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The Manga Guide to Microprocessors

If you are interested in learning the basic concepts and principles of how computer processors work, and you enjoy the Japanese manga style of storytelling, then this book is for you!

The Manga Guide to Microprocessors encourages learning through an engaging framework that covers the intricate details of the hardware and software that make up the central processing unit (CPU), the brain of all things electronic.

Written by Michio Shibuya, the 264-page book begins with Ayumi, a world-class shogi (Japanese chess) player. Ayumi has just lost a game to a computer enigmatically called The Shooting Star. It is a scenario reminiscent of “Deep Blue®,” IBM’s chess-playing computer that beat the reigning world champion back in 1996.

The Shooting Star is a customized laptop computer that belongs to Yuu Kano, a mysterious programmer. Really, Yuu seems more like a computer architect than a programmer. Much of the charm of the book is due to the interactions and subtle verbal jabs between Ayumi and Yuu. For example, when Yuu finally agrees to teach her about computers, Ayumi figures it’s because she’s a geek without any friends. Only in the epilogue do we learn Yuu’s true motives.

Another endearing feature is the occasional technical symbol reference to Japanese culture. For example, the engineering symbol for clock input apparently looks very much like a piece of cloth that Japanese ghosts wear on their headbands. In anime—the cartoon version of many manga books—the ghost headband (“tankan”) serves to let viewers know that the character has something to do with death. Who knew?

While the interactions between Ayumi and Yuu entertain and introduce basic computer-concept lessons, much of the book provides a very readable and thorough introduction to digital logic and computer principles. The lessons begin with an introduction to digital (that is, ones and zeros) operations, beginning with decimal to binary number systems to Boolean arithmetic operands, like AND, NAND, OR, and NOR, to end with the workings of discrete RS, D, and T flip-flop chips.

Having established that fundamental background, the reader is quickly led into the general principles of the CPU, such as how it uses addresses to communicate with memory and interfaces as well as the instruction processing cycle, interrupts, input/output (I/O) ports, and more.

The chapter on operations deals with instructions for arithmetic and logic operands, including bit shifting, expressing negative binary numbers, logical shifts, data transferring operations, branch instructions, and operant types. The final exercise applies these operational concepts to an example circuit—the 74S181.

The book then turns to focus on software. The chapter on programming is very basic: Machine, assembly, and high-level languages like C/C++ are compared, and the difference between programs and source code is explained. Program concepts such as conditions, jumps, and the process of compilation are covered. Thoughtfully, the author goes beyond simply explaining concepts to emphasizing the importance of deciding what we really want to program a computer to do.

Next, branching out to other CPU devices, the book covers microcontrollers, a close cousin to microprocessors. This is useful, as microcontrollers are enjoying a comeback thanks to the sensor-rich applications arising from the Internet of Things (IoT). In the chapter on microcontrollers, Ayumi and Yuu argue about the difference between processors and controllers. This brief coverage of microcontrollers serves as an introduction to solid-state transistor technology, followed by a mention of digital signal processors (DSPs) and microcontrollers in industrial machines—another IoT application.

The epilogue returns to the manga style of storytelling to provide a touching end for the storyline of Ayumi and Yuu. Sprinkled throughout the book are references to The Shooting Star computer, but the reason for its name isn’t revealed until the epilogue.

The “afterword” pages contain the author’s notes about the current state of CPUs—for example, a reduced instruction set computer (RISC) versus customer information control system (CICS) or multicore processors.

Throughout the book, the author includes useful two- to three-page sections that expand the lessons into interesting side discussions related to the computer topics. In one such section, the author injects a small discussion about modern circuit design using computer-aided design (CAD) and field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). Here, however, I must make one modification to his otherwise mathematically and technically correct writing: Today’s engineers don’t design complicated integrated circuits (ICs) using CAD software.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, CAD tools were used to capture hand-drawn computer circuits and layouts on a printed circuit board (PCB). However, today’s complex IC designs use Electronic Design Automation (EDA) tools, which are a combination of CAD, computer-aided engineering (CAE), simulations, testing, and packaging programs.

The Manga Guide to Microprocessors requires only a basic understanding of arithmetic. Beginners, computer science students, and aficionados will find the manga style engaging and the textual sections deep with details about the inner workings of computer processors. I’d highly recommend reading this great introduction into the world of computer “CPU” concepts and principles.

Reprinted with permission from Mouser Electronics. www.mouser.com

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