48 minutes remaining. The basic idea seems to be that you would normally do two separate exams to get these qualifications (70-620 for the MCTS and 70-622 for the MCITP). Since this is an upgrade exam, they’ve given abbreviated versions of both, focussing on the bits that are new to Vista. In practical terms, this means that the second stage of the exam is harder than the first one; this isn’t the nicest surprise to get when you’re sitting there thinking that you’ve finished!

After the second section, there was an option to go through and leave comments on questions (from both sections). I took advantage of this, pointing out a few problems (particularly the question which I considered to be impossible); it would be useful if CompTIA provided the same feature. However, there’s no option to provide general feedback on the format of the exam. There’s only one overall mark for the exam, but there are “sectional results” on the exam report which use thermometer-style bars to show how well you did in the two sections.

If you’re studying for this exam then the obvious place to start is with the list of skills being measured. These fall into seven groups:

Installing Windows Vista

Although this exam is an upgrade from the MCDST, I’d say that this topic is closer to exam 70-270 (“Installing, Configuring, and Administering Microsoft Windows XP Professional”), so it’s a bit harder than the corresponding DST exams.

You should start by making sure that you’re familiar with the system requirements and upgrade paths. After that, get the Windows Vista Step-by-Step Guides for IT Professionals. The first one (“Deploying Vista Step by Step Guide”) is particularly relevant here; it refers to Vista beta 2, but it’s still worth reading.

The next step is to get a copy of the WAIK (Windows Automated Installation Kit). It’s a bit of a hefty download (992Mb), and you’ll need to burn it onto a DVD when you’ve finished. It comes as a .img file: if your DVD burning software supports that then you’ll be fine, but if not (e.g. if you use the functionality built into Vista) then you’ll need to extract the files first using a tool like IsoBuster. You can then install this program onto your PC, go through the documentation, and start playing with the options. (Ideally you’ll have one or two spare PCs nearby so that you can practice installing Vista onto them.)

Configuring and troubleshooting post-installation system settings

You can read about parental controls and the Aero interface on the Microsoft website.

Manage Windows Vista security

I recommend the book Windows Vista Security. I’ve read it cover to cover; some chapters go beyond the scope of the exam (e.g. IIS 7), but this will basically teach you everything you need to know, as well as equipping you for your career in general. There are a few references in there to Jesper’s previous book: “Protect Your Windows Network”. That one is more related to XP, but if you haven’t already read it then it’s worth a look.

Configure and troubleshoot networking

The big change in Vista is that IPv6 is now enabled by default. However, it isn’t exactly new to Vista; you could add it to Windows XP if you chose to. The list of skills is a bit vague on this point, but I’d say that you don’t need to be an expert on this protocol, given how complicated it is; any experience will be useful (particularly in the long term), but for now you should just make sure that you know roughly what it is and be able to recognise the addresses if you see them. It’s more important to make sure that you have a decent understanding of IPv4, e.g. subnet masks that don’t just use “255” and “0”. If you read the network sections of Mike Meyers’ A+ study guide then that should be enough; you don’t need all the info from the Network+ book, although of course that extra knowledge may still come in handy one day.

Configuring and troubleshooting applications included with Windows Vista

The Microsoft website has info on Windows Mail (the replacement for Outlook Express), Meeting Space, Windows Calendar, Fax and Scan, and Windows Sidebar. There’s also a “Windows Vista Windows Meeting Space Step by Step Guide” (one of the step-by-step guides mentioned above)

Manage and maintain systems that are running Windows Vista

The Microsoft website has info on the Task Scheduler and performance. There’s also a “Performance Monitoring and Tuning Step by Step Guide” (again, see above). As for Windows Update, my advice is to read through various articles in the Microsoft Knowledge Base.

Configuring and troubleshooting mobile computing

There’s a section of the Microsoft website for Vista mobility, as well as some specific info about tablet PCs.

Ultimately, there’s no substitute for hands on experience; the most satisfying questions were the ones where I could nod to myself and think “Ah yes, I’ve had that problem a few times and I know exactly how to solve it!” So, the more practice you can get, the better. In particular, try to get experience with a range of Vista machines: desktops, laptops, media centres, and extenders (e.g. the Xbox 360). Some features vary between editions of Vista (e.g. BitLocker is only available in the Enterprise and Ultimate editions), and you will also see some different behaviour depending on whether a machine is joined to a domain or not.

If you can’t try out a particular scenario then it’s still useful to read about it. The Vista Resource Kit covers a wide range of topics, although it doesn’t necessarily go into much depth on all of them; I didn’t read much of it, but I’ll keep it as a reference guide for future troubleshooting.

Anyway, I hope this advice is useful to someone else, and good luck if you take the exam.

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