With its sophisticated visual editing environment, adherence to good coding practices, and powerful site-management tools, Macromedia’s Dreamweaver has time and again proved itself the best tool for professional Web development. But the Web’s ever-changing technology, and competition from the much improved Adobe GoLive 6.0 (Reviews, June 2002), has recently left Dreamweaver 4 showing its age.
The newest Dreamweaver incarnation, Dreamweaver MX, is an ambitious attempt to reach a wide audience of developers, from novices to experienced Java programmers, and to embrace a wide range of technologies, from static Web sites to complex server-side technologies such as PHP and ASP.Net. Most Web developers will find more than they’ll need in this package, and at times the everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink feature set feels a little rough and unfinished. But this OS X-native application is a significant update that adds powerful text-editing features, as well as expanded database and server-side integration. Furthermore, it embraces standards such as XHTML and XML.
Dreamweaver MX’s Aqua interface is a thing of beauty. But beyond superficial appearances, Dreamweaver MX presents a nicely designed, integrated interface that’s a big improvement over Dreamweaver 4’s sometimes cluttered and overlapping floating windows (see “A Well-Organized Whole”). As in Dreamweaver 4, palettes appear in related groups, but now you can move and resize all the palette groups as a single window. In addition, if you use other Macromedia software–such as Fireworks MX and Flash MX–you’ll be pleased by the consistent interface they share. Dreamweaver MX also runs comfortably in OS 9 and exhibits the same (but non-Aquafied) interface improvements.
Speaking Many Languages
Many of the enhancements in Dreamweaver MX are aimed at bolstering its hand-coding features. The new Code Hints feature, for example, provides access to contextual menus with relevant tag attributes, boosting productivity tremendously. This is a nifty feature you won’t find even in the Mac text-editing mainstay, Bare Bones Software’s BBEdit.
If you’re a stickler for standards, a built-in validation function lets you check an individual Web page (or an entire site) for compliance with a variety of standards such as HTML 4.0 and XHTML 1.0 (strict or transitional). Dreamweaver MX can even check XML files for proper syntax, though it would be helpful if Dreamweaver could validate them against a DTD (document type definition).
The Dynamic Edge
Dreamweaver MX includes all the dynamic Web-site tools of Dreamweaver UltraDev–and then some. It works with seven different server models (combinations of application server software and programming languages that allow database connections and provide server-side programming features), including ASP.Net and PHP, which are new to the program and highlight Macromedia’s efforts to keep current with new and successful Web technologies.
The new Databases panel lets you view the structure of a database, including its tables and rows, as well as view data straight out of any table in the database. New form controls also let you quickly create dynamic radio buttons, pull-down menus, and other form elements that draw their values from a database. But unfortunately, you won’t find the same feature sets for all the different server models. PHP developers will be disappointed by the lack of some basic features that have been offered in other server models since UltraDev: the more notable omissions are PHP server behaviors–for controlling access to a site with login pages–and a Master/Detail application object.
Back to Basics
With a few notable exceptions, the basic Web-page-building and site-management tools have remained the same. Only one new behavior–a nifty dynamic HTML pop-up menu tool–has been added (though you’ll find a much more powerful version of it in Fireworks MX). You’ll also approach many of the old tasks, such as building table-based layouts, in the same way.
However, the implementation of CSS is much improved. The reworked CSS Styles panel makes applying and editing styles more intuitive. In addition, Dreamweaver MX is better at displaying CSS properties when you’re working in its Design view, so you’ll take fewer trips to a Web browser to check your designs.
In addition, the reworked Template feature gives you advanced template-building controls that allow much greater flexibility than you had in previous versions of the program. Nested templates let you create templates based on a master template. Best of all, a new export feature lets you strip the Dreamweaver MX-specific template code and export the cleaned-up site into a new folder.
Dreamweaver MX not only provides tools for making your Web pages more accessible to users with visual impairments, but also includes an electronic accessibility reference and a reporting tool that lets you check an entire site for potential Section 508-compliance problems. Unfortunately, though, the program doesn’t provide much guidance for those who are unfamiliar with the many intricacies of accessibility. For example, the reporting tool flags accessibility problems, but it doesn’t provide advice on how to fix the sometimes cryptic errors.
Perhaps more impressively, Dreamweaver MX itself is designed to work with screen-reading software, opening up the process of Web authoring to people with visual impairments.
The OS X Advantage
OS X users can now welcome Dreamweaver, as well as Flash and Fireworks, with open arms. When running natively in OS X, Dreamweaver MX also sports a new FTP engine, rewritten specifically for OS X, that more efficiently transfers files to and from a Web server.
There’s even better news for OS X users venturing into database-driven Web sites. Dreamweaver MX adds support for PHP and MySQL; you can now set up a complete development environment on your Mac with free, open-source software that builds on OS X’s Unix foundation. Imagine designing, building, and testing e-commerce or other types of dynamic, database-driven Web sites without ever having to network to a PC or transfer files to a Unix Web server.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Dreamweaver MX is a significant update to the Dreamweaver line. It’s a sophisticated visual HTML editor with powerful site-management features. If you want to move toward database work, if you’re a hand-coding junkie, or if you just want to take advantage of Dreamweaver MX’s support for XHTML and other Web standards, this is the Dreamweaver version for you.