It has been said that “a good workman never blames his tools”. While this is true in many cases, when it comes to design I am very much of the opinion that good tools can greatly contribute to the quality and success of the finished product. As a web designer I am constantly on the lookout for anything that would make my life easier, and from a design point of view anything that looks good and works well generally puts me in a good creative mood, which has clear implications for a well-designed web site. Since migrating from PC to Mac I have tried various different programs, some free, some not, and after a recent discovery I have been prompted to think again about the options available.
The first thing to make clear is that not all web designers are the same, and as such there will never be one program that will suit everyone’s needs perfectly. I have my own criteria, and while they may not match up to yours, they are criteria nonetheless. I generally prefer to hand-code as much as possible, partly because I’m a control freak, partly because I have yet to find a WYSIWYG editor that is as good as me. As such, good text editing features are a must for a web design program, and extras that speed that process up without getting in the way are obviously a bonus.
This is arguably one of the most flexible text editors around, with hoards of plugins to make jEdit do practically anything you might find useful. Cross-platform compatibility means you can use the same tool on any operating system, and the ability to split the window into various different panes makes it easy to compare documents, load up more files from a folder list, check for errors, and much more.
On the Mac, though, I found the interface somewhat clunky – while some may see cross-platform as a good thing, jEdit just doesn’t look comfortable enough on my Mac for me to happily work with it on a daily basis. If all you want to do is edit text, this program would be fine, but when I am designing I like to be inspired by the tools I’m using, and jEdit leaves me cold on that front. It’s ugly, a little slow, and just doesn’t have the wow-factor I would like.
Part of the Adobe Creative Suite, this is a fully-fledged, paid-for web design application. It has a built-in preview engine, solid text editing features, plus one of the better WYSIWYG editors I’ve used. Not perfect, but pretty good. Apparently GoLive integrates seamlessly with Photoshop and Illustrator, though I have yet to make that work convincingly. There are also some useful site management tools, such as graphical site mapping, project management, uploading to the web, it’ll probably even offer to make you a cup of tea. The trouble is, in trying to do everything it has only just managed to do any of them properly.
Text editing is fairly solid, apart from the auto-complete which gets confused regularly and takes some time to get used to. The graphical editor is fine if you’re just editing a simple web page, but as a web designer I rarely work with simple designs, and the layout goes to pot very easily. The preview engine is fairly reliable, but since it is a unique engine it’s not comparable to Firefox, IE or Safari, which makes it pretty much useless. Something that you know works in mainstream browsers will fail to work in GoLive, and relying on the GoLive engine runs the risk of it looking fine in the preview but failing miserably in everything else. There are plenty of features built in, but there doesn’t seem to be any scope for user plugins to extend functionality. But one of my biggest gripes is the font-rendering – text is not anti-aliased, which makes the code look ugly and uninspiring. Not a huge concern, but one of those background issues that seem to affect me in my design process. Oh, and it’s expensive to boot, and since Adobe recently bought Dreamweaver it seems unlikely that they’ll do much development on future releases of GoLive, which means I’ll have to review DW at some point too.
Coda is not without its niggles though. Branding itself as the “One-Window Web Development” option, everything is contained in one window by default. While this is a neat and tidy way of keeping all your web pages in order, I have found it to be restrictive at times when I want to compare two or more documents, or put the preview next to the code so I can see what needs changing. True, you can have more than one window open if you want to, but trying to fit three or four windows on the screen, all of which prefer to be nice and big, makes little sense and doesn’t work as well as it could. It’s also not free, and the 15 day trial is non-negotiable (I did wonder if I could just ignore the plea for money, but they won’t let me, which is fair enough I guess).
Yes, this is one of the few WYSIWYG web editors I would actually recommend. The graphical editor is actually fairly easy to use, and I was pleasantly surprised how well it wrote the resulting HTML code, with standards-compliant use of tags, and even an intelligent approach to tab indents. Of course you do still have the option to edit the raw HTML, and while it may not have all the bells and whistles of some other programs it does have the basic tools and they work very well. The code looks attractive and tidy on the screen, and the program itself is very responsive too, alluding to its non-bloated coding – impressive, given that it’s another cross-platform application. Nvu is free too, which is always a nice bonus.
So, that’s a run-down of some of the web editors I’ve used recently on my Mac. Working on a budget I can’t necessarily afford the best, most flashy, most expensive products, and I’m guessing others out there will be in the same boat, where freeware and open source applications are a tempting option. At the end of the day I can’t tell you what the best product is – each is good at different things for different reasons for different people. For me, Coda was a dream to work with, and if I could afford to buy it I definitely would, but since I can’t afford it right now and my 15 day trial has run out it looks like I’ll be falling back on GoLive for the time being.
If you use something else for your web design needs that you think deserves a mention, do leave me a comment – I’m always willing to try something else to see how it performs.