The Search for the Perfect ASP.NET Editor



The Search for the Perfect ASP.NET Editor


By Paul Litwin


In a previous issue of asp.netPRO, I wrote an editorial comparing and contrasting development using the .NET Framework SDK and Notepad vs. Visual Studio .NET (see The .NET SDK vs. Visual Studio .NET). Since writing that editorial, a few other editors have appeared on the market, including the ASP.NET Web Matrix Project, Dreamweaver MX, and ASP Express.


I like Microsoft's ASP.NET Web Matrix Project. It's a nice lightweight editor with a number of tricks up its sleeve. Unlike Visual Studio .NET, it starts up quickly and doesn't require you to set up a project before proceeding. (Of course, you can use Visual Studio in "file editor" mode - simply double-click on an ASPX file - but then you lose all its neat features, such as IntelliSense, Server Explorer, the debugger, etc.) Web Matrix includes a WYSIWYG design view and, like Visual Studio, wires up event handlers for you. It has a number of templates for creating common pages, including Web Services, login pages, mobile page, master-detail pages, etc. It also has a database tool that functions similarly to Visual Studio's server explorer for viewing and editing SQL Server data and stored procedures and creating ad-hoc queries. Other nice features include the Web Services proxy generator (basically a dialog that calls the wsdl utility and the VB or C# compiler) and the ability to work with remote Web sites through the FTP protocol. And then there's the cost - it's free!


Web Matrix is currently a technology preview release, meaning Microsoft can distribute it widely but can still claim it as a beta version. For the most part, it's rock solid, but I have run into a couple minor bugs (one that drove me crazy until I figured out the easy workaround). In terms of feature set, Web Matrix's biggest negative is its lack of IntelliSense and the fact that it doesn't provide a template for creating separate markup and code-behind pages. It also has no way to save database or FTP connections, so every time you want to look at your SQL Server database or connect to your remote server, you must retype the information. For more on Web Matrix, see Scott Mitchell's Web Matrix article (Meet the Web Matrix Project) and a StartingLine column by Wayne Freeze (Choose a Development Tool).


Dreamweaver MX is part of Macromedia Studio MX (see Mike Riley's review Macromedia Studio MX). If you buy it separately, Dreamweaver MX costs $399 vs. $799 as part of Macromedia Studio MX. The breadth of the product is staggering. Not only does it support ASP.NET development, you also can use it to develop ASP classic, ColdFusion MX, JSP, and PHP apps. In addition, it contains several client-side JavaScript snippets for creating things such as navigation bars, rollover buttons, and detecting browsers. Dreamweaver's code hints help you build HTML and ASP.NET server controls and their attributes, but despite the name, these hints don't give you IntelliSense-like help when coding. Dreamweaver also has a few wizards for building data-bound controls that work better than Visual Studio .NET's data wizards.


I find the shear number of server technologies supported and the gaggle of windows, widgets, and helpers in the product to be confusing. I also ran into more than a few bugs when giving the feature set a once-over (for example, the Web Services proxy generator had numerous problems). But undoubtedly the bugs will be fixed in a later release. For me, the real problem with Dreamweaver is more philosophical and points to its roots as a site-design tool rather than a coding environment. Dreamweaver excels in creating tags, running wizards, and writing client-side code. Although the code hints are nice, I want something that will help me while writing server-side code; for example, I'd like to see something that will wire up server-side event handler stubs for me. Once you've graduated beyond its wizards and delve into writing server-side code, Dreamweaver has little more than color coding to offer you.


ASP Express ( is a lean and mean color-coded code editor for ASP classic and ASP.NET from August Wind Software. The product sells for $195, but they will knock $100 off the price if you currently use just about any other editor or development tool. Like Dreamweaver MX and Web Matrix, ASP Express lacks IntelliSense, but the product has an assortment of "assistants" that help you write code. There are assistants for creating server control tags, writing page and register directives, creating DataSets and bound controls, and more. Like Dreamweaver, there's also help in writing common client-side JavaScript scripts. The ASP Express assistants aren't terribly smart and most of them simply plop code wherever your cursor lies, but once you get used to this (it took me a bit), you'll find they do the trick. Like Web Matrix, ASP Express has an FTP facility for uploading and editing remote sites. Probably the best thing about ASP Express is you can use it to code both ASP.NET and ASP classic pages. The product has as many assistants for working in ASP classic as it does for ASP.NET.


So what's not to like about ASP Express? It lacks the polish of the other editors belying its shareware roots. In addition, it doesn't have any help for creating Web Services or Web Service clients. Still, the product is cheap and pretty much stays out of your way until you need it.


So which editor will I be using? I'm still sorting that out, but for now, I jump between Visual Studio .NET and Web Matrix. Nothing beats Visual Studio's IntelliSense and debugger, but sometimes the product is a bit of overkill. That's where Web Matrix comes in. I do plan to dabble a bit more with ASP Express, however, and I might start using it more often. And although it's about as bare-bones as you can get, I still keep lowly old Notepad in my ASP.NET toolkit for those times when I want to get in and out in a hurry.


Paul Litwin is editor and technical director of asp.netPRO. E-mail him at [email protected].


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