Inside the Machine
Published: No Starch Press
Hardcover, 320 pages, $49.95
Inside the Machine is a book about computers, specifically, how they work as machines. It isn’t a book about software and operating systems, and neither is it a book about the history of computers either. It isn’t a picture-book of classic computers, and it isn’t a repair manual. Readers looking for any of these things will be disappointed. In fact, Inside the Machine is a highly-focused, very structured textbook of sorts, introducing the reader to the theory and mechanics of computers, in particular the different types of microprocessors and how they work. In terms of level, it is definitely above that of the casual reader, but it isn’t quite at level of an undergraduate textbook, and instead occupies an awkward middle ground between these extremes. But is Inside the Machine “neither one thing nor another” or a deep if demanding book for the advanced computer user?
First things first. Inside the Machine is written by John Stokes, perhaps best known through his writing at the highly respected tech site Ars Technica. Much of what Stokes writes on that site is focused on hardware, particularly CPU design, and his knowledge of the subject shines through on every page. His writing style is dry, competent, and given the complexity of the material, relatively easy to read. Things are laid out clearly and to some degree new concepts are explained as required, though on the assumption that the reader has at least some familiarity with the computing and mathematical sciences. There isn’t, for example, a glossary, and the sheer numbers of neologisms and acronyms used throughout the book does little to improve the readability of the book for anyone coming from a non-scientific background.
Scattered through the book are simple line-art illustrations used almost entirely as schematic explanations of topics covered in the adjacent text. These diagrams are competently done and are generally quite useful. It’s a shame that there aren’t photographs of some of the components being discussed alongside the text as well, because as things are presented here everything is rather abstract. So while the artwork certainly does help clarify the content being discussed, it isn’t always easy to connect that discussion to the bits inside the computer you might have seen when upgrading the hard drive or whatever. To be fair, this probably reflects the intended audience for the book, namely computer engineers and students of computer science, who will be very familiar with the hardware in question and for whom such supplementary illustrations would be superfluous.
Mac users looking at Inside the Machine will be impressed by the amount of material relevant to them. Although Inside the Machine contains nothing on the 68000 processors used in the early Macs, there is a huge amount on the PowerPC and Intel Core Duo processors found in every Macintosh produced since the mid 1990s. There’s also a lot of material comparing 32-bit and 64-bit computing, and issue beloved by marketers and industry spin doctors but largely opaque to the average Mac user. A fair proportion of the material is taken from the perspective of comparing the PowerPC processor with the rival Intel Pentium processors of the time, giving the reader a much more informed view of the “speed wars” that went on between them as each tried to assert itself in the marketplace as the definitive high-performance platform. All in all, Stokes provides a lot of the facts to key issues
On the other hand, while the information is there, the context really isn’t, at least not in an accessible sort of way. Here and there Stokes touches on why computer manufacturers and processors designers made certain decisions, but these illuminating comments are few and far between, and most of the descriptions of the improvements in processor design happen in a vacuum away from questions of marketing and manufacturing.
The problem is that Stokes’ attitude is very much “just the facts, ma’am” leading to a very dry style of delivery. Reading Inside the Machine is more akin to sitting through a technical seminar than watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel. Stokes makes few concessions for those lacking the chops to handle his level of knowledge; this is a book by a computer engineer for computer engineers. It isn’t a book for people who enjoy tweaking or repairing their computers, and it isn’t a book for people interested in the history of the computer industry. To take one example, there’s nothing on why Apple switched from Motorola 68000 processors to PowerPC processors in the mid-90s, and from the PowerPC to the Intel Core Duo ten years later.
The analogy that comes to mind is trying to get a history of the railways from a steam train buff; sure, you get lots of details on tractive effort and paint schemes and locomotive numbers, but you don’t get anything about the social and economic impact of the railways on society or why railways were a success in some places and a failure in others. So it is with Inside the Machine; this is very much a book for computer users interested only in the mechanics of the machines themselves and not what computers do, how they are sold, or what drives their evolution. Inside the Machine is a book for the computer world’s equivalent of trainspotters. Mac users in particular interested in the hardware and the history will find books like Andy Hertzfield’s Revolution in the Valley (O’Reilly) much more rewarding even if they don’t have quite the same depth in terms of the science and engineering. Stokes certainly demystifies much of the magic that goes on inside a computer, but most of the time he doesn’t manage to make much of it relevant or even all that interesting to anyone not seriously interested in the architecture of microprocessors.
Bottom line then: is Inside the Machine a good book? With reservations, yes. It’s a highly competent summary of the subject that will be enjoyed greatly by those who already know a fair amount about the subject anyway but would like to see things laid out fair and square and elaborated into the bits they aren’t so familiar with. Students of computer engineering looking for a basic primer will also find the book rewarding though probably not to the same level as an academic textbook on the same subject. As for casual readers interested in computers rather than how microchips are put together, they will probably find this book aimed slightly too high and slightly away from their fields of interest. Its lack of context and the sheer heaviness of the material contained make Inside the Machine about as much fun to read as the average PhD thesis.
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