Book Review: Practical Rails Projects

Practical Rails Projects is a weighty tome, coming in just shy of 600 pages, which led to this review taking a little longer than it otherwise might: not just because the book took a while to get through, but also because it wasn’t quite so practical to lug it on the bus as some of the others I’ve recently covered. A result of that heft is a fairly comprehensive volume, but one that doesn’t feel quite so consistent as it perhaps should.

Eldon Alameda has written the book for people who have some previous Rails experience or may have cracked open one of the introductory books on offer, but who want to learn the framework by observing a number of working projects. In some ways that leads to overlap with a book like Practical Rails Social Networking Sites, but whereas that built up one example this book covers seven ranging from a system to track progress through an exercise programme, to an appointment scheduler that interfaces with 37signals’ Highrise using ActiveResource.

The first few projects proceed at an even pace and are likely to be helpful to a newcomer to Rails, there’s a fair bit of overlap with examples available in other volumes, but they work well together. While the author discusses the decision to skip over the writing of tests and/or specs, it did seem that in a volume of this size that topic should have been given a little space, even if that involved sacrificing one of the sample projects.

Unfortunately the book loses pace a little later on, particularly with the introduction of the Ext JS library which is used to build user interfaces but ends up occupying far more space than the actual Rails code in the later chapters. Obviously Javascript frameworks are an important part of building many modern web applications and Ext JS is a worthy entrant, but the way it was used seemed quite inappropriate. The admin interfaces built with it would not gracefully degrade for users without javascript; there was no discussion of progressive enhancement or even of why the decision had been taken to build such an inaccessible system. When careful use of respond_to blocks can make progressive enhancement so straightforward in Rails, this seems a missed opportunity. At the very least the decision making process should have been documented, and ideally a better solution would have been offered.

I was similarly surprised to find a number of occasions where design decisions were made that conflicted with the RESTful approach that is now Rails convention. Early on that might have been one thing, but coming after a chapter extolling the virtues of resource-centric design that was quite a surprise and seemed an indication that the book had begun to sprawl a bit. In many ways it’s a shame that this book wasn’t broken up into a couple of volumes. Packaging the first few projects together as an introduction, then offering the last few as smaller supplements more tightly focussed on specific areas such as Ext JS usage, ActiveResource, etc. That way the material could have been tightened up and some of the repetition would have made more sense, and perhaps there would have been space to cover a few obvious missing pieces such as atom/rss feeds.

With a number of volumes now available that use specific projects to illustrate Rails techniques, this book isn’t so distinctive as it might have been a few months ago, and many developers will probably want to go for a more focussed, more succinct option. If your learning style benefits from taking things slowly and you don’t mind some repetition then this may be a good option, but don’t forget to read up on accessible web development while exploring later chapters.

Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of this book for review by the publisher. You can find it at apress, amazon US, amazon UK and all sorts of other places.

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