Spring Into PHP 5


This book review was published by Slashdot, 2005-08-11. It was noted by php|architect, 2005-08-12.

Spring Into PHP 5

A professional programmer could at any time be tasked with developing a nontrivial application using a language or Web technology with which he or she is unfamiliar. A common response is to quickly scan code snippets in Internet newsgroups and online tutorials, copy and paste code that looks applicable to the task at hand, and then lose valuable time trying to make it all work and control what was created — not unlike Dr. Frankenstein's experience. A smarter approach is to learn the language basics in sequence as rapidly as possible, not getting bogged down in excessive sample code. For developers seeking to learn PHP using the latter approach, Steven Holzner's Spring Into PHP 5, published by Addison-Wesley Professional, would be an excellent choice.

This title is another entry in Addison-Wesley Professional's promising Spring Into series, which, as suggested by the name, is aimed at developers who want to jump into a new technology and get up to speed as quickly as possible, but without missing any of the essentials. In the case of Holzner's PHP book, this goal is pursued by presenting the information in so-called "chunks", with each spanning just a few pages. Every chunk attempts to cover only one or a few related ideas, and is designed to build upon earlier chunks. The bulk of the explanation takes the form of code samples, which fortunately are short enough in length and clear enough in composition to be easily digestible. This is in stark contrast to far too many other programming books on the market, whose code samples can span multiple pages, making it difficult for the reader to discern all of the ideas that the author is trying to get across — especially when the reader has to flip back and forth between pages. Even worse is how some authors (such as Deitel and Deitel) use lengthy code listings — sometimes even complete applications — to demonstrate many ideas at once, which can be quite confusing, especially for the newbie reading about a challenging language for the first time. As Holzner notes in his preface, his book is example-oriented, with dozens of tested code samples. But none are overwhelming.

Spring Into PHP 5 (ISBN number 978-0131498624) was published on 12 April 2005. It is organized into nine chapters, covering a range of topics: PHP essentials; operators and flow control; strings and arrays; functions; PHP in HTML pages; Web forms and input validation; object-oriented programming and file handling; PHP and databases; cookies, user sessions, FTP, e-mail, and hit counters. The book has two appendices. The first one, on PHP language elements, is remarkably complete, considering that it only fills 18 pages. Owners of the book will likely find themselves turning to this material quite frequently. The second appendix lists the most commonly used functions in PHP, particularly those dealing with arrays, strings, and files. These two appendices combined go a long way to making this book more than an approachable primer — it could serve as a reference book for the language for any reader not required to dig into the more obscure intricacies of PHP. Readers with those needs will have to use more detailed sources, such as the online PHP Manual.

Each one of Holzner's chapters explains the core concepts, using the bite-sized chunks mentioned earlier. This approach is somewhat similar to the "recipes" found in many books published by O'Reilly Media, and it works well here for introducing a computer language. Holzner's writing style is clear yet never condescending, and concise yet never cryptic. The intended reader only really needs an understanding of simple HTML and how to edit text files, to make this book worthwhile and usable. The book is meaty with information, and yet not too lengthy. This is a refreshing change of pace from countless other computer language books that are bloated with redundant sample code and overly wide margins, apparently in an attempt to entice the consumer with maximum page count per dollar.

Some programming books try to move the novice along at too rapid a pace, which can get quite discouraging if and when the reader is unable to follow the discussion, and particularly if trying to follow the author in building a working example. But a far more common mistake among programming books, is to drag out the process with humongous code listings or redundant verbiage (such as following the senseless rule of telling the reader something three times — a technique that makes far more sense for speechwriting). Holzner sets and maintains an excellent pace, partly by keeping the code snippets reasonably sized, and partly through his modular approach of presenting ideas in chunks.

The physical book itself is well made and attractive, with a readable font face and size, and intelligent use of bolding to highlight those lines of code upon which the reader should focus. My only complaint in terms of the presentation, is that the gray background used for the code samples could be lightened up a bit, to make the text itself stand out more, especially the bold text. All of the screenshots are in black-and-white, which works just fine, as there would be no value in using color in the majority of the sample Web pages.

The author does an excellent job of explaining and illustrating all of the most commonly used and needed elements of the language. But he provides little guidance as to when a particular technique or approach should be used over another. For instance, when explaining how the programmer can use PHP to connect to a MySQL database, the author presents two alternatives — direct layer and Pear::DB — but no recommendations as to the choice of one over the other. On the other hand, one might argue that to include recommendations of techniques, as well as language best practices, would require the book to be much longer than it is, which would detract from the book's goal of getting a programmer up to speed on PHP in an efficient manner. The serious programmer who wishes to take PHP to the next level, can be expected to read more advanced books, to learn from expert PHP developers posting in online newsgroups, and to learn from experience as the programmer creates his or her own applications.

Another potential point of criticism could be that the book does not adequately explain how to use PHP with the various available database systems, only covering MySQL (the industry's favorite for use with PHP). But the database chapter, number 8, provides just enough information for the beginner to get started and to try out the basics. For simple database needs, the material in that chapter might be sufficient. Yet for more extensive MySQL usage, including installation and administration, other resources will need to be consulted. This book is clearly not intended to be one of those PHP + MySQL combo books that have proven so popular during the past few years.

The publisher's website for the book does not appear to have any collection of errata. Here are some that I found: On page 6, in the NOTE, "scripts can be used" should read "scripts cannot be used". On page 20, "#/ message to the user" should read "# message to the user". On page 49, in Table 2-4, in the last line, the formatting is partly wrong. Examples 3-1 through 4-14 contain incorrect indentation. On page 158, the last line in the $_FILES['userfile'] values is missing $_FILES['userfile']['error'] In Examples 5-19 and 5-20, the <head> and <h1> tags are missing ": Take 1". On page 169, the formatting of Example 6-2 is inconsistent with the others.

Aside from the errata, there were some other weaknesses — none of them serious: The chapter summaries are useless, like in most other technical books, as there's not enough details to be instructive, and more details would make them even more redundant and space-consuming. On page 176, in Figure 6-6's caption, "Navigating" should be "Redirected". On page 197, the discussion of HTTP authentication is too brief to enable the typical reader to implement it. For instance, there is no mention of where to set $_SERVER[ 'PHP_AUTH_USER' ] to make it work. Chapter 7, on object-oriented programming and file handling, should be split into two chapters. Combining them makes no sense, and the author does not even transition from the first topic to the second.

Like others in the Spring Into series, this title is reasonably priced, at only $29.99 list for over 300 pages of quality material. The publisher, Addison-Wesley Professional, has a page on their website devoted to the book, which includes a book description, a table of contents, an index, source code from the book, and a link for downloading a sample chapter (in PDF format), namely, Chapter 3, which covers strings and arrays. The site also has a link to a bonus chapter (also in PDF) that explains how to draw graphics interactively on a Web server and then send them back to the browser. Oddly enough, the page's title is "Spring Into PHP 5 - $20.99", but there's no indication as to how to get the book for only $20.99. That could simply be a typo. But there is a link to purchase the book online for $26.99. For those looking to spring into Web server-side development in general, or PHP in particular, it would be money well spent.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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