HomeSite and BBEdit

by Joe Gillespie — Aug 1, 2003
Homesite icon BBEdit icon

I've never tried to cut a wooden log in two with a penknife, though I'm sure it can be done. People will tell you that you can build a Web page with a simple text editor and I know that's possible too, but life is just too short. There are better tools for the job.

Macromedia HomeSite and BBEdit are the two leading text editors for Web page building. They fulfil very similar functions yet they are not really competitors because HomeSite is only available on Windows and BBEdit on Mac. Unless you actually develop on both platforms, you will probably only use one or the other.

The two programs share many 'power' features that you don't get with simple text editors. Right at the top of the list are syntax colouring, line numbering and auto-formatting. Instead of a solid block of black HTML markup, your tags and content are colour-coded and the whole thing is nicely indented making reading and editing much easier. The usefulness of line numbering is more apparent when the programs do their syntax checking and tell you exactly where to find the errors.

Both programs construct tags for you although they do this in slightly different ways. In principle, when you have decided which tag you want to insert, a dialog box comes up into which you can enter all the relevant details and, with a click of the mouse, they are all inserted correctly into the markup. Obviously, some tags are very easy to type-in manually than others but with more complex ones, such as table structures, it's more difficult to balance all those start and end tags. Either program will take much of the hassle out of that and you are less likely to make mistakes.

To manage chunks of reusable code, HomeSite has 'snippets' and BBEdit something called a 'glossary'. They are very similar in concept and allow you to store often-used blocks of text, HTML, JavaScript, CSS, etc and drop them into the document at the insertion point with a mouse click or key press.

The ability to search and replace words, tags or blocks of text is very handy but especially so if it's done across a whole site rather than just a single page. Both programs make short work of altering something like a changed link without having to find every instance and do it manually.

For most programs these days, switching between a Windows and Mac version is fairly painless. Programs from Microsoft, Adobe and other ones from Macromedia differ only in Windows and Mac interface conventions. Jumping between HomeSite and BBEdit is not quite so transparent. Although the two programs do pretty much the same thing, if you use both, you'll find considerable differences in the ways that they work.

Now at version 5, Macromedia acquired HomeSite from Allaire a few years ago. It was originally bundled with the Windows versions of Dreamweaver and eventually taken on-board as a full Macromedia product. It is available separately too. A trial version of BBEdit is available with Dreamweaver MX, not the full package. On the respective platforms, HomeSite and BBEdit are tightly integrated with Dreamweaver to augment and extend its own less powerful text editor.

Where Macromedia have added features to HomeSite, they certainly haven't brought it into line with their otherwise consistent 'house' interface style. HomeSite retains that 'old Windows' look where everything is thrown in your face at once with little regard for priority or usability. Lots of cryptic icons, multi-layer of tabs that change position when you click one and far too many window panes that slide open and shut in a disorienting way. Admittedly, you can simplify the interface by changing it in the preferences but the initial impression is one of, "Hell, this looks complicated, where do I start?" If you are used to this kind of interface, and Windows users probably are, then you will take it in your stride and customise it into something more workable.

HomeSite has its own 'browse' facility built-in but can also borrow the rendering engine from Internet Explorer or Mozillla. Other browsers can be set-up in the browser list and invoked from a popup on the main toolbar.

BBEdit has been around as a commercial product since 1993 and available to developers even before that. HTML capabilities were first introduced via third party plug-ins but were integrated in 1996 with version 3.5.2.

The BBEdit interface couldn't be more different from that of HomeSite, being absolutely minimalist. Rather than having to switch off the facilities you don't want, you switch on the ones you need. Instead of a plethora of icons that need to be explained with popup tooltips, you just get plain, unambiguous text buttons on movable tool palettes. At any one time, the 'hero' (your Web page markup) is the main focus and anything else is subservient and dismissible. Liken these to a workbench that already has all the tools strewn across it and one where they are neatly hung above it on pegboard ready to use.

Okay, the differences in interfaces are cosmetic but they do hint at the cultural divergence between Windows and Mac designers/developers. Without getting into pointless Mac vs. Windows arguments, I think it's fair to say that the type of work done on each platform has slightly different biases and this is reflected in the relatively minor differences in the programs' feature sets.

BBEdit has no built-in page rendering but then built-in renderers, such as the one in HomeSite, are of questionable value anyway, if you stray beyond the most basic HTML. It's much better to use 'real life' browsers to preview your pages.

The capabilities of HomeSite and BBEdit can be extended through (mostly free) third-party extras and plug-ins. With these you will get support for more languages, if you need them, and nice little utilities that add extra functionality. For BBEdit, I particularly like TextSoap for cleaning-up text copied from Web pages and CanOpener, which can extract the text from almost any file.

As far as external integration goes, HomeSite ties-in nicely with other programs from the same stable – Fireworks, Flash, etc. CSS support is handled by TopStyle Lite but you can upgrade to the full program, which also gives 'round-trip' editing facilities. Making HomeSite work with other programs that aren't 'hardwired' is not so easy.

BBEdit integrates with almost any other Mac program – via AppleScript. If you want to pull-in text from Microsoft Word, your mail client, a Web page or whatever, shuffle it around, format it, and then send it to, say, Adobe GoLive, MacPerl, FileMaker Pro or Quark XPress, you can do all this with an appropriate, selected script from the BBEDit script menu. As BBEdit is 'recordable' these scripts can practically write themselves.

The freeware BBEdit Lite has recently been discontinued but it didn't have the extensive HTML authoring support of its big brother. It has been replaced by the $49 TextWrangler but again, this is for more general purpose text editing and is not a powerful HTML editor.

I'm not going to pitch HomeSite and BBEdit off against one another with comparative scores or feature charts. You will find lists of features on their respective Web sites. As I have said, each one is tailored to its own platform and users' requirements so they are not identical.

Personally, I generally prefer to build basic page layout in a WYSIWYG editor because I am a graphic designer and need that 'instant visual feedback' which you don't get with a text editor. On the other hand, none of the WYSIWYG editors handle CSS-P layouts particularly well, as yet, and if you are moving into that area, a good text editor is essential.

Which one you choose will depend on your preferred platform. They both have competitors but not quite in the same league. You will need to know your HTML/CSS/JavaScript pretty well to use either. Although they make writing, editing and validating such markup and scripts much easier and quicker than general-purpose text editors, they won't do it for you!

Macromedia HomeSite 5.2
System requirements Windows 98 to XP
Manufacturer Macromedia
Price $99 (bundled with Dreamweaver MX)
Summary Highly capable HTML editor but needs an interface revamp.
BBEdit 7.0.4
System requirements Mac OS 9.1 and higher. OSX native.
Manufacturer Bare Bones Software, Inc
Price $179 – cross-grades and academic prices available.
Summary Stalwart Macintosh text editor. Versatile and difficult to fault.
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