Learning PHP 5 by David Sklar, ISBN: 0-596-00560-1

Reviewed by: Paul Schneider, Ph.D., February 2005, send e-mail
Published by: O’Reilly, go to the web site
Requires: PHP 5.0 (any version)
MSRP: $29.95 US, $43.95 CA, £20.95 UK

PHP 5.0 is the latest version of PHP Hypertext Preprocessor (Ed. Note: it's a recursive acronym—even programmers have a sense of humor), a popular open source web programming language. This version contains a number of major changes that effect how programs will work. O’Reilly has released a number of books to aid PHP programmers, web developers, and dabblers in learning the new version of PHP 5. I previously reviewed their Upgrading to PHP 5.0 which was aimed at the intermediate to advanced programmer, those who use PHP day in and day out. Learning PHP 5 is their offering for the other end of the spectrum.

Learning PHP 5 is a lot like any other introductory PHP text. Author David Sklar makes the assumption that while you are familiar with the web and creating web pages, your experience in programming is little or none. Even so, intermediate level programmers are likely to benefit from various sections in the book, and a solid reinforcement of basic concepts is never a bad thing.

Sklar's basic approach to each of the concepts is to provide a clear overview of the topic, coupled with appropriate diagrams or coding examples, followed by a review of specific elements of the code, and finally wrapping it up with a summary of the objectives covered and some challenging exercises to help solidify the concepts. Lest you worry, the answers to those challenges can be found in the back of the book! Personally his overall approach was quite effective for me. At times I found myself reading a topic, later realizing during the review of the specifics or chapter objectives, that I didn't quite get that concept, and thus was prompted to re-read the text to gain a clearer understanding.

The book starts with an orientation which explains "Why PHP 5?" and provides some general programming guidelines. The subsequent twelve chapters cover Working with Text and Numbers, Making Decisions and Repeating Yourself, Working with Arrays, Functions, Making Web Forms, Storing Information with Databases, Remembering Users with Cookies and Sessions, Handling Dates and Times, Working with Files, Parsing and Generating XML, Debugging, and What else can you do with PHP. The text wraps up with appendices on Installing and Configuring the PHP Interpreter, Regular Expression Basics, the Answers to the Exercises and an Index. It's a lot of subject matter to cover but most of the chapters are actually just about the right bite size which means it won't overwhelm most folks. In other areas it definitely just touches the tip of the iceberg. My test for any introductory text on a topic I'm familiar with is the ratio between how many times I nodded yes, and how many times I found a better way to do something. Learning PHP 5 scores well in both of these categories. Sklar provides some nice concise approaches to the various concepts that often made me pause, think, and then bookmark the page.

Although the book title is Learning PHP 5, it is really about learning PHP in general. There are indeed some major changes with PHP 5, but many of the basic programming concepts have not changed dramatically, and this is reflected in the text. In other words, if you already have several introductory PHP texts on your bookshelf I would suggest you pass on another introductory text just to cover PHP 5 and instead, push yourself with a more intermediate level PHP 5 text.

Learning PHP 5 is a great all around introductory book to PHP. It pays heed to some of the new programming aspects of PHP such as classes and objects, but wisely retains a focus on basic concepts that the beginner programmer will immediately use. Although I would loved to have seen an expansion on some of the topics in the text such as debugging, functions and several of the items that were touched on in the “What else can you do with PHP” chapter, David Sklar performs a nice balancing act by providing what you need, references to additional information and exercises to help you expand your own horizons. So if you've been snagging PHP code from the web in order to make your sites go and find yourself struggling to make things work or do something slightly different, pop on over to the bookstore and give Learning PHP 5 a look. It'll probably make your life easier.

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