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Editing HTML can be done in anything from Notepad to extremely large and powerful programming packages. What's right for you depends on your needs.
What HTML Editor Should I Use?
This was actually my question as I had some recent discussions with colleagues about HTML, XHTML, validation, and the like. I'm a programmer at heart and a control freak for that matter, so I care not only about the look of my pages but the look and feel of the HTML behind them as well. I edit most all of my HTML by hand so I spend a lot of time looking at it.
The bottom line is that what I was really looking for was a text editor optimized for HTML. I went a little install crazy and downloaded and tried several different products for a few weeks.
To begin with I've been using Visual Studio .NET as my text editor since I joined the Visual Studio development group back in my Microsoft days. It's overkill as "just" text editor but it's a powerful tool. I wrote an article titled "Custom Add-Ins Help You Maximize the Productivity of Visual Studio .NET" for MSDN magazine to illustrate its extensibility.
As you can guess VS.NET has been my HTML editor this entire time - with occasional forays to FrontPage for a quick spellcheck. Now certainly if it doesn't do everything I might want for HTML as my own add-ins article would indicate I could certainly could extend VS.NET to do so. But rather then reinvent the wheel, I took this opportunity to visit existing tools.
Two things prompted me to start looking: validation and a program called HTML Tidy. Tidy is a highly configurable HTML "cleaning" and reformatting tool that can correct many HTML and XHTML issues. The goal of course is to make it easy to have properly validating HTML.
Macromedia Dreamweaver is probably the most powerful package I spent time with. It's most compelling feature to me at least is the real-time browser compatibility analysis. Features that work under one browser but not on another are the bane of any designer attempting to produce a truly cross-platform web page and Dreamweaver certainly helps. While there are a lot of plugins available for Dreamweaver, macro creation and editing ability seems missing. Dreamweaver is also the most expensive package I looked at retailing for $399.
TopStyle Pro is technically a CSS editor more than an HTML editor but it does perform the latter job very well. TopStyle was written by the original author of HomeSite and is a very polished package. It integrates with the W3C validators as well as allowing for multiple Tidy configurations. Unfortunately TopStyle has no macro recording or extensibility that I could find. One thing that's fairly interesting is that TopStyle Lite is very often the CSS editor of choice for other HTML Editing tools. TopStyle Pro is $79.95.
Hotdog Pro is another very polished HTML editor. It includes a number of tools for managing images, SQL queries, and Dynamic HTML and does a very nice job of some basic syntax validation as you type. Unfortunately true HTML validation and any type of Tidy-like reformatting were nowhere to be seen. Hotdog Pro is $99.95.
NoteTab Pro is another nice, lightweight entry into the field. While it doesn't include validation or tidy specifically there is at least embedded support for running tidy externally. Notetab comes in a free "light" version and the Pro version is only $19.95.
Emacs is an incredibly powerful true text editor. On someone's recommendation I downloaded and fired up a copy. I'd used emacs-like editors years ago (though strangely enough, never emacs itself). For true geek-level power editing, emacs is an amazing cross-platform alternative. All that power comes at a price, though. Emacs pre-dates things like gui software and menus so interface is fundamentally keystroke driven and has an incredibly high learning curve. Much like VS .NET, anything it doesn't do natively can be added on with a little work.
HTML-Kit has perhaps the strangest name but is a powerful package. It's very similar to HomeSite in feel. While it doesn't have a macro language built in per se, there's a large library of plug-ins available and the ability to create plug-ins of your own is included. It includes a very clean Tidy function as well. HTML Kit is $55.
All of the editors above do the basics: fundamental text editing and HTML syntax coloring. Some do a better job of recognizing embedded scripting than others. Most have spell checking, shortcuts for common HTML tags, facilities for either editing remote files directly, managing the upload/download process automatically, and much more.
I was really only able to scratch the surface with each editor. In the end I'm going to purchase and run with HTML-Kit with TopStyle Lite as the CSS editor. To put it vaguely, it just feels the most comfortable to me. It's reasonably priced, fast, has most of the features and integration I care about, and is very customizable. It lets me code my HTML without getting in the way - unless I ask it to. I'll be diving deeper into this one and time will tell if I stick with it but I made the most important first cut: I'm spending money.
As I said, I didn't go terribly deep into every editor and there are so many similarities among them that it really does take a deep evaluation to really be complete. If you think I've overlooked something or just have a favorite feature in any of these or another HTML editor then post a comment! You could spur round #2 of my HTML evaluation.
Update: October 17, 2004
A couple of months ago I switched to TopStyle Pro and have been using it happily ever since. In fact, this article is being updated in it right now.
TopStyle is much more than a CSS editor; it is an HTML editor. The combination of a full featured HTML editor, the full CSS editor (which I find incredibly valuable), and the integration with tools such as HTML Tidy and the W3C HTML validator makes for a very well rounded, flexible package.
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