Sunday, 22 February 2015

Book review: Swift Essentials


I was asked to review: Swift Essentials by Alex Blewitt from Packt Publishing (I'd previously reviewed another book of theirs for the ACCU) and ideally publicise the review. In return I was given a free copy of the eBook and offered another free eBook of my choice upon publication of this review. However, no pressure was exerted and nor was any editorial control requested or given.

In short

It's a good book that provides a more than basic introduction to iOS development using Swift. My major criticism is the title, it does not do the book justice. The sub-title 'Get up and running lightning fast with this practical guide to building applications with Swift' is a far better description. This book is ideal if you're already able to program but would like to learn about iOS development with Swift rather than with Objective-C. It's more about learning iOS app development with Swift rather than about Swift.

In long

The offer to review this book came at good time for me. I'd read quite a lot of the Swift Programming Language book, read many blog articles, attended most of the Swift London meet ups (which incidentally gets a mention in the resource section of the book; so I may have inadvertently met the author) and published my first iOS App written entirely in Swift, a game called Boingy Splat. Therefore I was interested to see what someone else made of the language itself, working with it to create iOS apps and importantly to see parts and techniques I'd missed.

The books takes you from doing mainly pure Swift using REPL on the command line and then introducing and using Playgrounds to implementing a full app, albeit without persisting any data. Smaller apps demonstrating features that will be used in the final app are created along the way. These are small and snappy and allow something concrete to be created along the way, quickly! There is a section on creating Playground packages and adding documentation that seems far from essential; interesting though.

Some of the first chapter introducing the fundamental types and constructs can get a bit dull if you've been there with other languages but it's information that needs presenting. Importantly as soon as possible the Swift idioms (iteration, containers, enums, let versus var etc.) are presented. This is the information that existing developers need.

The Playgrounds chapters introduces a little Cocoa Touch by the way of displaying images. Other than the choice of the author's face as the content (ironic rather than egomaniacal I hope :-)) it's good to be already manipulating the OS with Swift rather than just 'doing' Swift.

From chapter 3 onwards (there are 7 in total) the focus switches to creating apps. The most important concepts (that will allow you to search for and understand more detailed documentation and blogs) are introduced, i.e. Table Views, Master-Detail, Storyboards (and creating purely programmatic views), Custom Views, MVC architecture and accessing remote data. No time is spent on app signing etc. which is an understandable omission but a mention and a reference could prove useful for those very new to iOS development.

The later chapters tend to introduce a new iOS features and new Swift feature making use of one with the other. Even Unit Testing gets a mention when introducing classes and using mocking as example of sub-classing. Likewise full and practical use of Swift's enums and extension methods are given in the remote data chapter.

I was pleased to see Storyboards getting central billing for creating UIs as this is now more or less de rigueur and was always my issue with the Big Nerd Ranch book. The use of Segues is also covered along with how to create the UI using Interface Builder. In this chapter and the rest of the book a fair amount of time is spent showing how to pass data from from View to another. It's a shame the Singleton anti-pattern is presented as a way to share data in the final program especially given the coupling this causes which makes Unit Testing as advocated earlier in the book hard to accomplish.

As this is a new book it was good to see it tackle Auto Layout and not just from the Interface Builder perspective but go so far to explain and use the Visual Format Language. It's quite a feat to present this succinctly and not just cop out with a reference to the official documentation. It's this information that takes a somewhat scary area of iOS development and removes the fear.

The remote data chapter is good in that talks about synchronous versus asynchronous calls and makes use of Swift Closures for the callbacks. It covers useful details such as having to update the UI on the main thread versus performing work on others and shows the mechanisms to achieve this. A small library of useful methods that can be used outside of the book is created in the process. Again, this isn't super detailed information but it's setting new iOS developers on the right course allowing common areas of pain and confusion to be avoided.

Other than title the I have only a couple of criticisms. Firstly, I kept finding references to things either just before they were presented or to unhighlighted aspects of the code. This suggested that in order to keep the size of the book down that various pages had been chopped but less than perfect re-editing had occurred. I was able to reconcile all of these but it meant spending time flicking back through pages. Secondly, in a similar vein whilst the book contains screenshots there are sections where some intermediate screenshots or those of the final effect would aid the description. It's arguable as to whether the persistence of data is an 'essential'. I think it would have been worth taking the page count to 250 (from the current 228) to cover basic persistence; 2nd edition?


I read the eBook on iPad mini 2 using the Kindle reader app (mobi format); I haven't seen the paper version.

For technical eBooks, especially to be read on anything smaller than a full size tablet means the formatting, especially of the code is very important. The text is laid out well and most of the code is split-up so the differences between text and code highlight the other which works well. There were a few times when I needed to switch to landscape mode to make the code more readable.

Towards the end where a full program in larger sections is presented it breaks down as there is little text on the same page. Different colours would have been useful for the comments and given the use of inline lambdas (for asynchronous calls) then some other formatting or again another colour would have helped separate these from the code consuming them; though I did notice some use of bold. The use of ANSI rather K&R style braces (though this seems preferred by Apple and is more compact) may have help readability.


When Swift was first released (June '14) a lot of people thought that learning Swift would make then iOS developers whereas the real challenge (other than learning how to program) is to learn how to program against iOS. At that time learning just Swift by itself as a first language had no real benefit especially as all the books and blog articles used Objective-C plus the Cocoa Touch APIs were still rather Swift unfriendly.

Whilst knowing Objective-C is probably essential for a full-time iOS developer today and a basic knowledge will be useful for a long time to come, 8 months down the line learning iOS development just with Swift is extremely viable. This book will allow you to do this. It's not as comprehensive at the de facto book for learning iOS development: Big Nerd Ranch's iOS Programming but it is more than sufficient, uses the latest language and covers features introduced with Xcode 6, e.g. Auto Layout and demonstrates app development along the lines of how Apple sees it, by using Storyboards and Auto Layout. It's also significantly shorter!

Whilst it doesn't cover everything and what it does cover doesn't go into great detail it introduces and uses most of the key concepts of both Swift and iOS. To write an app you'll still need to read and refer to the official documentation and read blogs etc. but after reading this book there will not be much that is alien to you.

I'd recommend this book if you can already program and would like to learn how to develop for iOS. If you already know iOS but would like to learn Swift with familiar examples and see how to access the Cocoa APIs using Swift then this is also a good book. Even if you can't program and aspire to iOS development then this is a book that you could pick up and get a long with pretty soon after you'd got to grips with the basics of programming.

I think it is possible for this to become the 'go to' book for starting iOS development.

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