Software Review: Dreamweaver MX 2004 as a Tool for Building Your Web Site, Page 1

If you want direct involvement in creating your own mental health web site, and you don’t want to work exclusively at the level of XHTML code, Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 2004 is one of only two serious choices for visual editing and full-featured site management.

Dreamweaver as a Visual Editor, and More

The primary reason packages like Dreamweaver originally came into existence was to provide a way for users to build and edit web pages in an environment where they could see what the page would actually look like. Rather than inserting (X)HTML tags into the underlying code for a page, you can simply choose a menu option or hit a shortcut key to apply whatever effect you’re after. Don’t like coding finicky tables? No one does! With a visual editor, you can just tell the software to give you a 3×2 table, and presto — there it is, complete with indicator lines around the cells, just waiting for you to fill them in.

But over the years, packages like Dreamweaver have evolved into much more than ‘just’ visual editors. Dreamweaver MX 2004 includes sophisticated site management functions, tools for integrating with PHP databases, full style sheet support, tools for work groups collaborating on constructing a site, and more.

To some extent, the modern trend toward strong separation between page content and page layout and styling has taken away some of the thunder of visual editors: they are simply no longer as necessary as they once were. For example, visual editors were a godsend when practically everyone used tables for page layout; now that tables have been replaced by clean CSS for page layout, however, it’s not nearly as crucial to have a tool that excels at creating tables for you.

Having said that, however, my own view is that visual editors like Dreamweaver will continue to play a very important role in web site creation and maintenance wherever the same person takes on the role of both generating content and maintaining the site. In other words, unless you can just generate your content in your favourite word processor and send it off to someone else to add to your web site, and unless you really prefer to write your content at the same time as inserting XHTML tags, you probably need a visual editor.

Since I know that many mental health practitioners want to have a direct hand in creating their own sites, but I know of few who actually like working exclusively at the code level, it seems to me that visual editors like Dreamweaver MX 2004 emerge front and centre as potentially indispensable tools.

Selected Features and What You Can Do With Them

It would be impossible in a review this size to do justice to the full feature set of a program as large and complex as Dreamweaver; instead, I’ll highlight a few areas of particular interest from the standpoint of the individual mental health practitioner considering Dreamweaver as a tool for site building.

CSS Support Advances By a Mile

CSS editing palette.

Dreamweaver’s improved CSS editing palette.

For its improved CSS support alone, the Dreamweaver MX 2004 upgrade merits consideration by anyone serious about using visual tools to design style-based layouts. Not only does Dreamweaver provide an effective CSS design palette, but at long last, it is also actually possible to work effectively in a visual environment with layouts that are based on complex style sheets. Until now, the two leading visual XHTML packages each failed pretty miserably at displaying even slightly complex CSS-based layouts, such as that used here on CounsellingResource.com. Pages could come out so muddled that it was simply impossible to edit the actual content in visual mode, as distinct from at the code level. The only work-around I’ve been aware of involves manually disconnecting a page’s style sheet reference (say, by deliberately introducing an extra character into the link to the style sheet, so it cannot be fetched), editing the page without styles applied, and then manually reconnecting the style sheet reference — awfully silly, considering these are supposed to be visual editors!

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But Dreamweaver MX 2004 is at last able to render most of the CSS-based pages I’ve tested it with. It doesn’t do it without visual glitches — you certainly would not want to rely on it to find out how pages really look — but it does give an idea, and as I mentioned above, the main thing is that it does make it possible at least to edit pages visually (in what Dreamweaver dubs ‘design mode’).

Curiously, Dreamweaver MX uses the rendering library of the Opera browser to do its displaying, rather than relying on functions built into the system software for performing the same function. On the Macintosh platform, this is unfortunate, since the libraries already available at the system level are superior to those provided by Opera; in addition, the version of Opera which ships with Dreamweaver MX 2004 is now two full versions out of date. (I have experimented with replacing the included copy of Opera 6.0 with the more recent Opera 8.0; but while this does not seem to cause any problems for Dreamweaver MX, on the other hand it also doesn’t seem to fix the display glitches. Opera itself displays pages just fine, so the problems with visual glitches appear to originate within Dreamweaver.)

Site Management, Templates, and Libraries

Naturally, Dreamweaver MX 2004 sports full site management facilities, including the essentials like an FTP front end, spell checking, and organization of code snippets, templates and the like. As with other site authoring environments, templates allow you to provide a uniform look and feel to all your pages without needing to re-create the relevant code for each separate page. Likewise, library items can be re-used throughout several files, and changes made to the library item will be reflected automatically throughout all the files which include that library item.

A couple of caveats are in order for users of Adobe GoLive who might take at face value Macromedia’s suggestion that templates are 100% interchangeable between the two systems. Technically, this is correct: if you’ve created a site template in GoLive and would like to use it in Dreamweaver (or vice versa), you can do exactly that. However, if you are converting an entire site from GoLive, you’ll need to do things first. The first is to move your actual template file into your main site folder (because Dreamweaver does not keep a separate templates folder and gets confused if you try to use a template outside the site folder). The second is to ensure that your GoLive template has an editable region specifically defined for the TITLE and any other areas within HEAD you want to be able to edit. (This is most easily accomplished with a global find and replace using a tool like BBEdit.)

Why? Because otherwise neither of these areas will be editable in Dreamweaver — and worse, the next time you update your template, all page titles or additional HEAD contents in your entire site will be wiped out! Adobe and Macromedia designers have made differing assumptions about TITLE and HEAD, and while neither is necessarily right or wrong, it pays to be aware of the difference: Adobe assumes you will want different titles for different pages, and that you will want the option of placing additional code within HEAD; Macromedia assumes that you will specify all areas where modifications will be permitted, even if some of those areas might seem obvious at first glance.

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