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+ - Book Review: The New Apple II User's Guide by David Finnigan

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wclarke
wclarke writes "It's not often that a book is published with the goal of instructing readers thoroughly in the use of a particular 8-bit computer in a contemporary setting, but The New Apple II User's Guide by David Finnigan is such a book. Released in 2012 and immediately the talk of the town in Apple II circles (yes, these circles exist,) this sturdy 774 page paperback sets out its twin goals in its introduction: (A) To enable anyone who is a newcomer to the Apple II computer to acquire a mastery of the machine, and (B) To serve as a reference book and refresher for those who are already experienced with Apple IIs, or indeed, experts. The book is named after the original The Apple II User's Guide (1981) by Lon Poole et al, which was very popular in its day. The scope of Finnigan's book encompasses the entire range of Apple II models, from the original II of 1977 right through to the 8/16-bit Apple IIGS (1986), though the last computer's 16-bit persona, comparable to that of the Amiga and Atari ST in behaviour, is a world unto itself and not a focus of the book.

Of the A and B camps described above, I claim to hail from the Expert end of camp B, and to bring some context to my review I should first say something about myself. I was born with an Apple II+ in my mouth, or rather my dad placed one there in 1981, when I was six years old, by buying one of these then still-new marvels of technology. This was a time when having 48KB of on-board RAM would draw an admiring whistle from the service guy at Computerland. My family upgraded to an Apple IIGS in 1990 which then continued to be my principal computer until 1996. So for a solid fifteen years, the Apple II was my sole gaming and programming home, and I grew to know its ways like the back of my hand. I was surprised by the liveliness of the Apple II community when I encountered it anew online in the Noughties. It's a community which continues to produce new products for the II, whether software (EG a Twitter client) or hardware (EG a flash storage card) on an almost monthly basis. The first line of The New Apple II User's Guide rhetorically asks "Why still use the Apple?" and supplies this answer: ". . . after three decades, it's still not finished yet. Or in other words, not everything that can be accomplished, has been accomplished." This state of affairs is what makes the arrival of such a book today a viable proposition, as well as a novel one. In his author's bio, Finnigan declares only eight years' experience with Apple IIs prior to writing the book, demonstrating that he could have benefited from its contents back in 2004 if only it had existed at the time.

Chapter 1, "Meeting Your Apple", begins with an overview of the nature of the Apple II's longevity, then moves into an explicit "Who This Book Is For" section, anticipating the various relationships the reader might have with the Apple II (ranging from "I just got one off ebay!" to "I am a grizzled veteran" – my words) and advising them in turn on how best to make use of the book. It also makes the important statement that the book assumes no prior knowledge of Apple IIs on the reader's part. If you did just score an Apple II off ebay, at a garage sale, through inheritance or from a spooky attic, the book will guide you through the process of getting it up and running from absolute first principles, beginning with identifying which model of Apple II you have acquired. The book's text is of a good size and generously spaced, and Finnigan is a clear communicator. Concise descriptions and occasional original black and white photos ensure that important features of the computer are always clearly identified when you are being walked through hands-on technical tasks. This is particularly important when the guide later turns its attention to the interior of the computer and its expansion slots; how and where to connect the various cards which support features like printing or telecommunications, or what to plug into the equivalent ports found on the back of later Apple models. The book's completist approach allows it to stand in for any original manuals that might be missing when you acquire a second-hand Apple II.

In its third chapter, the book opens onto the enormous subject of the BASIC environment and BASIC programming. It is worth pointing out for those unfamiliar with the computer that the Apple II's BASIC prompt is a genuine gateway to all its capabilities. Apple II BASIC programs can utilise both main graphics modes (lo-res and high-res), produce noise from the speaker, read input from peripherals (paddles, joysticks, mice), send output to printers and other hardware, and address any memory location in the computer. For anything that you might like to try to do with the machine, the BASIC environment is where you can instantly explore your ideas, switching between editing and execution in a single environment without any time spent compiling code. This is obviously why the bulk of The New Apple II User's Guide – roughly half of it, though not consecutively – concentrates on this environment. Chapter 3 begins by describing the use and syntaxes of BASIC, and introduces procedural programming concepts in a manner appropriate for folks who might never have encountered them before. The logical progression of the lessons and demonstrations has been carefully plotted. They start with a one line program producing ye olde "HELLO WORLD!" and build the reader's skill set up to such complex projects as the development of a basic but functional word processor, a database which can read and write text records from disk, and ultimately a few programs which demonstrate the Apple's sprite and audio features with the aid of a dash of assembly language.

In the case of the shortest code examples, the reader will have no trouble typing them in and will appreciate each example as a result. But the most substantial program listings, such as that for the word processor, can run up to eight pages in length. Digital copies of all the program listings are freely available for download at the author's companion website which is rich with many other Apple II links and resources in general. However, the digital program listings can obviously only be copy-pasted into Apple II emulators, meaning that if you're working with real hardware, you will indeed have to type them in if you want to run them. Those of us who lived through the days when magazines and books routinely published multi-page listings for readers to type in might experience a twinge of nostalgia at the recollection, but the romance of the experience was definitely outweighed by the fact that you would often end up with a program that didn't work, and no way of tracing your mistakes. Mercifully, the biggest program listing in The New Apple II User's Guide is still an easy to read baby compared to the average hobbyist listing from the 1980s, but I'm still surprised that the author hasn't made a disk image available containing all the programs from the book.

Then again, not disseminating such an image may have been a deliberate choice. The book's belief in building up the reader's understanding of each new topic from first principles means that Apple II newbies will emerge from The New Apple II User's Guide with a great sense of self-reliance. From my Grizzled Veteran perspective, I can confirm that there are no oversights which would result in a newbie having to look anywhere else for information; the book is indeed the one-stop shop of practicality that it claims to be, obviating the need to go trawling around the Internet for the thousands of slices of information which have been collated here. The same observation is relevant for veterans with regards to using this volume as a reference. The last third of the guide consists of appendices, including a complete BASIC/DOS/ProDOS command reference and a list of important memory addresses. This is the kind of detailed information which Apple II programmers usually have to look up in one of numerous 20 to 30-year-old reference books (which they also have to keep handy while they're working) or which has to be extracted from the higgledy-piggledy of the web.

Understandably, the guide doesn't enter into a discussion of which commercial Apple II software products from back in the day might make a lot of workaday tasks easier, thus avoiding the legal, ethical and logistical minefields related to the varying copyright statuses of these programs. To veteran eyes, there's a slight element of frustration in imagining having to go back and use the simplest file maintenance tools included on the vanilla DOS 3.3 and ProDOS system master disks (tools necessarily described in the book) while knowing that stuff like Copy II Plus is out there. It is similarly difficult for me to contemplate manually coding up a shape table (the Apple II's built-in sprite container system) today, an arduous process fully demonstrated in the book, when so many utilities can expedite that process. Only in the case of tasks which are thoroughly beyond the terrain of rolling-your-own is third party software mentioned, and these tasks tend to coincide with the modern era in which suites of free software have been produced by Apple II enthusiasts to tackle them. For instance the tenth chapter, on the subject of networking, offers explicit instruction in the use of several free modern programs for the purposes of getting an Apple II online, or connecting it to other PCs.

Nevertheless, I find it hard to argue against any of the book's first-principles-first stance. The guide works with the reader at the level of the metal. Even in the uncommon circumstance in which you had only the Apple II computer itself to work with – no disk drives or other storage media or operating systems in sight – you could flip its power switch, be greeted by the BASIC prompt and proceed from there to code, test, explore or produce whatever other effects you wanted to, armed only with knowledge gained from The New Apple II User's Guide. Ultimately, the nature of the book complements the nature of 8-bit computers in general, and reminds us what is so attractive about them compared to today's powerful but largely impenetrable boxes. The 8-bit machines represent self-contained worlds which are immediately accessible to users and infinitely flexible, but still simple enough to be understood or controlled by a single person.

I can highly recommend The New Apple II User's Guide to all newcomers who have a practical interest in the Apple II (the book is 100% practical – it contains no history) and to readers who already have a degree of interest in the machine, whether that interest stems from a past acquaintance they may seek to reignite or from ongoing Grizzled Veteran status. The newcomer can start at the front of the book and develop their skills in the chronological order of the chapters, working towards the back where the solid reference section stands in for numerous reference tomes from the Apple II's heyday. Another advantage of this being a 2012 book is that the reader can be sure they're getting the best version of each piece of information. The Apple II community has had a long time to track down any bugs and discrepancies in the computer itself, its tools, operating systems and the vast body of historical documentation about all of these things. The trouble with relying on random online reference materials for the Apple II is that they often consist of ancient scans of already ancient pieces of paper, and even veterans can get caught out by, for instance, googling up information from 1981 that ended up being corrected in 1983. Finally, in the course of reading The New Apple II User's Guide, I even learned some things I didn't know about the computer's commands and features, and I've had the Apple II in my life for over 30 years.

The New Apple II User's Guide is available from Amazon and Createspace

Disclosure: I was given a copy of this book free of charge by the publisher for review purposes. There was no discussion of what I might say about it and this review is my honest assessment.

About the reviewer: Wade Clarke is a Sydney-based musician, artist, game author and Apple II head. His website is wadeclarke.com"
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Book Review: The New Apple II User's Guide by David Finnigan

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