The Truth Is In There: The Art Of Electronics, The X-Chapters

If you’ve been into electronics for any length of time, you’ve almost certainly run across the practical bible in the field, The Art of Electronics, commonly abbreviated AoE. Any fan of the book will certainly want to consider obtaining the latest release, The Art of Electronics: The x-Chapters, which follows the previous third edition of AoE from 2015. This new book features expanded coverage of topics from the previous editions, plus discussions of some interesting but rarely traveled areas of electrical engineering.

For those unfamiliar with it, AoE, first published in 1980, is an unusually useful hybrid of textbook and engineer’s reference, blending just enough theory with liberal doses of practical experience. With its lively tone and informal style, the book has enabled people from many backgrounds to design and implement electronic circuits.

After the initial book, the second edition (AoE2) was published in 1989, and the third (AoE3) in 2015, each one renewing and expanding coverage to keep up with the rapid pace of the field. I started with the second edition and it was very well worn when I purchased a copy of the third, an upgrade I would recommend to anyone still on the fence. While the second and third books looked a lot like the first, this new one is a bit different. It’s at the same time an expanded discussion of many of the topics covered in AoE3 and a self-contained reference manual on a variety of topics in electrical engineering.

I pre-ordered this book the same day I learned it was to be published, and it finally arrived this week. So, having had the book in hand — almost continuously — for a few days, I think I’ve got a decent idea of what it’s all about. Stick around for my take on the latest in this very interesting series of books.

Overview

In the first paragraph of the book’s preface, the authors give the basic picture: the “x” is for eXtra, meaning that the material in this book was originally slated to be part of the AoE3, but simply didn’t fit — that book is 1250 pages as it stands. The new book comprises some 500 pages organized into five chapters: 1x, 2x, 3x, 4x, and 9x. This unusual numbering scheme keeps the contents in correspondence with the chapters of the third edition of AoE, stressing the fact that a lot of this material would be right at home there. In fact, each chapter of the new book begins with a repetition of the end-of-chapter review from the corresponding part of AoE3.

The back cover of The Art of Electronics: The x-Chapters

While I’ll discuss some of the highlights of each chapter — but not an exhaustive list — keep in mind that this book reads a little differently than AoE3: it’s more engineering reference handbook and less textbook. The preface is explicit about this; the linear structure of previous AoE books has been replaced with very modular sections on specific topics. This is great if you’re an even somewhat experienced designer looking for some from-the-trenches experience on a specific topic, but maybe less useful for the beginner — more about that later.

Chapter 1x: Real-World Passive Components

Starting with the lowly wire, this chapter examines the behavior of components in the real world. Conductors, cables, and connectors are examined to determine the non-ideal effects they can exhibit. Likewise, there are discussions of real-world resistors of various types, including digital potentiometers. Capacitors and inductors get extensive treatment since there are myriad imperfections that plague them. Section 1x.6 is particularly interesting, covering mechanical switches and relays, components that we sometimes forget have non-ideal characteristics. This is certainly worth a read if you use these components for anything non-trivial. Finally, the chapter concludes with a discussion of different types of diodes, including some esoteric types, and their practical failings.

Testing a tunnel diode

But there’s more than the merely practical in this book. As an example, the book devotes a section of a few pages to tunnel diodes, an esoteric subject with largely nostalgic interest for the authors. Not content to simply give the theory, they delve into the practical aspects of tracing tunnel diode curves. Having documented my attempts at this in these very pages, I can really appreciate the care and detail that went into the treatment of this subject in the x-Chapters. This is Hackaday-type stuff; if it were’t already in a book, their work would fit right in as a daily article here. As we’ll see, there’s more of the same in subsequent chapters.

This isn’t the only fun the authors are having. The title of this very article comes from their own footnote alluding to The X Files.

Chapter 2x: Advanced BJT Topics

NDR Circuit

As was noted, you won’t find a textbook introduction to bipolar junction transistors here; instead, you’ll find a collection of smaller notes about specific subtopics. For instance, the authors tabulate and discuss the leakage currents of a collection of BJTs and FETs for comparison and include a section on BJT bandwidth and transition frequency. They work through a detailed example simulating several BJT amplifiers in SPICE to measure distortion. They discuss improved current mirrors and some very interesting bipolarity ones.

There are further excursions into lands less traveled, like the discussion of a two-terminal negative resistance made from BJTs, another obscure subject close to my heart.

Chapter 3x: Advanced FET Topics

In the third x-Chapter, you’ll find some good info on selecting FETs for your application, discussions of FET transconductance, the bandwidth of FET circuits (and comparisons to BJTs), a very good discussion of the evolution and current state of power MOSFETs, and a section on integrated MOSFET gate drivers. There are also application circuits for measuring MOSFET gate charge and FET transconductance, with tabulated results for a variety of types.

Again, there’s a smattering of application examples featuring FETs, including driving a piezo transducer, generating fast pulses for LEDs, quickly quenching high-energy magnetic field coils, and generating fast 1.5 kV voltage ramps.

Chapter 4x: Advanced Topics in Operational Amplifiers

x-Chaper four begins appropriately with a brief discussion of an antique vacuum-tube op-amp, with the rest of the chapter devoted mainly to discussing the finer points of design with modern devices. There’s an expanded discussion of feedback stability, a detailed treatment of transresistance amplifiers, such as for photodiodes, coverage of unity-gain buffers and their uses, and two chapters on high-speed op-amps: one on the voltage-feedback variety, and a second for current-feedback types. They also cover some unusual capacitive-feedback op-amp circuits, logarithmic amplifiers, and driving capacitive loads, among other short topics.

In the exotica category, there is a section on silicon photomultipliers, and an example circuit which produces graphs of the chaotic attractor of the Lorenz system on an oscilloscope.

Chapter 9x: Advanced Topics in Power Control

Here, you’ll find a discussion of simple diode- and MOSFET-based reverse battery protection circuits, lithium-ion battery circuit safety, implementing foldback current limiting, controlling DC motors with PWM, high-side current sensing, and various other topics in power electronics design. There is a teardown and bench comparison of genuine and counterfeit iPhone chargers, and a good section on making temperature measurements on power circuits — from the usual finger probe to thermal cameras.

As for out-of-the-way topics, there’s one page on low-voltage boost converters for energy harvesting — they present a simple circuit that starts up at a supply voltage of 20 mV and runs down to 10 mV. They have also included a section on bus converters: bi-directional DC converters, which can convert from one voltage to another, say 12V down to 5V, but also work in reverse, transparently. This is interesting stuff.

Discussion

Obviously, in this short review, I can’t cover everything in the book. Have I left out something that will end up being your favorite part? Quite possibly. Hopefully, though, you’ve got enough of the flavor of the book to know if it warrants a further look.

Like in the original AoE books, in addition to the discussion of design issues, the new book contains selection tables for various electronic parts. Need a high-speed op-amp? How about a MOSFET gate driver? Check the corresponding table. It would be a mistake to confuse these tables with the parametric search available on manufacturer’s or distributor’s web sites. While the search tools are certainly useful, they’re a poor substitute for tables carefully curated by designers who’ve actually used the parts.

One of the more interesting features of the book is the parts index at the back. If you want to know all the authors have to say about the 2N3904 transistor, for instance, the index will point you to the twenty-two places in the book that it’s mentioned. This is a tremendous idea for a book like this, which contains all sorts of information you may not find in datasheets.

Should You Buy It?

First off, I should say that I don’t consider any of the AoE books to be suitable as first books for absolute beginners. Sure, if you’ve studied another field of engineering, you could probably pick up a copy and start running, but for the true beginner without any engineering experience, you would probably want to start elsewhere and refer to AoE for more advanced discussions — sound off in the comments with beginner book recommendations if you have them.

However, if you’ve used any of the three editions of The Art of Electronics with success, I’d recommend the x-Chapters without hesitation. Having had a little bit of time with it now, I’d be tempted to say that the third edition of AoE is incomplete without this additional material. This is not to say that I felt AoE3 was lacking before this new book, but it’s certainly more complete with this included. Does it make sense to buy this book without AoE3? Sure it’s a great book for what it covers, but the x-Chapters itself is absolutely incomplete without AoE3 by its side. Personally, I wouldn’t be without either on my shelf now.

39 thoughts on “The Truth Is In There: The Art Of Electronics, The X-Chapters

    1. Like any good Tome, filled with delicious recipes and powerful spells. None of it is filler.

      They could included X- in AoE3 but then it wouldn’t have just been an updated edition, and the price would have been significantly more. I suspect that just as importantly though, the time needed to publish these chapters would have allowed the rest of the information updated in AoE3 to stagnate for 4 years. It’s a lot of material in a field where the minutiae are fast-changing. AoE2 was published 9 years after AoE1. AoE3 was already 26 years after AoE2. You just can’t sit on finished work – publish or perish.

  1. I never heard of the book until the age of the popular internet, maybe 1996, but then it seemed referenced “everywhere”, I always assumed because many had it as a university text book.

    Even by 1980 I had almost adecade of reading and collecting books about radio and electronics, so I’m not surehow appealing it would be then, especially given the price.

    About twenty years ago saw one in a used book store, I think the second edition. I debated and decided to come back, and then it was gone. I couidn’t decide if it was worth the price which was better than new but still more than many used books. I think my impression was that I had books that covered the territory.

    1. AoE2 was a required textbook for my university course and I still use it.
      Check 2nd hand bookshops near university campuses for a copy. Its an expensive book and holds its value so impoverished grads often sell it on to freshers…

    2. When I was taking EE at university and resenting all the calculus they were stuffing down our throats, and wondering when all the good stuff would come … I was shocked and more than a little angry when i discovered that the Physics majors had this one electronics course where they got all the useful, applicable information in one term. And their text was AoE.

      I ran out and got one (2nd edition), and still have it.

      1. In my first or second quarter in Vocational Electronics, I visited a guy who was a 2nd year BSEE at another college.
        I was shocked (SHOCKED! I say!) to find that we were both learning solid state diodes in our classes, only he had waited 2 years to get to the hands-on portion in his studies, and I was having my labs concurrent with the lectures.

        1. Yes, but an EE undergrad degree doesn’t necessarily teach you about electronic applications unless you take courses that focus around that. Most EE courses are about theory of electronics(i.e. control systems, DSP, RF, nano-tech). They also teach micro-electronic design(i.e. design of op-amps) as a core class, but most EEs that I went to school didn’t like the follow on courses and didn’t take the more advanced courses. I think I learned more about circuits themselves when I was a technician than I did as an EE major in school. It’s really too bad that they don’t teach more about circuits design and manipulation in undergrad as it is more applicable to a lot of jobs. You’d also be amazed by how many EEs I work with that can’t tell you what a circuit does necessarily when looking at it. I think the major difference between being an EE and a tech is that if you know the math, it’s not as hard to learn about the circuitry design, but if you know the circuitry it’s harder to figure out the math when there is actually a design problem, if you haven’t studied the higher level math.

          1. Oh, I’m more of a hands-on guy, the idea of waiting 2 years to “get started” would have drove me up a wall.
            I am (painfully) aware the EE’s had to go deeper (in the math, the theory, the design, the wallet).

    3. For some reason, I almost didn’t recognise it by the title on teh interwebs for several mentions until I got used to it, it sticks in my mind and heard it referred to in real life as “Horowitz and Hill” .. it always takes me a second or two.

  2. AoE2 has circuit diagrams of photon counting circuits, how to wire a photomultiplier and how best to do spectroscopy on gamma rays. It talks about hand soldering half a million joints in a dedicated FFT machine for SETI. I think it was that stuff that appealed to a lot of physics students but put off a lot of EE students.

    I miss some of the physics madness when I open AoE3. I hope X goes back to that.

  3. Sorry to say that I found nearly every word of your article redundant, except for the title. That and the photo was enough to send me to Amazon. Thanks!

    I don’t think HaD accepts submissions with just a title and photo though, so I guess you had to write more, and having now read it, I think you did a great job.

    I had AoE1 on unofficial permaloan from my high school library in the late eighties until I received the AoE2 as my ‘big’ Christmas gift from my parents in 1990. I was about the only student who checked it out in 2 years – I think one other student managed to check it out when I was forbidden to renew it for a week. AoE2 remains one of my most cherished books. I bought the AoE3 when it was released, and managed to complete the set last year when I located a near-mint hard-cover 1st Edition.

    1. I once accused an EE of not knowing one end of a PCB from the other, and how wrong I was, his succinct reply “Of course I do, the shiny end goes into the backplane!” ;-)

    1. I wish you post under different name. “Adamowicz flying corps” written in polish have strong reference to the man that was stabbed on stage during charity event and died next day.

    1. If I recall properly, it was that book/edition that someone in sci.electronics.design found in a lower price from India. He posted about it maybe twenty years ago. He said the pages were thin. It seemed to be aimed at the Indian market, not reallly supposed to be sold to US readers.

      1. The technical term for that is “violating copyright”. Happens a lot in Asia.

        The writer asked for recommendations. For someone closer to beginner like me what is that book that looks like it’s printed on graph paper, Electronics Notebook or something?

        1. Not necessarily pirate. A lot of publishers produce “international editions” of textbooks which are more cheaply produced, sometimes missing chapters or supplementary material or the problems/exercises, sometimes with fewer/worse/different pictures, sometimes identical content… in order to be able to sell legitimate lower-cost copies into markets that can’t pay the original’s high price, without undermining the original’s sales. Usually publishers’ contracts with book distributors only allow one edition to be sold in a given territory. Like it or not, this will probably continue as long as there are different markets with big wealth disparities. Faced with “make one India can afford” or “leave the entire market to the pirates” for a big-name title, it’s usually an obvious choice for the publishers.

          If you’re using a textbook for a class, having the international edition is a pain if it’s different – but if it’s just for personal study, it’s no problem. I have a few, they’ve been pretty handy.

          1. Electronic Formulas, Symbols and Circuits: Forrest M. Mims

            I swear I had people in my college classes trying to buy that book off me…got more love out of that then any of my course text books.

  4. Now I’m kind of embarrassed that I’ve never actually read this! I’m decent with power electronics, but precision amplifiers and such I’m pretty clueless on.

    I haven’t worked with too many excellent analog or mechanical engineers, so my experience with analog design has always been “If you see someone solving an equation for anything other than RF, digital, or power, you’re in for a hassle”, and I never paid much attention to the more arcane stuff.

    Generally if I’m doing something at the level of transistors and diodes I always feel like I could be doing a much better product by using ICs. But most designs I see still seem to prefer MOSFETS to integrated protected drivers and such.

    1. I’m kind of wondering the same thing. The only logical thing I can think of is that you can determine the characteristics and manipulate the circuitry much easier with discrete parts based on the data sheets. You don’t always know all the characteristics of the IC that you may want to use based on the datasheets. I guess the only other logical thing is that a lot of ICs nowadays are meant for high speed applications. I had a bunch of design issues previously because the clock was only at 60Hz or so. We ran into a lot of slew rate issues because the circuitry was slow.

  5. For a great beginner’s book, it’s hard to go wrong with Forrest Mims’ “Getting Started in Electronics”. I still have my copy from the early 80s, and it is particularly well suited to younger aspiring EEs, but it also is a good intro into electronics for full grown newbie makers. It sort of runs out of steam once it gets to Op-Amps, but the coverage of the basic components is still decent and accessible.

    1. Agreed. It assumes zero knowledge, and lays a great foundation for AoE to build on. The great thing about Mims is that he managed to explain concepts in an approachable way suitable for younger readers and those without a technical background, whilst using practical and interesting circuits to provide a broad coverage of the subject.

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