Sofware in Review
Tech news
at TheJemReport.com
Software reviews
at SoftwareinReview.com
Hardware reviews
at HardwareinReview.com
Discuss technology
at TJRForum.com
Sofware in Review → Content creation → HTML editors →

Adobe Dreamweaver CS3 review

By Jem Matzan

Dreamweaver is the world's best-known and most technologically advanced WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) Web design and development tool. Unfortunately for Adobe, the Web development market has exploded in two different directions, neither of which require a tool like Dreamweaver. On the low end, people use blogging software and content management systems; and on the high end, Web developers are working with complex logic in non-traditional Web languages to create dynamic sites. Though Dreamweaver can be made to work with either approach on a limited basis, there are other, cheaper, more task-appropriate tools on the market, leaving Dreamweaver as a relic of the static site era. With a market challenge of this proportion, Dreamweaver CS3 had to be an impressive new release with innovative, must-have features. For the most part, it has not met that requirement.

Dreamweaver overview

Originally released by Macromedia, Inc. in 1997, Dreamweaver almost instantly became the Web designer and developer's tool of choice for rapid Web site creation. Over the years it has added many interesting features, and has held its position as the premiere application in its class, beating Microsoft's Frontpage authoring tool into oblivion, and minimalizing Adobe's own GoLive.

Dreamweaver is a "what you see is what you get" (WYSIWYG) Web site creation tool that allows users to drag, drop, position, resize, and in all other ways customize HTML elements on a Web page. You can't be entirely HTML-ignorant and succeed with Dreamweaver, but you don't have to be an HTML whiz, either. If you tend toward the latter, you can switch over to source code mode at the click of a button. In source mode, Dreamweaver has never offered much of an advantage over HTML-aware text editors, though the code validation option is a nice extra. Over the years, Dreamweaver has accumulated support for many other Web languages, including JavaScript, JSP, ASP (Visual Basic, C#, VBScript), PHP, ActionScript, XML, and XSLT.

Dreamweaver was originally intended to be a standalone program for creating Web sites, but was eventually made to work interoperably with Macromedia's other products -- the Fireworks graphics program, the Flash animation creation program, and the FreeHand vector drawing tool. In their later incarnations, each program was capable of creating entire Web sites based on content you created -- be they drawings, animations, applications, storyboards, or hand-coded HTML. Macromedia experimented with bundling the four products in duo packages, eventually including them all in the Macromedia Studio suite.

In December 2005, Macromedia was bought out by Adobe Systems, Inc., and both companies' products were merged into a variety of slightly different application suites. Adobe killed off FreeHand in favor of its own Illustrator vector drawing program, but smartly kept Dreamweaver over the soundly defeated GoLive, and in fact currently recommends that customers choose Dreamweaver over GoLive.

Versions and packages

There is only one version of Dreamweaver CS3, but it can be licensed as a standalone product, an upgrade, or with the following Creative Suite 3 packages:

  • Design Premium
  • Web Premium
  • Web Standard
  • Master Collection

Upgrade eligibility

If you already have a legal license for a qualifying upgrade product, you can upgrade to Dreamweaver CS3 or any of the Creative Suite 3 packages that include Dreamweaver at a substantial discount. You must own one of the following Dreamweaver products to upgrade:

  • Macromedia Dreamweaver MX
  • Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 2004
  • Macromedia Dreamweaver 8

Versions of Dreamweaver prior to these are not eligible. If you have an MX, MX 2004, or version 8 edition of Flash, Fireworks, or Macromedia Studio, you will be able to upgrade to a suite at the same discounted rate.

What's new in CS3

Aside from support for Windows Vista and native Intel-based Mac support, virtually nothing of significance has been added to Dreamweaver CS3 over the previous edition:

  • Support for the Adobe Spry Ajax framework
  • Photoshop integration
  • Browser compatibility check function
  • Premade CSS layouts
  • Drag-and-drop CSS rule movement functionality
  • Adobe Device Central and Bridge
Adobe Dreamweaver CS3
Dreamweaver CS3: nothing new here

Putting it to the test

I was extremely disappointed to discover that Dreamweaver still creates old-style HTML tags when working in design mode. An intelligently designed WYSIWYG program should at absolute least use XHTML style tags instead of old "tag soup" code. At best, it should be able to create a CSS file to hold each tag's style elements. While Dreamweaver can create style sheets if you make a conscious effort to create styles and assign elements to them, it does not use CSS by default. Because of this, as a proficient HTML hand-coder, Dreamweaver only slows me down when designing a new XHTML/CSS-based site. I also find the code view to be hard on my eyes, especially after working with Bluefish (here's a better screen shot of Bluefish) all day, every day.

Dreamweaver is still useful as a rapid prototyping framework, but less so than Fireworks because it is beholden to the laws of HTML positioning and cross-browser compatibility issues. Speaking of those, the browser compatibility checking tool is an interesting feature, but it will never be a suitable replacement for actually loading a page in every browser you want to test and seeing for yourself what the issues are. Realistically, Web developers are only interested in a few browser versions, and the latest versions of all browsers have far fewer compatibility issues than their predecessors. This would have been a great tool to have in Dreamweaver two or three years ago, but today, the substantial CSS and HTML standards compliance improvements in Internet Explorer 7 make it nearly obsolete. Frankly, most of the serious cross-browser HTML and CSS compatibility issues in Web development were related to early versions of Netscape, and Internet Explorer versions 5 and 6.

None of the new features of Dreamweaver CS3 struck me as must-haves. The Spry framework integration is interesting in that it adds the ability to drag-and-drop some basic Ajax elements. However, if you really know Ajax well, Spry will be too simple and limited for you, and if you don't understand Ajax, you won't be able to properly customize your Spry elements. Photoshop integration means that you can copy-and-paste images directly from Photoshop to Dreamweaver, but is this a really useful feature? My impression is that most Dreamweaver users are partial to Fireworks for Web graphics, and that's had superior Dreamweaver integration for several years. If you're a total Web development noob, the predefined cascading style sheets might be a good way to get into learning CSS design -- or they might serve as a crutch that you cannot abandon once you're used to it. Experienced Web developers will have their own sample CSS files and won't find any benefit in the ones Adobe provides. Lastly, the inclusion of Bridge as a file management tool is not really necessary for professional designers and developers, all of whom should have decent file organizational skills outside of a framework like Bridge.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

I started doing serious Web development with Macromedia tools, especially Dreamweaver, several years ago. I stopped when I moved to Linux from Windows, and had to learn how to hand-code HTML and CSS, and deal with other graphics tools instead of Fireworks and FreeHand. The lesson I learned about Dreamweaver at that time was that it's designed to make people dependent on it. Really all of the Macromedia tools were geared toward user dependency -- the company wanted to make it so that you'd be really productive with its tools, and be totally lost without them. Such a philosophy was good for Macromedia and now Adobe, but it's destructive to users. Dreamweaver is the epitome of this aggravated application dependency because it allows people who know little about HTML to create functional (though non-compliant with modern standards and outside of accepted best practices) Web sites. Once they become proficient in site building with Dreamweaver, they are unable to switch to any other WYSIWYG development tool because none of them are as full-featured and easy to use as Dreamweaver, and they are unable to hand-code HTML (and know nothing of CSS) on their own.

Dreamweaver's wide array of features and extensive functionality is not maximally useful to experienced, qualified professionals. One area where it does excel is in functional site prototyping. While Fireworks can create a graphical but mostly functional mockup of a site, Dreamweaver can do the same thing, but come much closer to the finished design because it doesn't use graphics for layout and positioning. You can show a client what a site will look like with Fireworks in a few hours, and with Dreamweaver in a little less than twice that amount of time, but once that design is approved, you can take the mockup you made with Dreamweaver and more easily turn it into the finished product (assuming you used style sheets and know what you're doing with HTML).

Another great feature of Dreamweaver is its ability to use templates to create a sort of static CMS. You can create a template or series of templates for an entire content-driven site, and push page updates and new content through them to create a new version of a statically generated site. Avoiding databases and high-level languages like PHP and JavaScript makes your site more secure, more search engine friendly, and less resource-intensive.

Aside from the two purposes explained above, Dreamweaver is overrated and overused among Web developers. It encourages user dependency and creates Web designers and developers who can't function properly with less automatic tools.

As far as this new CS3 version is concerned, there is no compelling reason to upgrade from any qualifying previous version. If you have a really old version of Dreamweaver and need to move up to Windows Vista, you might find the interface a little difficult to adjust to at first, but all of the functionality you were used to is still there, plus many enhancements.

Is there hope for Dreamweaver in this age of Web-based WYSIWYG editors, hosted blogging services, and dynamic CMSes? I don't think there is, personally, but here's what I'd like to see in the next version anyway:

  • XHTML/CSS standards compliance. The old tag soup HTML crap has to go. Competent Web developers and designers are working with the new (well, new as in several years old) XHTML and CSS standards. Dreamweaver at very least has to default to style tags over tag soup.
  • Lower prices. To remain viable, Dreamweaver has to lower its price. It's about twice as expensive as it needs to be. For Studio or Dreamweaver MX users, $100 might be an acceptable cost to upgrade, but $200 is not. The best way to avoid so-called "piracy" is to provide an affordable product. That brings me to my next point...
  • Eliminate the product activation scheme. Everyone hates product activation, especially when it is limited to a small number of reactivations. I know a lot of people who get a new computer every year, or reload the operating system every year or so. What happens when you run out of activations? Well you have to call Adobe during normal business hours and explain to someone why you need another product activation. It's easier to download the product activation crack tool from a P2P network or warez site, and if you do that, you may as well download the whole program for free anyway. Limited-use product activation is absurd.
  • Come to Linux before it's too late. Not having a native version of Dreamweaver for Linux does not harm Linux as much as it harms Adobe. The absence of Dreamweaver makes hand-coding -- actually learning how to build a site with a good text editor and some creativity -- that much more necessary to Linux and BSD people. I'd at very least like to see Adobe dedicate some resources to making Dreamweaver operate better under Wine.
Purpose Web site design WYSIWYG editor and development environment.
Manufacturer Adobe Systems, Inc.
Supported platforms Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or later, Windows Vista Home Premium or better, Mac OS X v.10.4.8 or later.
License Proprietary, heavily restrictive. Requires Internet-activated, limited-use product activation and user registration.
Market Web designers and developers.
Price (retail) U.S. $400 for the full version, $200 for the upgrade. Also available as part of Adobe Creative Suite 3.
Previous version Dreamweaver 8
Product Web site Click here