Software review
 ISSUE 27   December 2001 |  updated 1/11/02   



  Dreamweaver 4: Not perfect, but darn good

After working with Dreamweaver 4 for close to a year it's time for me to admit it: this is a darn good piece of software. Or, in the words of a recent student, "Dreamweaver is awesome!"

Until recently I'd been using only a fraction of DW's features. Teaching an 8-week crash course gave me the impetus to explore various menus and panels more thoroughly, and now I'm convinced: whether you're a novice or a professional, Dreamweaver can make web design easier, faster, and more fun.

Before I talk about my favorite DW features, a couple of disclaimers.

Dreamweaver and its competitors (Microsoft FrontPage, Adobe GoLive) attempt to bring a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) layout approach to the web. That's an impossible task, since the web is a mishmash of standards and ways of implementing them that guarantees frustration for anyone who thinks that absolute visual control is possible.

Instead of WYSIWYG, it's WYSIWYGSO: what you see is what you get, sort of. This is not always the fault of the software you use to create your document. It's more likely caused by different browsers interpreting the underlying HTML code in different ways. That's the reality, and we need to learn to deal with it.

Disclaimer No. 2: Macromedia can't design attractive, intuitive interfaces for their software. I've worked with Director since 1985, and Dreamweaver since version 2, yet I'm still puzzled by the icons and how they're arranged. For easy-to-use interfaces you'll need to turn to Adobe. If you're comfortable with Photoshop and you hate learning new software you may be better off with Adobe GoLive as your web-creation software.

[ review of GoLive 5 ]

Still and all, Dreamweaver continues to impress me with how much it can do, and how easily it does it (once you figure out its clunky interface).

Favorite features
It's code-friendly. You can switch easily between the Design view and the Code (HTML) view, or better yet, use the Split view that shows both in resizable panes of a single window. And there's...

Roundtrip HTML. Dreamweaver doesn't alter any existing code, and generates pretty good code of its own. So, start in SimpleText or NotePad, then open in Dreamweaver, or vice-versa. Unique code DW sometime creates is for your benefit, like defining editable/non-editable areas in a template or identifying a date field that updates when you save the document.

Help is a click away. O'Reilly Publishing's HTML, CSS, and JavaScript guides have their own window. Just click an icon in the toolbar to go to the section related to where you are in the code. If you were to click here in this paragraph you'd see info on the <p> tag.

Multiple ways to do things. For example, to insert an image you can: drag an icon from a panel; or simply click the icon; or use the Insert menu; or type a keyboard command; or, if you've used the image anywhere else in your site, drag a thumbnail from the Assets panel.

Neat and clean. Have DW tidy up Microsoft Word HTML or quickly remove a specific tag, like <font> that can keep your stylesheets from working properly. Simply having DW "combine nested font tags" often reduces file size by 10%.

Command convenience. A new toolbar at the top of the window lets you quickly add a title (no more excuses for Untitled Document), preview in your choice of browsers, upload the document after you've made changes, open the Reference panel, turn off/on Grid, Rulers, Table Borders, Image Maps and much more. At the bottom you have a Tag Selector; window size, file size and download time readouts; and a mini-Launcher that you can customize with icons for your most frequently used functions.

But wait, there's more...
As you might expect, Dreamweaver integrates well with Macromedia Fireworks, allowing you to instantly edit a graphic from without leaving DW. If you prefer, you can make Photoshop or ImageReady your external editor instead.

Flash is moving in, too, with built-in templates to generate customized Flash buttons, and Flash Text, a way - finally - to use any TrueType font on the web, regardless of whether the user has it installed or not. The text is saved as a small Flash movie (.swf) which remains editable and scalable.

Free trial download
In a stroke of marketing genius, Macromedia offers free 30-day trials of their software. These are full working versions, meaning you can save your work. My 30-day trial of Dreamweaver 3 made me a convert - I had to order the full version online when the trial timed out at midnight the day before a project was due. I couldn't face going back to version 2!

[ Download a free trial version ]

Macromedia website


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Dreamweaver H.O.T. cover

A great beginner- to- intermediate book!

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