As I have mentioned before I subscribe to Google alerts on a couple of web topics. Primarily, Expression Web since I happen to write about it but in addition to being a Microsoft MVP for Expression Web I am also an Adobe Community Expert for Dreamweaver so I tend to watch for Dreamweaver topics as well as general web design/front-end web development stuff.
In the last week I have seen several threads in my Google Alerts asking “Which is Better FrontPage or Dreamweaver?” So rather than go and register at a bunch of different forums and respond in the threads (after having gotten disgusted with some of the CAPCHAs I have seen and not received the confirmation email from two others) I decided to address the topic here.
First, why in 2009 would someone even be asking which is better “FrontPage” or “Dreamweaver”. FrontPage has been discontinued since 2006. Anyone who hasn’t been using FrontPage since before it was discontinued shouldn’t even consider buying it now – that is assuming they could even find a copy legally for sale. While never as bad as painted by most web professionals FrontPage does tend to write Microsoft Internet Explorer proprietary code. Since FrontPage has not been updated since 2003 its target version of Internet Explorer is IE 5 and Internet Explorer has changed a lot since then.
Second, unlike some of the people in the threads I don’t consider Adobe Dreamweaver to be the best choice of editor for every web design purpose or situation. I will say that Dreamweaver is my primary web editor and I use it on a daily basis. However, I also use Microsoft Expression Web on a daily basis.
So why do I use both editors?
I do so because each has their strengths and weaknesses.
CSS, both have very good CSS editors but their approach is somewhat different, which you prefer is an individual preference. I slightly prefer Expression Web’s but your preference may vary. I am not going to spend a lot of time explaining the differences since that is an area you can easily test for yourself with the free trials each company makes available.
Site management tools in the current versions Dreamweaver’s site management tools are considerably better than Expression Web’s for publishing but the gap narrows quite a bit when Expression Web 3 is launched on Friday but Dreamweaver still wins on site management. Dreamweaver’s DWT architecture and capabilities are the more advanced, so in this category I prefer Dreamweaver.
Extensibility, Dreamweaver wins this one quite handily. Microsoft doesn’t have a good SDK for Expression Web and has not settled on a good framework for extending Expression Web reliably across versions. I have add-ins from InstantFX that only work in Expression Web 1 and other extensions from WebAssist and D2Stuff.com that had to be updated by the makers for each version of Expression Web. On the other hand I have Dreamweaver extensions that were created for Dreamweaver MX and still work in Dreamweaver CS 4. That means the extensions work over 5 different versions of Dreamweaver (MX, MX 2004, 8, CS 3 & CS 4) without a single update. Okay, I wouldn’t use some of those extensions anymore because the web has changed a lot in that time frame but I could if I wanted to and if I were an extension maker I’d much prefer to write Dreamweaver extensions so I didn’t have to rewrite every release.
Previewing your work, both editors have pretty good WYSIWYG design surfaces approached in different ways. Neither are what you would actually see in a browser but given the variety of browsers and operating systems out there anyone who expect the design window to look exactly like what their visitor will see is foolish at best. Dreamweaver offers live view which is good and allows you to set up connections for testing servers as well as production servers. Expression Web includes a light weight testing server that lets you test asp.net and php pages in whatever browsers you have installed on your computer. There are pros and cons to each approach depending on your workflow.
Scripting, here is where you see real differences in the programs. If you work on pages with ASP.NET 2.0 and take advantage of the power of master pages, then frankly Expression Web is the design tool you should be using. Adobe’s decision to not support ASP.NET 2.0 is one that I have disagreed with from the first time I heard about it. As far as I am concerned I don’t particularly care if Adobe provides the web applications for ASP.NET 2.0 (forms to database add/update/delete) that they do for Classic ASP, ColdFusion, and PHP but I really do wish that Dreamweaver supported Master Pages. They are basically server side DWTs and if you work in an ASP.NETshop as a UI or web designer the ability to work with them is essential.
However, while Expression Web does offer support for php, Dreamweaver has a far more robust feature set and the ability to “see” server side includes in the design surface makes Dreamweaver the better choice here. Obviously, if you use ColdFusion Dreamweaver is the choice as well. Surprisingly, Dreamweaver is also the choice if you are maintaining a Classic ASP site since Microsoft’s Expression Web testing server doesn’t support Classic ASP and there is little benefit to using it over Notepad.
Dreamweaver has Spry, APIs for jQuery and YUI libraries while Expression Web only has ASP.NET AJAX support so for client side scripting Dreamweaver again is the better choice.
Troubleshooting, one of things I do both for clients and for students is to figure out why something isn’t displaying correctly on the web and how to fix it. For this I tend to use Expression Web since I can easily open a page directly from the internet and step through the display issue’s html and css. This ability using IE’s Page > Edit with Expression Web is so handy I haven’t even tried using Dreamweaver for such troubleshooting since Expression Web v1 came out as a CTP (Customer Technology Preview).
There is no clear winner hands down winner between Dreamweaver and Expression Web both are very good web editors but each has a different approach and methodology. They both require you to know basic HTML and CSS. Both require you to have an understanding of how the web works and the other technologies behind it. Both require an understanding of browsers and their differences in rendering. Both have a learning curve – Dreamweaver steeper than Expression Web due to its wider support of web technologies. Neither is perfect and each has feature sets the other doesn’t which is why I use both.
My recommendation – if you already use Photoshop or other Adobe programs check Dreamweaver first. While if your primary applications are from Microsoft check Expression Web first. Notice that I say “first” because what I really suggest is that you download the trials of each and see which fits both your needs and how you work. For me, I’ll continue to use both.