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Review of Scherz: Practical Electronics for Inventors

Please note that a newer edition of this book is available.

If you want to learn about electronics and want an easy to read, but comprehensive overview of the subject (without being tormented with theory and mathematics), this is a very nice book. It would help if you have already heard about the most basic concepts of electronics (if you feel completely clueless about electronics, you should probably have a look at the free e-book Lessons In Electric Circuits first). After an introduction to simple components like resistors and capacitors the text explains transistors, op amps, and other semiconductor elements, together with a few basic circuits in which they are used. Optoelectronic devices are also covered. Basic circuits like filters and oscillators are introduced. The chapter on Digital Electronics explains, after a short introduction to binary numbers, the basic logic gates and the standard devices of digital electronics. It also contains an introduction to microprocessors and microcontrollers. However, programmable logic like GAL, PAL oder FPGA is not covered. A chapter on Hands On Electronics provides a lot of valuable tips if you actually want to design and build a circuit.

The only chapter that makes use of some advanced mathematics is chapter 2. To fully understand the discussion on capacitors and inductors and the basic AC circuits in which they are used, you need some knowledge of calculus and especially complex numbers. However, even without this knowledge you can gain some sort of intuitive understanding of this basic devices. And the rest of the book is essentially free of any higher math, relying on intuitive explanations of the devices that are introduced, rather than on theory.

Among other explanations, the author uses mechanical analogies (especially the analogy between water flow and current flow) to make electronic elements easier to understand. This makes for a very nice explanation of resistors, capacitors, inductors, transformers and diodes, but in case of transistors and op amps the resulting mechanisms look quite complex. In any case, it shows that the author is committed to explain things as easy as possible.

One thing I missed in the chapter on digital electronics: The author ( correctly) mentions the availability of cheap and easy to program microcontrollers. And that it may be a good idea to replace a complex digital circuit that is build from many individual logic gates by a microcontroller, and to move the design effort into the software. What he fails to mention is another important alternative, which is to move from simple logic gates (like the 74xxx families) to programmable logic like GAL. However, for someone who is new to electronics, more important than the available design alternatives is probably an easy to understand introduction to the basic concepts of digital electronics. Here the author does an excellent job.

My general impression of the book is, that if you carefully study it, you will gain a very good overview of the important topics of modern electronics. You will recognize the parts on the schematic diagram of an electronic circuit, and, more important, you will have a basic understanding of why the parts are connected in the way they are (for circuits of moderate complexity). You will also gain the ability to design and build simple electronic circuits yourself. For this purpose it is very helpful that the author mentions many small but important details. For example, he provides lots of carefully hand drawn figures of the different kind of wires, switches and connectors with an explanation of their typical usage. Such things seem to be too trivial for most authors, but can be extremly valuable if you are building your first circuits. But if you are more ambitious and want to build complex electronic circuits (or circuits that have to perform according to demanding specifications), you will soon reach the limits of the book. In this case, The Art of Electronics may be a good book for you (but be warned that it requires significantly more efforts to understand it than Practical Electronics).

An annoying aspect of the book is the large number of errors. Before you read it, you should have a look at this errata sheet (pdf), which was compiled by Martin Ligare from Bucknell University (other contributors are given credit on the first page, together with an EMail adress where you can send errors so that they can be added to the sheet). If you are shocked by the size of the errata sheet, please note that some of the comments are suggestions to improve the text, rather than findings of real errors. But the number of real, hard errors that were found is bad enough. And the errata sheet does not cover the entire text, so you have to be aware that more errors might be lurking somewhere.

Despite of this, I still think it is a nice book. It's major strength is that it explains many complicated concepts in an understandable way, and this is not so much affected by the errors.

You should also take a look at some recommendations for other books on practical analog electronics.

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