Macromedia Dreamweaver 4; Fireworks 4; UltraDev 4

(01/18/2001) – The Internet may be paved with billions of Web pages, but creating a smooth-running site is still a bumpy process. Lost links, bungled code, sluggishly loading visuals, and a host of other potholes still plague today’s site builders. Small wonder: HTML was never meant for fancy page layouts and programming tricks.

Macromedia Inc.’s concurrent upgrades of Dreamweaver 4, Fireworks 4, and UltraDev 4 can’t rehaul HTML’s structure, but they do make tedious site-building tasks less frustrating.

Dreamweaver 4 and Fireworks 4 are approx. $450 each (or $675 for the Dreamweaver 4 Fireworks 4 Studio bundle), and UltraDev 4 costs $599 (pay $900 and Macromedia includes Fireworks 4). Rival Adobe sells its equally capable GoLive 5.0 ($485) and LiveMotion 1.0 ($485) for comparable stand-alone prices, but Macromedia’s bundling options tally up to a better deal.

As the Adobe programs do, Macromedia’s Web-authoring trio adopts a common interface, with similar keyboard shortcuts, dockable palettes, and a handful of automated code. The well-written manuals help guide newcomers through the nuances of each application, but experienced users of Macromedia apps should notice a more fluid workflow, easier file sharing, and fewer idiosyncrasies among this family of programs.

A Sense for Syntax

Dreamweaver 4 adds three new viewing modes: Code, Layout, and Split. The Split view is especially useful, because with it you can modify layouts and source code simultaneously inside a single two-paned window. If you’re versed in HTML or JavaScript, the Code mode includes a text editor that color-codes, indents, and balances HTML code as you type.

Dreamweaver’s Layout mode lets designers arrange page elements in a WYSIWIG environment. And if your sense for syntax is less than perfect, you can turn to Dreamweaver’s new, context-sensitive Reference panel for explanations of HTML, JavaScript, and Cascading Style Sheet protocols. Based on material from O’Reilly Publications, the Reference panel is a handy learning resource for both code-shy users and self-professed gurus. Novices, however, might find the reading too technical. What would do the trick is an optional beginner mode for those really dumb questions.

Dreamweaver builds in other ways for you to keep tabs on your site. The new Asset Panel displays a comprehensive list of every file on the site so that you can quickly preview image thumbnails, group files, or mark key assets.

Another valuable added feature is the JavaScript debugger, which lets you test portions of script within your browser so that you can pinpoint glitches in need of mending. And like Adobe GoLive, Dreamweaver offers a customizable report generator that scans through your entire site for possible snags, such as sluggish page downloads or broken links. Dreamweaver 4 also adds Visual SourceSafe and WebDAV server support, which prevents Web production teams from mucking up finished design work by mistake.

Dreamweaver 4 makes adding interactive graphics to any Web page easier. Now you can modify vector-based Flash button templates and embed them into Web pages from within Dreamweaver–you don’t always have to shift to Macromedia’s Flash application. We found it painless and quick: First, you drag the toolbar’s Flash Button icon onto a layout. You then choose a button template and change the button name, type in the settings, and enter a target link. If the default button templates seem cheesy or overused, you can download more button styles free from Macromedia’s exchange site. We only wished that Macromedia provided the source files for each button style so that we could use Flash to change a style’s color and interactive effect.

Interactive Imagery–and Fireworks Too

If Arial or Helvetica don’t cut it as headline type, Dreamweaver can insert interactive Flash Text instead. A tiny Flash-format (.swf) file is generated that faithfully reproduces any font you have. As well-oiled as that feature seems, it has a few disappointing wrinkles: It offers no styling control–such as for bold or italic type–or a way to adjust letter spacing. Also bear in mind that Flash text isn’t searchable, so you must use it sparingly. Unlike its competitor Adobe, Macromedia has turned a blind eye to supporting Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), a Flash alternative that allows text searches.

Complementing the graphics abilities in Dreamweaver are the more Web-specific graphics tools in Fireworks 4. This application’s newest features include some that walk you through creating site pop-up menus and remote mouse-over actions. There’s also a new Live Animation wizard that pieces together frame-based GIF animations. You can edit GIF animations at any time–to change the frame rate, the scale, the opacity, the rotation, or the motion path–without having to start from scratch. Fireworks also now processes batches of files, and it lets you apply selective JPEG compression so that key areas of an image stay crisp while less important parts are given the squeeze. Lastly, we enjoyed how Fireworks could import or export native Adobe Photoshop files with layers, text, masks, and styles intact.

UltraDev’s Server Savvy

Each time you look online for a flight, inspect your bank balance, or check on the shipping status of the DVD you ordered, you rely on server-based Web apps to retrieve the data you’re after. Sophisticated Web sites that run this way are called “dynamic” because they respond to your feedback by displaying only the content that’s relevant to you.

Just last June, Dreamweaver users were introduced to UltraDev 1, an add-on that made putting together such database-driven sites easier. Fast-forward six months, and UltraDev 4, its seemingly sudden successor, has transformed the program from a scrawny plug-in to Dreamweaver 4’s brawnier twin. UltraDev has all of Dreamweaver 4’s features, plus a host of advanced gear for developing cross-platform Web server apps that sift info from databases.

Rival program Adobe GoLive 5.0 touches on this dynamic-data turf by letting users link databases to Microsoft’s Active Server Pages (ASP). UltraDev 4 now does that too; plus, it supports Sun Microsystems Java Server Pages (JSP) and Allaire’s Cold Fusion Markup Language (CFML)–neither of which are supported by GoLive. (Macromedia recently acquired Allaire.)

Moreover, UltraDev’s built-in text editor has been enhanced so that developers can write server scripts in those languages. UltraDev also links pages to JavaBeans and connects servers to any ODBC, ADO, or JDBC database–including Microsoft Access, Microsoft SQL Server, Informix, Oracle, and Sybase. We particularly liked how we could record reusable behaviors that automate tasks on remote servers, such as validating user names and passwords or sending a form-letter e-mail.

UltraDev also adds a unique Live Data viewing mode that allows you to compose Web pages containing live server data as you work. There’s also an option that lets you see how pages perform under simulated server conditions.

In a nutshell, UltraDev 4 is heavy-duty stuff, and no place for novices. Our only criticism of this package: It’s expensive. But Web developers, especially, will appreciate its feature set, regardless of the price.

For Web workers in the trenches, Macromedia Dreamweaver 4, Fireworks 4, and UltraDev 4 are an impressive reply to Adobe’s recent GoLive 5.0 and LiveMotion 1.0 salvo. Sure, for high-end projects Adobe’s solution is a cheap alternative to the more pricey UltraDev. Then again, for the extra money, Macromedia offers superior means for you to share your data with a wider spectrum of servers.

Prices listed are in Cdn currency.