Software Review: BBEdit as a Tool for Building Your Website, Page 2

Among the most powerful text-editing packages available on any software platform, BBEdit 8.0 for the Macintosh fills a specific niche that is under-served by visual XHTML authoring software.

What Can it Actually DO For My Website?

Setting aside the text transforming capabilities of the software, what will BBEdit actually help you to do with your site?

BBEdit includes standard site management tools like templates — which you can use to provide individual web pages with the same structure — and glossaries and includes, which enable you to re-use components across several different pages. It provides site-building essentials like an FTP and SFTP front-end. It also adds niceties such as ‘placeholder’ tokens, which can be used to insert dynamically generated values into the pages of a site (e.g., the name of the page containing the token, the path to that page, the page’s size or modification date, etc.).

It also provides a rendering engine, so you can see how your pages look, and it is even capable of using a local machine as a web server (such as a local copy of Apache), meaning you can preview dynamic content (such as that processed and delivered by PHP, Perl, etc.).

BBEdit incorporates the HTML Tidy package, which is widely used for cleaning up HTML code as well as for translating it to XHTML. (I personally found the HTML Tidy functions occasionally simply stopped working, although this might have been due to the fact that I have HTML Tidy installed separately. For serious HTML Tidy work, requiring fine-tuning of the many available HTML Tidy parameters, you will still be better off with a stand-alone copy.)

And for CSS editing, BBEdit does a very capable job, with new additions in this version allowing it to handle CSS 2.1 properties. Given that modern page styling can be (and should be) done almost entirely with CSS, competent CSS handling is a must.

Comprehensive CSS tools.

Automated CSS tools.

Indeed, it is this very feature of modern web design — the strong separation between content and styling/layout — which makes text editors like BBEdit increasingly relevant rather than less relevant for building web pages. In the Dark Ages of the web, everybody used plain text editors to build web pages, because that’s all there was: hand-written HTML code was the stuff of which websites were built. Then, with the appearance of visual editors and the popularity of (mis-)using tables for layout, it became very difficult to edit site content at the text level, because there was so much underlying HTML formatting crud mixed in. These days, however, site pages can be much cleaner, with formatting separated out into a CSS file, and the plain text editor can once again play a role as a primary tool for the day-to-day management of a website.

Minor Complaints About BBEdit 8.0

I have personally been using Macs for nearly two decades, and BBEdit has been around for the majority of that time (having begun life many years ago as shareware). In that time, I would imagine that most of the glaring bugs and glitches have been fixed. (I cannot say: although I’ve been aware of the software’s existence, I only began using it for this review.)

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However, a few hiccups remain…

Perhaps the most glaring shortcoming concerns a feature that is new to BBEdit 8.0 — text factories. Text factories are hugely powerful and have become central to my own use of BBEdit. With a text factory, you can combine many different text transformations into a list and save it as a document. Then, with a couple of clicks, you can apply that whole set of transformations to an arbitrary set of files — maybe just to the file you are working on, or maybe to thousands of files spread out on your hard drive or on a remote server. So, what is the problem?

The problem (or, rather, the shortcoming) is that unlike most of BBEdit’s other features, text factories are not accessible to scripts. In other words, you cannot call on a text factory to do something for you unless you are sitting right there in front of your computer telling it what to do. This might not seem like a big deal, especially if you are not a user who writes scripts; but for users who do, it is ironic that probably the single most powerful feature of BBEdit (a tool specifically designed so that scripts can access almost all of it) is completely unusable as a scripting tool! Nor can specific individual text factories be made available directly from the BBEdit menus, as scripts can simply by dropping them into a special folder. Text factories could be made much more useful if they were both accessible to scripts and accessible to BBEdit itself via some other means than hunting through one’s hard drive to find the specific text factory file.

Powerful grep-based find and replace--in a modal dialog.

Powerful grep-based find and replace —
but in a modal dialog box.

My only two other minor complaints concern an annoying incompatibility with a widely-used system hack (called Application Enhancer) and the fact that the find and replace dialog is modal. The incompatibility with Application Enhancer causes BBEdit to crash very unceremoniously, only to present a somewhat indignant-sounding warning about Application Enhancer the next time the program is launched. Not only is an outright crash of this sort extremely rare under Mac OS X, but Application Enhancer is incorporated as a low-level component in several different utilities. Therefore, telling the user that BBEdit crashed because of Application Enhancer borders on useless, because the user may have little idea as to which of their utilities incorporates it. In my own case, I am aware that another utility called Default Folder uses it, and I made Default Folder inactive in BBEdit for that very reason — yet I still experience these bizarre little crashes, and have no idea why. (As an aside, it is specifically because I have to disable Default Folder to keep help BBEdit keep its sanity that it’s particularly vexing to have to navigate through my drive partitions to locate saved text factories: Default Folder ordinarily makes this kind of navigation a breeze.)

[Editor’s Note: Please see the addenda at the end of this review for an important note about this complaint; it turns out that you can easily swap back and forth between the modal find and replace window and other windows.] As for the modal find and replace dialog box, being modal means that you cannot access other BBEdit windows while the find and replace window is open. The downside of this is that if you are crafting a complex find and replace expression in grep (the pattern matching language which gives BBEdit its power), you cannot use BBEdit itself to work on that expression, going back and forth to paste the find and replace portions of the expression into the dialog box. Ordinary find and replace presents no problems, but for anything particularly complex, you’ll find yourself in the silly position of having to open a second text editor or word processor just to store grep expressions.

Overall Assessment

You may have noticed at the very start of this review that I am pretty enthusiastic about BBEdit 8.0. It makes things possible that previously were either very fiddly or very time-consuming. It fills a niche in terms of transforming text so well that it makes even the most mature word processors or visual XHTML editors look like rank amateurs. As a companion to more comprehensive site building tools, I have experienced nothing else like it.

Would I want to rely on it as my only editing environment for building a website? Probably not. It could be done, but as I suggested earlier in this review, I think it is best viewed as a tool which complements, rather than replaces other packages.

Will it work for you? That very much depends on what you want out of an editing environment, and on where you feel most comfortable along the spectrum from writing code on the one hand, to writing pure content on the other. If you never ever want to see code, for example, and you don’t foresee yourself ever needing to transform text from, say, emails or other types of documents, then you probably won’t find BBEdit very useful. If, on the other hand, you sometimes find yourself dipping into the underlying coding of your pages, or if you frequently need to clean up text from emails or other sources, then you might just find it as indispensable as I do!

In any case, you can take the software for a spin for free for 30 days to find out. See below for system requirements, pricing, and all the relevant links. There’s also a free piece of software from the same company, called TextWrangler, which offers a subset of the full BBEdit capabilities.

System Requirements, Pricing and Download

Read more about BBEdit 8.0.

For a full list of BBEdit features — there are many, many more than what I’ve described here — you can visit the feature tour at the Bare Bones Software website, or you can just grab the free demo and try it out yourself:

BBEdit 8.0 requires Mac OS X 10.3.5 or later.

BBEdit 8.0 retails for US$199, and registered owners of previous versions back to 2.5 are also eligible for special upgrade pricing:

  • US$49 (plus shipping and handling if applicable) for owners of BBEdit 7.0 or 7.1
  • US$59 (plus S&H if applicable) for owners of BBEdit 6.5 and earlier

There is also ‘cross-upgrade’ pricing for customers who received older versions of BBEdit bundled with Dreamweaver.

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