Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 2004

by Joe Gillespie — Oct 1, 2003

The uptake of CSS and general Web standards has been pitifully slow, a fact that is almost entirely down to the poor support in the popular Web page editors. The relatively few designers, who do care about such things, usually have to resort to hand coding.

Hopefully, that's all about to change.

Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 2004 still has the same familiar interface but it has two very significant changes from the previous version.

Firstly, it now works in CSS by default. If you want to design using tables, you still can but you have to make a change in the preferences. If you try to find a way to use the old <font face> tag, you have to dig for it. At long last, CSS is right up front.

The previous Dreamweaver MX supported CSS-P to a degree but editing it wasn't always easy. Certainly on my Mac, selecting text was a hit and miss affair with the characters and selection rarely in sync. Macromedia were obviously aware of Dreamweaver's rendering problems and for the new version, have borrowed upon Opera's rendering engine to do some of the hard work and it's now several magnitudes better. The latest version of Opera comes with the program, although the Mac version (6.03) is still some way behind the Windows 7.2.

Other new features in MX 2004 include secure FTP transfer, Microsoft Word and Excel copy and paste and on-the-fly cross-browser compatibility checking. You can also do simple image editing like cropping and tonal adjustments without leaving the program. Those are useful additions but it's the CSS editing that I'll concentrate upon here because that's what I've been looking forward to for a very long time.

The first thing I did was to open some previously produced pages, including last month's editorial, and tricky ones from the FunWithFonts site. I expected the editorial page to look much the same as it does in Opera. It didn't. But then the current versions of Opera on Mac and Windows don't agree what it should look like either! Anyway, although not totally accurate, it was editable and all the divs highlighted with red outlines as I moused over them. Nice. The more challenging test pages from FunWithFonts.com also displayed well and were easy to edit.

So far, so good.
Next, I thought that I'd try to build a new CSS layout from scratch. In the Layout 'Insert' bar, there are buttons to add layers, divs and tables to the page. What more could you want?

The 'layers' are not really what the name suggests but resizable, absolutely positioned CSS boxes (divs) that can be drawn onto the page just by dragging the cursor where you want them. The term 'layers' is a throwback to Netscape 4.x, but should not be confused with layers in Flash or Photoshop, which are completely different concepts. Now, for some strange reason, Dreamweaver inserts the layers' style definitions in-line, into the body of the HTML, instead of into the style definitions in the head or an external CSS file where I'd want them. I can't figure the logic of this.

Clicking on the 'Insert div tag' puts some placeholder text on the page at the insertion point. Unlike 'layers', there is no way to drag divs that end up in the wrong place, as they often do. This is where Dreamweaver's WYSIWYG concept starts to fall down. Apart from a red border when moused over, there is no visual indication of how divs fit together and the only way to rearrange them is in the code editor. I would like to have seen a background tint or an X across the rectangle, like text and picture boxes have in a page layout program. Another irritation.

Inserting a table is no problem at all, it works exactly as I'd expect. Individual cell borders can be resized by dragging or by typing values into the property inspector.

After working with the CSS page building in Dreamweaver for a while, I became very perplexed. Surely, there must be a simpler and more intuitive way to do all this? There's far too much jumping around the interface required. Instead of providing one really inspired WYSIWYG way to do things, it seems to offer a multiplicity of mediocre alternatives, almost as if the programmers couldn't make their minds up and say, 'Hell, we'll put it all in'. That is a recipe for camels, not thoroughbred racehorses. Elegant, it's not – nor is it a racehorse.

If you know your way around Dreamweaver already, you might welcome the new CSS editing facilities but 50% of the full price for an upgrade seems grossly excessive. I'm a bit disappointed that after all this time, Macromedia have produced something that is okay, but not great. If you add to that, the noticeable performance hit in Mac OSX, with snail's pace text editing, slow redraws and spinning beach balls, I'm afraid that the whole experience leaves me somewhat underwhelmed!

Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 2004
Features red bar90%
Ease of Use yellow bar75%
Value for Money green bar75%
'Must Have' Factor blue bar85%
Manufacturer Macromedia
Price $399.00 - Upgrades $199
Summary Disappointing. Slow. Expensive upgrade.
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