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WinLab Reviews
Head to Head: Web Page Editors
Build Some Heavyweight Web Sites

-- by Warren Ernst

You probably knew about the war between the Web browsers, but did you know there's an equally intense battle over Web page editors? Packages such as HoTMetaL Pro 4.0 and Microsoft FrontPage 98, which we looked at in beta, have evolved rapidly to deliver greater ease of use and a wider variety of features. As a consequence, you'll now find tools that handle site management, page creation, database integration, Web servers, graphics and animation editing, and Java/ActiveX/Dynamic HTML integration-all in one box.

Microsoft and SoftQuad employ different approaches to making what they believe is an excellent Web site-generation suite. Microsoft FrontPage 98 provides a complete site-management suite with a uniform interface and a top-notch set of features, while HoTMetaL Pro 4.0 brings even more features and functions to the table, but does so under a number of different interfaces of varying complexity.

HoTMetaL Pro 4.0

SoftQuad's HoTMetaL Pro has a long and glorious history of being a power user's HTML editor, because it required you to manipulate HTML tags directly to modify many Web page effects. With version 4.0, HoTMetaL Pro has acknowledged that some people don't want to work with tags directly, and has therefore refined its WYSIWYG editor. It also continues to accommodate those veteran Webmasters who want to roll up their sleeves and work with raw HTML. In addition, HoTMetaL offers a mild updating of its recently introduced site manager (called the Information Manager) and about half a dozen products contributed by other companies. Together, you've got a package that has more features, but poorer integration and consistency, than FrontPage 98.

You can quickly switch among the program's three editing modes by selecting one of three buttons located at the bottom of the window. Since each mode has distinct advantages, you'll probably find yourself using these buttons often. The WYSIWYG mode in HotMetal is similar to that of FrontPage 97: You can manipulate simple elements via toolbar commands, but to create most special effects, you must change values in the extraordinarily detailed Attribute Inspector dialog box. In other words, it's hard to get away from HTML tags with HoTMetaL, but if you know a bit about those tags, creating special effects is quick and easy.

The Information Manager is a good site manager. It performs the usual site-management tricks of verifying internal and external links, renaming local URLs when files are moved and transferring the site to a server with just a click. It also provides a good Cascading Style Sheet manager and a spherical flowchart representation of your site that is a good trade-off between screen use and link detail for complex sites.

You'll also find some truly new features from other vendors who have contributed to the overall package. For example, ZBServer handles personal Web hosting for development (and eventual public release), DataSpot 1.2 offers database integration and publishing, Asymetrix's Jamba PE provides a simple environment to create personal Java applets, and Ulead Systems' PhotoImpact handles animated GIF creation and image scanning and manipulation. Other products let you create VRML scenes, control different versions of documents from other authors, and drag and drop pregenerated JavaScripts, applets and animated GIFs directly into your Web page. Most of these features are full applications, not limited versions, that are unique to the HoTMetaL Pro package and add a great deal to its functionality. Once you learn the different interfaces and features, you'll find there isn't much that HoTMetaL Pro 4.0 can't do.

Microsoft FrontPage 98

Microsoft has a proven strategy when it comes to updating its own software: Make it easier to use, make it look like Microsoft Word and make it so feature-laden that you have to hire more programmers for this one project than your competition has on its entire payroll. FrontPage 98 is no exception. Indeed, it looks remarkably like Word 97 and works a lot like it, too: You never have to deal with HTML tags unless you really want to. Instead, FrontPage 98 uses a WYSIWYG design window, where you type (or import) your text, insert (or drag and drop) your inline images, and create (or import, or drag and drop) your tables and other special effects.

FrontPage 97 did this, too, but version 98 works much more fluidly. For example, table borders used to automatically snap as close to a cell's contents as possible, and resizing a cell or the entire table required right-clicking the table and manually entering new values into a Table Properties dialog box. With FrontPage 98, you can simply drag the table or cell border to a new position. In fact, most tasks that used to require interacting with a dialog box, such as creating frames or inserting Java applets, can now be dragged, highlighted or copied directly on the page.

Improvements to the editor are only a small part of the entire package. The FrontPage 98 site manager, called the Explorer, has innovative new features and works to coordinate all of the package's utilities better than ever before. The FrontPage Explorer now provides four different views of your site. You can organize contents by folders or files; display your site in a sensible Hyperlinks view (in both a collapsible tree and flowchart); or employ the Navigation view. This shows the logical progression of your site (useful if you have pages that should be read in a certain order) and can automatically insert navigation aids (such as Back, Next and Index buttons) into your pages.

The Explorer also handles the more mundane site-management tasks of spell checking your entire document, global search and replace, automatic file and link checking and one-click site publishing to either a FrontPage-enabled Web server or a conventional Web server.

Rounding out the package are powerful touches that make it simple to add leading-edge technology to your Web site. Wizards help you attach database files to your site so you can create queries; apply visual themes to every page sitewide; insert page counters or search fields throughout your file; create animated GIFs and other special effects; and manage the personal Web server, which works with FrontPage and your browser to help you preview your site and keep track of files. More ambitious users can work with Cascading Style Sheets and Dynamic HTML, create information channels, write JavaScripts and VBScripts, and work with the raw HTML.

The only real drawback to using FrontPage 98 is that some special effects won't work well unless you're using a Web server running FrontPage Extensions. These are a free set of utilities and add-ons that many UNIX-oriented service providers seem unwilling to add. However, the program's general ease of use and the quality of effects available from a FrontPage Extended site might merit a search for a FrontPage-friendly provider.

Hire Yourself an Editor

Neither of these early betas was optimized for speed or complete functionality, making it difficult to determine whether they offer significant performance advantages over previous versions, so we aren't adding either to our WinList. We can see, however, that FrontPage 98 automates many of the tasks that previously required HTML expertise to accomplish. In addition, its full WYSIWYG approach to the design of your site, page and supporting material is less intimidating than that of HoTMetaL. In fact, there isn't much that FrontPage 98 gives up for this simple and intuitive interface, and if you have access to a Web server with FrontPage Extensions, you should have all the power needed for a top-notch site.

HoTMetaL Pro 4.0 also automates many complex tasks, but you'll need to delve into the world of HTML to fully optimize the program's power. SoftQuad makes no apologies for this, and even states that certain modes of HoTMetaL are a good way to learn how tags work. When combined with its third-party utilities, HoTMetaL Pro provides a complete, if somewhat more complex, package that generates flexible sites compatible with all browsers and Web servers.

HoTMetaL Pro 4.0
Bottom Line: Most comprehensive Web site-creation suite
Price: $129.95; upgrade, $69.95
Platforms: 95, NT
Pros: Wide range of tools to create Web pages and content
Cons: Intimidating to beginning Webmasters; relatively poor integration
Strongest Rival: Microsoft FrontPage 98

SoftQuad, 416-544-9000. Winfo #833

Microsoft FrontPage 98
Bottom Line: Easiest way to create top-notch Web sites
Price: $149; upgrade, $54.95
Platforms: 95, NT
Pros: Intuitive WYSIWYG Web page creator; elegant, powerful site-management module
Cons: Requires Microsoft-enabled Web browsers for maximum effect
Strongest Rival: HoTMetaL Pro 4.0

Microsoft Corp., 800-426-9400, 206-882-8080. Winfo #834

Windows Magazine, October 1997, page 141.

[ Go to October 1997 Table of Contents ]