Safari Books Online Review

Full disclosure: I was give a 60 day 10 slot bookshelf account on Safari Books for the purposes of reviewing it, with the understanding that I would receive a full year free when I posted a review to the KPLUG webpage. No other strings were attached.

The Safari Tech Books project is an amazing undertaking. The online catalog includes 2013 (at the time of this writing) books from O'Reilly, SAMS, QUE, Cisco Press, and several other publishers. The full text and diagrams of all of these books are online and fully searchable.

There are two subscription types, the whole library and a bookshelf subscription. The sample account I used was a bookshelf subscription with 10 slots. You can search all of the books in the library, but you can only see a few paragraphs surrounding your search results. You have to place the book into your bookshelf to be able to see the whole text of the book. The book has to remain in your bookshelf for at least 30 days. Some books take up less than a slot and some can take up more, the system will warn you before the book is added.

You have to be careful not to fill up your bookshelf right away. With over 2000 books available it is easy to find interesting and relevant books! I managed to keep 2 slots open just in case I found something I really needed before my previous slots expired.

The books can be searched using a full text search engine (with the option to limit searches to just code snippets), or there is a large category tree on the left, with the books categorized every way imaginable. Top level categories include subjects like Applied Sciences, Business, Certification, Hardware, Multimedia, etc. I found the tree view a bit hard to navigate, with so many books and so many subjects it was difficult to categorize what I was looking for. Text searches were much easier to use, and they support author, ISBN and title searches as well.

Once you have a book in your bookshelf you can read the whole book, cover to cover, page by page. I found the default text to be a bit small, but that is easily corrected with a CTRL-+ in Mozilla. On the left the table of contents is displayed that makes it easy to skip around inside the book. This bar can be hidden to make the text more readable on smaller screens. Your searches can also be limited to the current book you are viewing.

You can add bookmarks to book sections as you are viewing them but you can't name the bookmarks though. You can also add public notes that others can read or private notes for your own use (the electronic equivalent of writing in the margins). The notes are only shown in the 'view notes' page though. It would make more sense to me if the notes were appended to the bottom of the page where they have been attached, that way they can easily be viewed in context. The documentation for MySQL is done this way and is very effective, with users able to add or correct content.

The system also keeps track of your recent searches, that way you can easily view the results of a search without remembering exactly what it was you entered for the search. It also keeps a list of the recent pages that you have viewed. This list can be a bit monotonous if you are reading a book page-by-page.

When searching the text is highlighted, making it easily visible as you scan the page. In some instances it can be distracting (eg. searching for 'video' in the video section of PC Hardware in a Nutshell), so there is an option that will redisplay the page with the search term highlights turned off.

I wish I could tell you how much this service costs. But I could not find any pricing structure on the website. They do allow you to sign up for a free 30 day trial account. The system is oriented towards the 'enterprise', not individual users. I think the service as it currently exists is an excellent service for large companies. It makes it easier to find the information that you know is buried in your stack of O'Reilly books, as well as allows you to make your own electronics notes.

But I wonder if we will see a 'personal' version of this? Something with a limited number of slots and a slot lifetime of a week would be more useful to someone like me who always seems to be moving from project to project (or interest - I call it chasing butterflies).

UPDATE: There is a personal version available starting at $9.95 a month. See Safari Books Online for more information.

The service is easy to use, and was always available when I needed it. But if you are depending on it as your primary information source for your business I wonder if there is a on-site version available? Something that doesn't depend on the Internet for delivery (doubtful, it would be too easy to pirate and distribute to the rest of the organization).

I would like to thank O'Reilly for giving me the opportunity to examine this new service. Their books have always been excellent and this takes publishing in a new direction.