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Book Review: The Hardware Hacker

Posted by on April 10, 2017.

The Hardware Hacker by Andrew Huang is not quite what you would expect from looking at the cover. There might be an expectation of page after page of schematics, code, circuit diagrams and…well, hardware – but what this book has to offer is much more than that. Andrew Huang makes what could easily be a dry, dull topic into lively and vivid prose with the human factor. Every experience Huang details, whether it relates to hacking, manufacturing or copyright politics, is given a wider context to keep it relevant. Reading The Hardware Hacker will certainly give insight into the modern tech culture of both China and the West, and even show how such things as old Chinese folk stories tie in to the modern-day hacking scene.

At face value, The Hardware Hacker appears to cater to a very niche interest – most people with an academic, outsider interest in hacking will usually think only of software hacking, and it’s that type of hacking that tends to get the most media attention and awareness. However, even someone who has never been especially aware of the hardware hacking field will, after just a few pages, find themselves swept up in Andrew Huang’s infectious enthusiasm for the subject. An optimistic, conversational tone coupled with an effortlessly bright writing style make for a charismatic text, and there doesn’t need to be a pre-existing interest in the subject matter to find this book enlightening. Huang is simply engaging to read.

Of particular interest are those chapters which deal with the ‘hardware culture’ in China. It’s a subject that doesn’t see much widespread discussion, but The Hardware Hacker throws a light on China’s technology, computing and manufacturing industries, each with a culture and ethos holistically tied to its practices. Huang’s well-travelled background allows for a fascinating highlight of the differences between the Western approach to hardware and intellectual property and how almost roguish the Chinese culture seems in comparison. The book paints a Wild West-like picture of the lively, semi-lawless hardware modification scene in China, without bias towards the freedoms or the hazards that go with it.

For all the wide-ranging cultural, political and personal subjects which the various chapters explore, The Hardware Hacker does deal intimately with the practical specifics of examining, modifying, reverse engineering and dissecting hardware, and doesn’t hold back on getting seriously forensic when it needs to. In keeping with his ‘open hardware’ ethos, Huang demonstrates the procedures for close examination and analysis of hardware without keeping any secrets back. Specifications and techniques are explained and demonstrated in detail, and all without over-indulgence in jargon, so even a layman can come away feeling they can reproduce the steps to, say, identify a counterfeit microchip.

The practical information in The Hardware Hacker is as rich and in-depth as the cultural context, and almost anyone, even those not directly involved with hardware modification or invention, can find something to take away from this book. There is something to learn for hackers in general, people in manufacturing businesses, perhaps even genetic biologists. Huang’s vivid and highly personal recollections of his travels even make good material for writers, the people and places he describes given life and dimension, providing a glimpse of a world otherwise almost completely overlooked.

If there is a criticism to be made of The Hardware Hacker, it’s that the book as a whole is somewhat lacking in focus. Each chapter is enriching and engaging to read, but there is little other than their shared subject matter to tie them together. The book hampers itself by making its own value unquantifiable. Many chapters contain invaluable advice for building practical skills in the field of hardware hacking, and many others give unique insight into hardware industry practices, but it can’t be said to be comprehensive or a complete guide for any of these. There’s certainly something to be said for a less goal-oriented philosophy, but it makes The Hardware Hacker difficult to categorise – and therefore difficult to say who would benefit most from reading it. This is a problem more to do with the nature of drawing on blog posts for a book, rather than any failing of the writing itself.

The Hardware Hacker is a book that most people who aren’t involved in technology and computing would probably never think to pick up – and that’s a shame. It is a joy to read, and it’s hard to imagine anyone from any field not being swept along by Huang’s knowledgeable, effervescent writing and sincere enthusiasm. Its value to a student of hardware, hacking or computing cannot be quantified in the same way as educational textbooks, but any reader will come away with a deeper, richer understanding that makes its worth impossible to overstate.

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Submitted in: Josh Townsend |