Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 2004

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It's time for web designers to embrace CSS formatting - and Dreamweaver shows the way.

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Since its first launch back in 1997 Macromedia Dreamweaver has become the near-automatic tool of choice for web designers and developers, commanding over 90% of the professional market. The program originally made its name by providing visual wysiwyg page design, consolidated it by adding rock-solid HTML hand coding and with last year's MX launch moved beyond pure HTML to add in support for data-driven ASP, JSP, ASP.NET, PHP and ColdFusion. In other words, however you want to produce your web site, Dreamweaver is designed to help. So what more can this latest version offer?

To begin with, Dreamweaver 2004 sports the shared Studio 2004 look-and-feel complete with attractive new styling, document tabs below the menu bar, text beside the most important toolbar icons, and the new Start screen to provide quick access to recently opened files, possible document formats, samples and the Dreamweaver Exchange site. Otherwise the most noticeable changes are to the Insert toolbar which has been redesigned and simplified and offers a new customizable Favourites section.

One of the most regularly used options on the Insert toolbar is the Insert Table command, as tables have long provided the layout framework for the majority of web pages. The dialog for this has been revamped to encourage you to set up accessibility information and header rows or columns. And, as you work on your table, Dreamweaver now provides very useful feedback at the top of the table on column widths. And, using the feedback's in-built dropdown menu, you can quickly select the column, clear its width setting and so on. Further help is available from the new Expanded Tables Mode which is designed to make selection easier by temporarily increasing the width of borders, padding and spacing though to my mind it just confuses matters.

Table handling has been improved.

Table tags are still the most common way of managing web page layout, but in fact their use in this way is now officially deprecated in favour of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) positioning (see this month's RW article). Dreamweaver has offered the ability to add CSS-based absolutely positioned layers for some time, but now it adds a more general Insert > Layout Objects > Div Tag command. In practice this boils down to little more than adding opening and closing <div> tags around some placeholder text leaving the user to manually add the necessary CSS layout rules. Even more disappointing is the fact that even Dreamweaver's Accessible Page templates are still all table-based.

Support for CSS-based layout isn't exactly state-of-the-art, but Dreamweaver MX 2004 more than makes up for it with its comprehensive support for CSS-based text formatting. In the past most web designers controlled the appearance of their text as best they could with reams of underpowered and wasteful <font> tags. A much more efficient and powerful option is to use CSS formatting where a single rule in an external style sheet can control the appearance of a tag or class of tag not just throughout the page, but throughout the whole site! The potential benefits in terms of efficiency, speed, flexibility, reliability, cross-browser consistency and maintainability are extraordinary and Dreamweaver MX 2004 takes CSS formatting to its heart.

Central to this is Dreamweaver 2004's own improved CSS rendering which lets you immediately see the effect of your CSS rules in the design view window. And CSS is now the basis for all the program's formatting. When you use the Page Properties dialog to set up the default font, margins and so on this is now all handled via CSS rather than HTML tag attributes. And, thanks to CSS, the same dialog now also lets you set a font family and size for your body copy and heading tags (though the fact that these are set to pixels by default won't please accessibility evangelists). In fact it's now all-but-impossible to add HTML-based formatting other than by hand-coding as all text options from the Properties bar, such as changing font family, size or colour now operate by automatically creating and applying appropriate CSS class rules.

Dreamweaver 2004 does what it can to make the shift from HTML-based formatting simple and seamless by managing everything for you behind-the scenes, but to really master CSS you need to get to grips with how it works its magic. To help you in this, the CSS Styles panel has been revamped and double-clicking on a style now immediately takes you to the relevant CSS code, automatically opening the external CSS file where necessary. You can then edit the code directly, taking advantage of Dreamweaver MX 2004's in-built code-hinting support for CSS.

Dreamweaver MX 2004 takes CSS formatting to its heart.

If hand-coding CSS sounds daunting, the solution is to turn to Dreamweaver's most powerful new feature, the CSS Inspector panel. The top of the panel shows you all the rules which are feeding into the current section's formatting; below this section is a coloured list of all the currently selected rule's properties; and below this is an easily editable list of all the other properties that can be set so that you can quickly create the formatting effect that you want. Best of all, Dreamweaver 2004 understands the order of priority of each contributing rule - this is the "cascade" that gives Cascading Style Sheets their name - and indicates those properties that are currently over-ridden with red scoring so that you don't waste time making edits that won't actually change your current selection's formatting.

Dreamweaver's support for CSS formatting is now excellent across the board, but sadly the same can't be said for all browsers. In the past, trying to ensure that the browsers you were targeting supported the features you wanted to use could be a nightmare, but not any more thanks to Dreamweaver's new dynamic cross-browser validation. This automatically checks all HTML tags and CSS rules for compatibility with the main browser versions that you specify (Explorer 5 and Netscape 4 by default). If there are issues these are indicated with a small exclamation mark in the Document toolbar and highlighted in the Results panel and directly in the Code window so that you can decide what action to take. It's an excellent way of stopping many problems before they arise but there are plenty of browser bugs and wrinkles that aren't taken into account so you should still check your pages in the browsers themselves.

Dynamic code validation can help you avoid many of the problems of browser differences.

When it comes to coding, there are a number of enhancements designed to add power and make life easier. The number of references has been increased with updated content from O'Reilly on SQL, ASP.NET and PHP and the Find and Replace dialog finally lets you save and load common searches. The right-click context menu has also been updated and now lets you change the case of the current selection or of its tags, or strip tags entirely, or convert the selection to and from comments or change its indentation. And if you need more hand coding power, especially when it comes to ColdFusion (see boxout), Dreamweaver bundles the latest HomeSite+ 5.5.

Dreamweaver is excellent for handling your page's overall design and code but Macromedia recognizes that the content is likely to come from elsewhere and most probably from Office. You can now cut and paste directly from either Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel and Dreamweaver will automatically preserve tables, fonts and colours using CSS styling. The end results do a good job of replicating the original formatting but the code is surprisingly wasteful and I'll be sticking with the more controllable Import>Word HTML command assuming it's still there (it had gone missing in the late beta under review). One change which is a definite advance is the full support for Unicode which means that Dreamweaver MX 2004 can use any font and encoding supported by your operating system including double-byte character sets.

You can cut and paste Word and Excel files directly.

As well as text you'll almost certainly want to handle graphics as part of your workflow. Of course Macromedia hopes that you'll be using Flash and Fireworks for your vector and bitmap-based images and offers one-click access to these for editing along with the benefits of round-tripping. It also offers further integration such as the new Flash Elements support which lets you set customizable properties directly in the Tag Inspector for mini-applets built with the latest component technology.

Sometimes though, rather than having to load an external application, it would be easier if the graphics capabilities were built right in to Dreamweaver. This already happens to an extent with Dreamweaver's ability to add Flash-based text and buttons and to optimize GIFs and JPEGs directly. Now even more bitmap power is available with commands for controlling brightness, contrast and sharpness and for cropping or resampling an image when it is resized. This last is particularly useful when used to create a final JPEG or GIF based on an original Fireworks PNG file as it means that the sampling is non-destructive and quality remains optimal even when upsizing.

Once your design, text, graphics and code are finished to your satisfaction, you're ready to post your pages to your server. Security is an issue here, most obviously in terms of usernames and passwords, and Dreamweaver is the first major application to provide Secure FTP support for encrypted file transfers. Convenience is also important and Dreamweaver 2004 now allows you to quickly set up a connection to your server so that you can get, put and edit files without having to set up a full site. You can also set up your site to enable Macromedia Contribute users to edit and upload pages while Dreamweaver's Design Notes and Check In/Check Out system take care of versioning and sharing.

All in all, the shift from Dreamweaver MX to Dreamweaver MX 2004 provides nothing like the quantum leaps in functionality and ease-of-use seen in the move to MX. A period of consolidation is welcome however and the new version does have plenty to offer in terms of increased efficiency and design power. The embracing of CSS is especially welcome. CSS acts as a bridge between the two worlds of design and code to help take your web work to new levels: the same is true of Dreamweaver.

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

System requirements: Pentium III 600MHz, 256Mb of RAM, 275Mb of hard disk space, Windows 98SE, 2000, XP or Server 2003, CD-ROM.

Tom Arah

October 2003


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