Software Review: Dreamweaver MX 2004 as a Tool for Building Your Web Site, Page 2

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.

Selected Features and What You Can Do With Them, Part 2

Coding Niceties

Automatic code completion.

Automatic completion of tags.

Two particularly handy niceties from the standpoint of dealing with the underlying XHTML of a page are Dreamweaver’s split window option, which enables you to see both code and rendered page at the same time, and its tag auto-completion feature. As soon as you begin to type a tag, Dreamweaver presents a pop-up menu with all the possible tags and the one closest to what you have typed so far highlighted. You can either select one from the menu (using the keyboard, of course), or simply keep typing and complete it yourself; in either case, once the opening tag is complete, Dreamweaver will automatically insert the closing tag. Unfortunately, I found this feature irritating nearly as often as I found it hugely useful — the difference being determined by whether I actually wanted the closing tag written yet, or whether I would have wanted to insert it manually farther on down the page. The popup menu can be dismissed by hitting the escape key, but this must be done before you’ve finished typing the tag, or you’re stuck with the automatic closure.

BBEdit Integration

Macromedia apparently recognizes that many users will prefer using BBEdit for many tasks, and has decided that rather than competing directly with the BBEdit feature set, it is better to provide direct integration with the other software via a built-in menu option.

When the BBEdit menu option is selected, BBEdit opens with the document right at the place you were last editing in Dreamweaver, and with any recent unsaved changes already in place. Upon saving your work and returning, Dreamweaver will re-load the file so you are working with the new version. (Unfortunately it is not so talented on this end and does not return you to wherever it was you were editing before the hand-off back to Dreamweaver.)

This integration makes a lot of sense to me, given the widespread use of BBEdit among coders. Having said that, it’s also worth mentioning that Dreamweaver’s own built-in find and replace functionality (a central BBEdit selling point) certainly is no slouch.

BBEdit integration with Dreamweaver.

Dreamweaver integration with BBEdit.

Features Not Evaluated

As I noted at the outset, it would be impossible in a review this size to cover all the features of an environment like Dreamweaver MX 2004. It’s worth mentioning, though, that the software also provides integration with other Macromedia technologies, including ColdFusion, Fireworks, Flash and Shockwave, plus support for Microsoft’s proprietary ASP and ActiveX. Dreamweaver also seems to be the platform of choice for webmasters who want a visual environment and require solid integration with PHP.

Dreamweaver incorporates limited scripting and macro support, detailed automatic cleaning up of the abominations that pass for HTML export from Microsoft Word, general XHTML cleanup, and a great deal more.

Technical Support and the Bug Situation

It is an unfortunate fact of life for customers of visual XHTML software that there are only two full-featured contenders — Adobe GoLive CS and Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 2004 — and both of them are deeply bug-ridden. (Of course, many other packages are available, but not one approaches these two in terms of overall features. Packages like Microsoft’s Front Page are popular with home users and those new to building web sites, but the software is not in the same league.) The situation reminds me very much of the era of Microsoft Word 6.0, which was so atrociously dysfunctional that I used to have a stack of faxes on my desk from Microsoft technical support confirming that such-and-such was a known bug with no known work-around. Yet, Word remained the most powerful product available, so I and many others used it in spite of all its irritations.

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Likewise for Dreamweaver; by popular account, 6.1 was both faster and less buggy than MX 2004. The apparent bugs in Dreamweaver MX 2004 are so extensive that it’s not even worth trying to list them. To give an idea, here are some of the more unusual ones I encountered almost immediately while testing the Mac OS X version… When editing the main content area of a CSS-styled page layout, I find that the width at which this area is rendered sometimes shrinks by about one half, for no apparent reason (and certainly for no reason which matches how that area should be rendered by a browser): I can be typing along, cutting and pasting and editing, and all of a sudden I have a long skinny column of text rather than a wider one. Often, this takes effect over only part of a page, so I can edit at full width in, say, the top half of the page, but only at half width in the bottom half. As an example of a different sort of bug — or maybe this one is just a design mistake — the software enforces stricter limits on characters permitted in anchor tag names than those of the actual XHTML standards, necessitating a trip to code view if, for example, you’d like to use a hyphen in a name. And occasionally, again for no apparent reason, Dreamweaver seems to ‘forget’ input from the keyboard, particularly right after using the popup tag menu or tag auto-completion; I can only resume typing after clicking in the window again. (I’ve heard others reporting ‘focus’ problems, where Dreamweaver forgets which window or area is supposed to be active, and I suspect this may be related.)

What makes these types of problems particularly worth mentioning is the fact that Macromedia provides only two free contacts with technical support, after which the only way you will get any assistance from the company is by buying an expensive service contract. To be fair, the software is so large and complex that it would probably be prohibitively expensive for the company to offer any significant amount of ‘hand-holding’ technical support to users who need help learning to use the software. But ‘bug busting’ technical support is another matter altogether. Because the program is so rife with problems, it would be nice to have some way of getting a definitive answer from Macromedia as to whether a given bit of behaviour is definitely a bug and, if so, whether any work-arounds are known. As it stands, the only way to get that sort of answer straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were, is to pay (quite a bit!) for the privilege.

Overall Assessment

So, is Dreamweaver MX 2004 a good choice for maintaining your own web site?

If you’re looking for a full-featured platform for building web sites, this is one of the best (and one of the only) options. If decent CSS rendering is also important to you, so that you can use a visual editing mode on pages with complex style sheet-based layouts, Dreamweaver MX 2004 is hard to beat.

But if you want to use Dreamweaver, you’ll also need to be prepared for myriad undocumented glitches and no ongoing free technical support. You’ll be ‘on your own’ with a very powerful tool that can be at once exceptionally capable and exceptionally frustrating.

If visual editing is less important to you — for instance, if you prefer to write your pages and XHTML tags mostly by hand, with only the occasional glance at a preview — you may be better off with something else.

Finally, if you’re interested in integration with Macromedia technologies like ColdFusion or Flash, Dreamweaver MX 2004 is the only sensible choice.

Dreamweaver System Requirements, Pricing and Download

Read more about Dreamweaver MX 2004.

To explore more about this enormous piece of software, you can visit the evaluation guide at the Macromedia web site, or you can try a free time-limited demo at:

http://www.macromedia.com/software/dreamweaver/

System Requirements for Macintosh:

  • 500 MHz Power PC G3 processor
  • Mac OS X 10.2.6 and later, 10.3
  • 128 MB computer RAM (256 MB recommended)
  • 275 MB available disk space

System Requirements for Windows:

  • 600 MHz Intel Pentium III processor or equivalent
  • Windows 98 SE (4.10.2222 A), Windows 2000, Windows XP, or Windows
    Server 2003
  • 128 MB RAM (256 MB recommended)
  • 275 MB available disk space

Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 2004 retails for US$399; upgrades from previous versions are available from US$199. It is also available as part of the larger Studio MX suite — including Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks, Freehand, and ColdFusion Developer Edition (Windows version only) — which begins at US$899.

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