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Book explains brains of a computer

Book Review The brain of a computer is itself a computer
Wed Dec 27 2006, 18:58

Book: Inside the Machine
Author: Jon Stokes
Requirements: Pair of eyes connected to brain, light
Price: $50 (CA $62)

JON "HANNIBAL" STOKES has written about microprocessors for a long time and is the co-founder of Ars Technica.

This 292 page colour illustrated hardback book is a guide to what's going on inside microprocessors and computer architecture. It's intended to give an intelligent reader a guide to the "brains of a computer", although this book is largely free of cant and restricts itself to a discussion of the essentials, built up chapter by chapter. The "brain of a computer" is itself a computer, with all sorts of interesting stuff going on for it to process numbers and turning digital info into sound, colours, and every alphabet under the sun.

So the book kicks off with a fact of life - computers and the amazing things they've ushered in, including Ars Technica and The INQ, are built using the off state (0) and the on state (1). These are practical demonstrations of ideas that go back thousands of years, ushered in by Leibnitz and demonstrated in machines Babbage created well over a century ago which are fundamental to current computer architecture. The Great Leap Forward was when the guys baked transistors into a sort of ceramic chocolate chip in the 60s and managed to achieve very large scale integration.

Naturally, between then and now, chip design has become far more sophisticated and the engineers and architects have come up with some interesting concepts while contenders for the "brain of a computer" have kind of fallen by the wayside. The Alpha chip is barely mentioned, while there's a page on Intel's Great Leap Forward of the 1990s, the Itanium, which, says Jon, "some wags dubbed the Itanic".

There's plenty in this book about the great Religious War between CISC and RISC. And never let anyone forget that Intel attempted at one time to dabble in both waters.

Intel gets a lot of attention in this book. Indeed, there are lengthy pieces on Intel architecture including the Pentium 4, the Pentium Pro, the Pentium M and latterly the Core Duo. That's mixed with a discussion of IBM/Motorola's Power PC architecture, as well as excellently written chapters on cache, on registers, and on microcode.

If you want to know about pipelining, super scalar architectures, fetch and pre-fetches, this book is the one for you. Jon makes it clear that his book is an illustrated introduction to CPUs and architecture and if you want to really get down into the nitty gritty of what the heck's going on inside the "brain of a computer", he provides full references for further reading.

What we like about Inside the Machine is the way the book is constructed, leading the interested reader on to advanced concepts illustrated with some nice graphics. We don't just mean the logical construction, the book is nicely printed, on good paper, with an attractive and clear design. Would that some putative publishers understood the importance of good design to get a message across. And good paper and glue, so the book doesn't start falling apart a day after you buy it.

This book is not for everybody, heck, this isn't the Da Vinci Code for crying out loud, but if you're interested in understanding the bits and pieces that go up to make a modern microprocessor, and how one works, this will give you a sound grounding in the ideas behind a modern CPU. ?


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