Safari Books Online
Books are great. You can curl up with one by the fire, or drop it in your briefcase to read on the morning commute. Books don’t need electricity.
The first e-books appeared several years ago, as Adobe Acrobat PDF files. Other formats followed. Tablet e-book readers came and went, without making much of a dent in the marketplace. But paper books still dominate the marketplace, because they’re so darn practical.
But the biggest drawback to paper books (other than leaving them out in the rain) is searching, especially searching a number of titles. Table of contents and indices notwithstanding, it’s difficult and time-consuming to for that needle-in-a-haystack bit of info in your library.
First, you have to own the books. Even if you acquired your library at Amazon prices, a comprehensive technical library ain’t cheap. Don’t let it get out of date; make sure you buy the latest titles. Then you need shelf space, more and more of it!
So, you’ve bought the books, and given them a good home. You need to search all the OS X books for information on the Mac OS X NetInfo database. One by one, the books come down, and you check the Table of Contents and/or index. If and when you find what you’re looking for, do you dog ear each page, or add a Post-It note?
Clearly, this is a laborious process.
If you subscribe to PeachPit Press’ Safari Books Online, you’ve got Web access to thousands of technical manuals for programmers, IT professionals, and general readers. The current library holds 3800 titles, and it’s growing every day.
PeachPit Press gave Nemo and I a one-month free subscription. I jumped right in and began to explore.
There’s no shortage of titles to pick from. Publishers include:
O’Reilly Addison Wesley Sams Prentice Hall Que Cisco Press Microsoft Press Peachpit Press New Riders Publishing Alpha Books Course Technology IBM Press Macromedia Adobe Press Syngress Financial Times Prentice Hall Muska & Lipman MySQL Press No Starch Novell Press Premier Press Prima Publishing SitePoint Wharton School Publishing
Subscriber can create “bookshelves” of their favorite titles, which makes them available from the “My Bookshelf” link. MyMac.com is a Mac-centric web site, so I created a bookshelf of eight Mac OS X-related titles, and one Windows XP title (I use a Windows application for work).
Apple Training Series: Mac OS X Support Essentials By Owen Linzmayer
iMovie 6 & iDVD: The Missing Manual By David Pogue
iPod & iTunes: The Missing Manual, 4th Edition By J.D. Biersdorfer
Mac OS X Help Line, Tiger Edition By Ted Landau – with Dan Frakes
Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, Tiger Edition By David Pogue
Mac® OS X Unleashed By John Ray, William Ray
Office 2004: The Missing Manual By Paul Berkowitz, Franklin Tessler, Mark Holt Walker
Running Mac OS X Tiger By James Duncan Davidson, Jason Deraleau
Windows XP for Starters: The Missing Manual By David Pogue
I’ve reviewed most of these books, and they take up almost two feet on my bookshelf.
On Safari, they’re spaceless and weightless.
For any Safari book, whether in your bookshelf or not, you can view the Table of Contents and Index, read it online, or download chapters for offline reading.
On-line reading of hundreds of pages is a non-starter for most people. The traditional paper book is far better suited for digesting and entire book. However, having the ability to save specific chapters or paragraphs is very valuable.
Searching one or hundreds of book simultaneously is Safari’s real power. You can search for any text you like, and restrict the search to your bookshelf titles, or search the whole Safari enchilada of thousands of books.
I searched my bookshelf titles for “Access Control List,” a method of setting certain file and folder permissions. The page that shows the search hits is well-designed. There were two hits, each with links to the desired page.
At the bottom was another set of links, presenting related articles. One of the best things about actually having real books to search is that you sometimes stumble across valuable information you weren’t looking for. Safari’s inclusion of related links is a rough digital equivalent of finding unexpected yet useful information.
Doing the same search on the entire Safari book list gave me a page separating the multitude of hits into categories: Operating Systems, Networking, and Programming. Each group had subgroup links to help pare the results down to size. The right side of the page display each hit for a particular title in context; a snippet of text is displayed in context so you can better judge its relevance.
Given the importance of searching, I was somewhat disappointed in Safari’s search power. The Advanced Search link allows you to search for word(s), exact phrases, or at least one or more words. You can apply those search terms to full text, code fragments (great for programmer types), book Section titles, and tips/how-tos. Further restrictions for more precision include words in book titles, authors, book categories, and publisher.
The main shortfall is the lack of regular expression (grep) searches. In spite of the Advanced Search features, I found myself longing to do grep-style searches, especially wildcard searches.
When my old 20 GB iPod threw a hissy-fit last week, I knew that I needed some troubleshooting tips. The iPod has a diagnostic mode, but I could not remember how to access it.
Safari to the rescue. A quick search for “iPod diagnostic” gave me thirty-five hits. The contextual snippets allowed me to get the right reference without having to wade through a bunch of extraneous links. Bam, in and out in about 30 seconds. With the information, I put my iPod into the built-in diagnostic mode, and found out it was probably as good a dead. But that’s another story.
There’s a tremendous amount of value in Safari, if you need what it has to offer. Don’t confuse “value” with “cheap.” O’Reilly’s Safari is not cheap, but neither is buying a shelf-load of paper books. Personally, I wouldn’t subscribe to read books on-line. While you might read extracts on-line, Safari is far better used as a reference library, not as a bookstore. Use it as a search tool.
Peachpit offers two pricing plans, Safari Basic and Safari Max. The primary difference between the plans is that Safari Max includes the ability to download chapters.
Safari Basic Bookshelf Size
Basic Starter – 5 slot Bookshelf USD $9.99 per month USD $109.99 per year Basic Small – 10 slot Bookshelf USD $14.99 per month USD $159.99 per year Basic Medium – 20 slot Bookshelf USD $24.99 per month USD $269.99 per year Basic Large – 30 slot Bookshelf USD $29.99 per month USD $329.99 per year
Safari Max – Includes ability to download chapters Bookshelf Size
Max Small – 10 slot Bookshelf USD $19.99 per month USD $219.99 per year Max Medium – 20 slot Bookshelf USD $29.99 per month USD $329.99 per year Max Large – 30 slot Bookshelf USD $34.99 per month USD $379.99 per year
While these prices are not cheap, the alternative is buying and maintaining an extensive reference library. Amazon might charge an average of $30.00 for a technical title; a library of ten books is $300. And even then, you don’t have the ability to search anything other than what you physically possess. Updates? You’re on your own.
If you actually use Safari on a regular basis, and need access to a variety of titles, the economics become persuasive. If your needs are slim, and cover only a few books, you may be satisfied with owning paper.
If you’re not sure, Safari offers a free two-week trial. Anyone thinking about jumping into this great on-line resource would be advised to sign up for the trial.
With the exception of the lack of regular expression searching, I found Safari Books Online to be an easy-to-use an very comprehensive resource. It’s not for everyone, but it may be right for you.