First Look: Dreamweaver CS4 beta

The public beta of Dreamweaver released by Adobe Tuesday delivers significant changes to the 10-year old Web design and development tool. Not only does Dreamweaver CS4 offer a complete overhaul of the user interface, it adds many new features aimed at the “professional” Web developer. In addition, the beta expands on the powerful (and easy-to-use) Spry toolset introduced in last year's Dreamweaver CS3 release ( ).

Integration with the Creative Suite

The most obvious change to the program is Dreamweaver CS4’s new user interface. The old Macromedia look-and-feel has finally been replaced with an interface that matches the other applications in Adobe's Creative Suite. (Dreamweaver was among the Macromedia products absorbed by Adobe when it bought its one-time rival three years ago.)

While this change will take a while for long-time Dreamweaver users to get used to, the new interface significantly improves the usability of the program. Panels and windows mesh together well, are easier to organize, move and hide, and the new interface provides the flexibility to create a working environment that’s comfortable whether you’re working on a 17-inch monitor or a 30-inch Cinema Display.

In addition, the program has taken its first step toward supporting a feature that’s been in the other Creative Suite programs for years—SmartObjects. Dreamweaver CS4 now offers support for PhotoShop SmartObjects—you can drag a PSD file into a Web page within Dreamweaver, optimize the image for the Web, and even resize it. If you later update the original PSD file, a red arrow will appear on the image inside Dreamweaver indicating that the source file has changed. You can then click an “update from original” button in the Property inspector, and a new version of the image is created.

A professional Web developer tool

Dreamweaver has always been a powerful tool that has attracted both Web novices and Web veterans. This latest version offers a slew of new features aimed directly at those that feel at home working in raw HTML, CSS and JavaScript as much as they do working with Dreamweaver’s visual, dialog-driven tools. In fact, many of the new features promote a workflow that involves working in code view alongside the visual design view.

The new related files bar, which appears between the document toolbar and the document itself, lists all CSS and JavaScript files linked to the page. (If you’re using a server-side programming language like PHP, you’ll see included server-side files listed as well.) By clicking one of the related files in this bar, you immediately jump to the code in that file. In this way, you can open a single Web page and immediately have access to other files the page references: quickly jump to the page’s CSS file, make some changes and jump back to the Web page file to see the changes.

The related files bar really shines when combined with another new addition: vertical split view. Now you can see side-by-side, a page’s raw HTML code and its visual design. Make a change in the visual view and see the code immediately updated or vice-versa. When viewing a page that has related files (for example, an attached external style sheet), you can see the visual design of the page on one side, and a related file in the other. This lets you edit the CSS code and see the changes take place visually on the Web page.

A new “code navigator” (which is really more like a “CSS navigator”) lets you view a list of CSS styles that affect the current selection: you can view all of the properties set for that style and even jump directly to the CSS code for that style. While earlier versions of Dreamweaver provide similar tools through the CSS Styles Panel, this streamlined method makes for a more efficient workflow.

Dreamweaver CS4 offers many new features for HTML, CSS and JavaScript code warriors, including the related files bar, a new vertical split view, and live view to see the page as it actually looks (and works) in a Web browser. In addition, you can view the “live” code (which Dreamweaver displays with a yellow background) to see any HTML produced by JavaScript or server-side programming.
If you have ever been dismayed that Dreamweaver doesn’t provide a real WYSIWYG view of your Web pages, you’ll be happy with the new Live View option. The Dreamweaver CS4 beta embeds the WebKit rendering image (the same as used in Safari), so by clicking a live view button you can actually see the page as it's rendered in a Web browser: you can even interact with the page and view JavaScript effects like rollovers, drop-down menus and tooltip pop-ups without having to switch from Dreamweaver to a Web browser.

The complementary Live Code view shows the HTML—a useful addition for pages that use JavaScript to manipulate the appearance and content of a page, or for dynamic server-side pages that require additional information from a database to display correctly.

Within live view, you can “pause” any JavaScript effects—for example freeze a drop-down navigation menu—then use the code navigator to quickly identify the CSS styles that affect the menu.

More than just code

But not all of the new features in the beta are aimed at those Web professionals who know how to code with one hand tied behind their backs. Several features will be a boon to less-experienced Web designers as well.

The revamped Property inspector reduces the risk of making errors when adding HTML and CSS for text. In earlier versions of Dreamweaver, you would sometimes add HTML to the page and sometimes create CSS styles, depending on which buttons you clicked in the Property inspector. This frequently led to a messy mix of strangely named styles, like Style1, Style2, and so on. Now the two functions—adding HTML and creating styles—are separated into two different views of the Property inspector.

The Dreamweaver CS4 beta also expands on the JavaScript-based Spry Tools introduced in Dreamweaver CS3. Dreamweaver’s Spry features make it easy for non-programmers to add sophisticated JavaScript-based user interface elements like drop-down navigation bars, tabbed interfaces, and user-friendly form validation. The new Spry tooltip commands lets you add pop-up information bubbles to links.

Dreamweaver CS4 also includes three new form validation widgets. The password validation widget lets you enforce rules for passwords (such as “this password must be 10 characters long and contain at least 2 numbers”). The password confirm widget forces a user to confirm the password he already entered. The radio group validation widget lets you make sure that a radio button is checked before a form is submitted.

Finally, a new HTML dataset tool lets you treat a regular HTML file like a small database system. For example, you can create a HTML table full of rows and columns of data, and use Dreamweaver to import that table into another Web page (using JavaScript and Spry). There you can present that data in a variety of different ways such as a “Master/Detail” page that lets a user view a master summary of rows from the table, click an item in the list and instantly see all of the details for that table row.

See for yourself

The Dreamweaver CS4 beta is available now from Adobe Labs. It requires either a PowerPC G5- or Intel-based Mac and OS X 10.4.11 or 10.5. The beta expires after two days unless you have an Adobe CS3 serial number. With that serial number, the beta will remain unlocked until the next version of the beta becomes available.

[David Sawyer McFarland is the author of Dreamweaver CS3: The Missing Manual (O’Reilly, 2007).]

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