Dreamweaver 4: Something for Everyone
Macromedia Dreamweaver has made building and maintaining Web sites easier since its debut, but as Web development changes, so too must its tools. With version 4, Dreamweaver has grown into a mature tool intended to address the real-world concerns of professional Web designers and developers.
Instead of just adding whiz-bang content features that push the envelope of Web design and test the patience of Web surfers, Macromedia has opted to enhance some already great features and extend the program to address the needs of a variety of types of users. Many new features aim to make Dreamweaver a serious tool for Web developers who like their HTML raw. Macromedia has also added basic tools that should help graphic designers work with the Web.
The Designer's Dream
Web designers have always been frustrated by the limitations imposed on them by HTML. After all, HTML was never intended for complex layout or subtle graphic design, and it's only through elaborate workarounds that Web designers have gained the kind of layout control they currently enjoy. Dreamweaver 4 introduces several features intended to buoy the spirits of embattled graphic designers.
Dreamweaver 4 offers up a new treat for designers: the "Layout View." Taking a tip from traditional page layout programs such as QuarkXPress and Adobe InDesign, Dreamweaver now lets designers simply "draw" their layouts on a Web page with the Draw Cell and Draw Table tools. This intuitive approach allows designers to build complex table-based layouts quickly and without having to understand the many idiosyncrasies of cross-browser table construction. And you can use the "auto-stretch column" option to build flexible page designs that expand to fill the browser window.
Typography is one area in which Web technology lags far behind print. Unless you resort to turning all your text into bitmapped graphics -- which adds additional file size to page downloads -- you're stuck using the same fonts over and over again: Arial, Helvetica, Times, Geneva, and Verdana. "Flash Text" is Dreamweaver's attempt to solve this dilemma. Based on Flash -- Macromedia's vector-based Web animation technology -- Flash Ttext lets you use any TrueType font installed on your system. (Unfortunately, PostScript fonts are not supported.) The text is saved as a small Flash movie and embedded into the Web page. You can edit the text within Dreamweaver whenever you want, and, since Flash Text uses vectors rather than bitmaps, file size is relatively small and text quality is relatively high.
There are a couple drawbacks to this feature, however. Flash Text can be aggravating to work with for large blocks of body text. Unlike HTML, which automatically reflows text to fit a given page -- inserting line breaks where needed -- Flash Text requires the user to manually enter a line break by pressing the return key at the end of each line of text. The width of the resulting Flash file is based on the longest line of text. Your best bet is to use this feature only for headlines and short lines of text. In addition, not only do embedded media like Flash and Shockwave require a plug-in, they do not support the "alt" attribute (used to specify an "alternative" description for an image) -- which GIFs do. This poses problems for sites that need to be accessible or which need to comply to ADA requirements.
Flash is also used in the new "Flash Buttons" feature, which lets you add high-quality buttons that can include sound and animation. The buttons included with Dreamweaver are not always of the best design -- some, like the "Blue Warper," are a little cheesy -- but you can download more designs from the Web and can even create your own using Flash (the underlying technology is based on Macromedia's Generator format.)
If you can afford it, spring for the $449 Dreamweaver 4 Fireworks 4 bundle. Not only does Fireworks 4 provide a huge improvement over its predecessor, it integrates beautifully with Dreamweaver 4. "Roundtrip Graphic Editing" lets you work seamlessly between the two applications, updating graphics from within Dreamweaver and generating HTML from Fireworks.
Dreamweaver in the Raw
It's the legions of handcoders who, while busily pecking away at text editors like HomeSite, BBEdit or Emacs, have historically turned their noses up at WYSIWYG Web page editors such as Dreamweaver. Although the program, with its "Roundtrip HTML," has always attempted to be friendly to HTML code created in other applications, it hasn't been the best environment for actually writing straight HTML. Macromedia hopes to lure more handcoders to the Dreamweaver camp with the introduction of several new features.
Dreamweaver 4's split view combines the advantages of the code view, which shows HTML code, and the WYSIWYG design view.
The new version also boasts a host of productivity enhancements that can help individuals as well as groups use Dreamweaver more effectively. Do you use a particular command or feature often? Are you tired of hitting the Ctrl-Option-Shift-Z keyboard shortcut? No problem: With Dreamweaver 4 you can define your own keyboard shortcuts or edit the ones Macromedia supplies. In addition, the new assets panel lets you see lists of images, scripts, Flash and Shockwave files, external URLs, and colors that are used in a site. If you use an element frequently, you'll probably want to move it into the "favorites" category, where you can organize elements in folders for easy access, and add them to your Web pages with a simple drag and drop.
Workgroups in corporate environments will also appreciate support for professional content management systems that allow for tracking site changes and sharing files. Dreamweaver 3 has a simple "check in/check out" system that lets users check out a file from the Web server for editing. Other users of Dreamweaver see the name of the person who checked out the file displayed in the site window and are prevented from checking out the same file. This keeps users from working on the same file at the same time and overwriting each other's changes. Unfortunately, this only works for those editing files using Dreamweaver: A problem for large organizations deploying a variety of tools for editing their site files. Dreamweaver 4, while still supporting basic check in and checkout, has responded to the requests of corporate IT professionals by providing support for industry standard tools -- Visual SourceSafe and WebDAV. In addition, a customizable site window lets you define custom columns for tracking the information your team needs (see Figure 3). For instance, say you want to track the progress of a page in the site. You could add a 'status' category to the Site window and use it to enter status information for each page on the site. All Dreamweaver users working on the site can share these notes.
Version 4 includes a customizable site window that lets you define the coluns your team needs to track development progress.
Make It So
- The "InstaGraphics Extensions for Dreamweaver" provide powerful integration between Fireworks and Dreamweaver, letting you convert HTML text to graphics and HTML bullets to graphical bullets.
- The "Check Page for Accessiblity" extension can help Web developers who need to make sure their pages are accessible to those with disabilities. This extension analyzes a Web page to see how compliant it is with the W3C's standards for accessibility.
- The "Site Import/Export" extension lets you export your site definitions, so you can easily transfer local sites to other computers.
- The "Calendar Object Extension" adds a monthly calendar to a Web page with one click.
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Dreamweaver 4 solidly addresses the concerns of a wide-range of users from graphic designers to professional developers. While the program has always been a good tool for designers who build Web sites, Dreamweaver 4 makes the transition from designer to Web developer that much easier. In addition, with a host of new features -- aimed specifically at those who love to swim in pure HTML -- professional developers no longer have any excuse for avoiding Dreamweaver. Indeed, after they whet their appetites on all of the code-centric features of this upgrade, they might even dare to try WYSIWYG mode.
David Sawyer McFarland is a Web developer, instructor, and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His forthcoming book, Dreamweaver 4: The Missing Manual, is due in the Spring of 2001 from Pogue Press/O'Reilly.