PHP Hacks: Tips & Tools for Creating Dynamic Web Sites, by Jack Herrington, ISBN: 0-596-10139-2

Reviewed by: Paul Schneider, Ph.D., May 2006
Published by: O’Reilly
Requires: N/A
MSRP: US$29.95, CAN$41.95

The word "Hacking" was once a comparatively positive term. To be a hacker was to be someone who could creatively and efficiently solve computer problems. However, the term gradually devolved in the public eye, as “Hacks” became associated with quick fixes and inferior programming. Later still, true Hackers began to be grouped together with people who broke through computer security systems and generally caused havoc. In the introduction to PHP Hacks the author explains that the title is an attempt to recapture the original meaning of the word. I don't know how much it will affect perceptions, but the book definitely includes some hacks worth examination.


Creating dynamic web sites is where it's at these days, but actually doing it can be a lot of work. Like most things however, there is a smart way and a hard way to do it. Neither is necessarily wrong, but the smart and often easier way will certainly save you time, and often get you the same, if not a better result. PHP Hacks provides you with a 100 different hacks to try out. The hacks themselves range from taking advantage of popular open source programs to looking at a problem in an entirely new and creative way.

As a part time PHP programmer, I often scratch my head trying to decide the best way to perform a given task. A recent example was my need to dynamically populate an Excel form. Sure I had done this before, but the Excel form I previously created was rather plain, and I wanted something that dynamically created some more dramatic formatting. Using Hack #49 I learned that I could easily take advantage of Excel 2003’s XML format, using Excel to help me create these dynamic exports in a more controlled manner. In another instance the book showed me how to take advantage of the Google Maps Application Programming Interface (API). While a number of the Hacks take advantage of resources already on the Web, others simply show you a clever way to program them yourself.

PHP Hacks consists of more than 400 pages containing 100 Hacks. Author Jack Herrington divides the Hacks into 10 chapters: Installation and Basics, Web Design, DHTML, Graphics, Databases and XML, Application Design, Patterns, Testing, Alternative UIs, and Fun Stuff. Looking through the list hacks you are bound to immediately find a couple that you'll be able to put to immediate use and others that will leave you wondering, “Hmm, how could I take advantage of that?”

The general writing and formatting style is explanatory, with Herrington providing an overview of the hack, an example, an explanation about how to use it, and useful tidbits about the hack. Like most hacks, the book itself can be useful by just about any level of programmer, but beginners will undoubtedly feel the double edge sword of sometimes accomplishing something cool that is beyond their current skill set, and being frustrated when they can't quite get the hack to work in a slightly different situation. The author does not spend a lot of time explaining the ins & outs of each hack, but then the book does not aim to teach PHP.

PHP Hacks accomplishes its goal of enabling users to more quickly complete difficult tasks with simple solutions and the use of existing tools. My biggest problem was that I wanted to understand all of the hacks thoroughly enough so that when the situation arose, I would be able to immediately scan my own memory and pull up the relevant information. My memory is good, but it's not quite up to the volume and detail in PHP Hacks, so I'll just have to surrender to scanning through the book each time I take on any major project. Recommended.

KSN Product Rating:

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