Coda – a web design tool for designers

Following the recent Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), where Steve Jobs demonstrated the up-coming Mac OS X Leopard, Apple presented the Apple Design Awards, showcasing the best software made for Macs this year. One program particularly caught my eye, and thanks to a 14-day trial I am now playing with Coda, an all-in-one web design tool that is built specifically for the Mac and combines efficient and useful with some pretty eye-candy. It includes a superb text editor, live preview courtesy of Safari’s rendering engine, a powerful CSS editor, built-in Terminal access, and even helps you get everything online by incorporating the Transmit FTP/SSH client. And all of that is accessible through one tidy window, complete with smooth animated effects, helpful bits of information dotted around in helpful places, and even on my old 1Ghz G4 it is reassuringly responsive.

So far I have been using Adobe’s GoLive for all my web editing needs, taking advantage of its powerful yet simple text editor and built-in previewer. It’s also supposedly linked into all the other CS2 programs, which supposedly means you can transfer designs from Illustrator or InDesign with just a few mouse clicks, but so far I’ve been unable to get that working. There’s nothing wrong with GoLive exactly, but compared to Coda it doesn’t have as much shine and polish. Not hugely important in the grand scale of things, but as a designer I like to be inspired to work, and if the software I’m using has its own sense of style then I’m more likely to be thinking stylishly when I’m designing. It’s those little things that make the difference.

At first I was worried that Coda was going to be all flash and no substance, but after using it for an hour or so I began to get hooked. The interface is smooth and tidy, using the best of the Cocoa window elements to ensure that the whole program looks perfectly at home on the Mac. In many ways it looks very similar to Apple’s Mail program, using all the same sort of controls and styles. But the quality goes much further than the apperance, echoing into each subsequent level of complexity. The text editor is helpfully colour-coordinated, without being garish or over-the-top, and popup hints are helpful yet unobtrusive. Something I particularly like is the Clips popup that works a bit like a pasteboard for useful odds and ends for you to drag into your page. For instance, there is the “Lorem ipsum” block of text which you can drag from the black semi-transparent floating window onto anywhere on your html file and it’ll plonk it all in for you. It also allows for user-clips too, so you can store all those bits of code you keep forgetting.

Safari has long been champion of the speedy HTML renderers, and including that engine in Coda means that previewing your code is lightning-quick, far quicker than the equivalent in GoLive (I’m not even sure what rendering engine GoLive uses, it makes more mistakes than most browsers so I’m guessing it’s Adobe’s own implementation). Coda also taps into the text rendering genius that makes OS X shine everywhere else, ensuring that everything on the page is as smooth and precise as possible.

I’ve never been a huge fan of WYSIWYG editors, as I’ve rarely found them to be much good. As such I have nearly always opted to hard-code HTML and CSS myself, thus ensuring that I get exactly the code I want and no unnecessary junk. It’s fair to say that I know my way around CSS pretty well these days, so I was somewhat surprised to find that the CSS editor in Coda was actually pretty easy to use. Rather than trying to create an interface as far removed from the code as possible to format objects, Coda takes all those CSS parameters and simply groups them, providing a graphical alternative to writing it all our by hand. So if you want to change the padding-left property, you simply go to the “Margins and Padding” section and type in a value for “Padding Left”. Nothing complicated there, and it still makes you feel like you’re in control.

I’ve not had a chance to test out the Terminal or Transmit parts of the program, but if the rest is anything to go by they should be top quality. The only drawback I can see is that it’s not entirely free. At the moment I have 14 days left of my trial, and then I’ll have to either fork out the $79 for a license or go back to using GoLive. I’ll use them side by side for now and see how I get on. One of the possible limitations of having everything in one window is that you can’t have multiple windows on-screen at the same time, so copying from one file to another might prove difficult, depending on whether the split-screen function in Coda allows me to display different files in different panes…

Once again, no clear conclusion, for which I apologise. However, it has to be said that it’s pretty clear why Apple chose this particular program as a winner – it really is superb!

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