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Microsoft Expression Web
Complete web site design and management application.

By Jon Deragon, Visca Consulting
Wednesday, July 18, 2007; 10:00pm EST

Over recent years web development has become more demanding. Web sites are increasingly more complex, interactive and stylized all while maintaining their ever more important standards compliance. As a result of this the leaders in the industry have raced to offer integrated application suites that handle all aspects of web design, development and management right out of the box.

Microsoft's foray into this market comes in the form of Microsoft Expression Studio, which combines web design (Expression Web), interactive and dynamic content tools (Expression Blend), graphic design (Expression Design) and asset management (Expression Media) in a single application suite. All of which can be individually purchased and used independently of each other. Of these tools, we will be looking specifically at Microsoft Expression Web, the successor to the long lived Microsoft FrontPage.

Towards the end of the aging FrontPage's life, it became increasingly apparent that competitors had the upper hand when it came to compliance with standards and the native handling of CSS. Microsoft attempts to address these shortcomings with Expression Web promoting it as being able to create sophisticated modern web sites that are highly standards compliant and heavily CSS based.

Installation of Expression Web is a simple and straight forward affair taking only a few mouse clicks and a couple minutes to complete. Opening the application is equally impressive with almost instantaneous load times. Once inside the application, if you are used to FrontPage you will be experiencing some d�j� vu. While Expression Web may have a new name, to a surprisingly large extent the interface and other aspects of the application are still very much FrontPage.

In addition to the original FrontPage Design, Split, Code primary window, Expression Web has added numerous docks to the left and right sides of the screen primarily for handling styles, layers and navigating files within your web site. While the docks offer access to a substantial number of variables and style information, they somewhat impose on the workspace. A high resolution widescreen monitor certainly helps to lessen the clutter.

After spending numerous days editing and creating web pages of varying complexity the news on how the new Expression Web fared was both good and bad... While it packed numerous new features and enhancements, it unfortunately also had a laundry list of problems that made day to day use of the program a frustrating experience.

The coding and application development aspects of the Expression Web have gone through a significant improvement. We were pleased with the vastly improved standards compliance, ensuring that your code is compliant and stays compliant. Continuous validating highlights offending tags and corrects problems (as well as multiple instances of a particular problem) with the click of the mouse. Things such as the DOCTYPE and character set have also been greatly improved and modernized to meet all of the generally accepted standards of today. Content accessibility standards (WCAG) can also be validated using a simple feature built into the application. When coding you will also enjoy the code view's context sensitive color coding and intelligent ability to suggest tags and variables for quick coding. Expression Web also has an excellent "find and replace" tool suitable for complex site-wide replacements that can save a ton of time.

Making your site more dynamic and content rich is another major improvement. Gone are the less than savory days of the clunky old FrontPage Extensions, and in are the days of drag and drop ease .NET 2.0 objects, XML and RSS data handling. Expression Web has made binding with data sources and using the data in your site easier, and even gives you a local test server saving you from having to continually publish to a remote sand box. Now you can have actually useful dynamic components on a site without having to get a programmer involved.

Your ability to get files to and from the web server continue to be FrontPage Extensions, WebDAV and trusty old FTP. When publishing you can opt for Expression Web to "optimize" your server's version of the code and retain the local as-is if desired. Code optimization has changed little since FrontPage and is limited mostly to white space cleaning and removal of unnecessary tags.

Things went down hill when using the WYSIWUG editor and allowing Expression Web to handle the CSS styles and classes. When left to manage CSS styles and classes on its own, it typically made a mess of them. It would generate multitudes of redundant, unnecessary classes and styles; improperly applied them to objects such as form fields; and it completely falls apart when working with older pre-CSS web pages. So unless you are on top of every action Expression Web does (sometimes time consuming to sort through) you would be left with an unmanageable in-page style sheet, even if you have specified an external style sheet. When examining the generated HTML code after complex editing there would often be abandoned, empty or unnecessary tags throughout the code requiring manual cleanup. While we are accustomed to having imperfect code coming from all WYSIWUG software on the market, there was definitely an inordinate number of rouge tags lingering around.

When working in design mode, the handles used for sizing and moving objects are incredibly finicky requiring patience to get desired results. Adjustments such as sizing column widths in an HTML table is literally impossible since when you move one column, other columns would self adjust. Large blocks of content are sometimes difficult to highlight, and under certain circumstances edited text fails to retain it's correct styling and formatting. We were also disappointed with the fact that you had to save your web page in order to preview it, which is a departure from how FrontPage handled previewing. While the overall interface design of Expression Web is productive and familiar to FrontPage users, we would have loved to see the new Microsoft ribbon based interface used. Many of the application windows such as the Page, Cell and Table properties windows could have benefited from a clean up, as their efficiency is less than ideal and have survived literally unchanged through many versions of FrontPage.

What was most disturbing were the seemingly random application crashes doing even simple tasks such as inserting an image or using the image hot spot editor. After such a crash the program would attempt to do a recovery of what you had been working on - often with no results. Then there were the repeatable crashes where a specific HTML page would cause the application to buckle, even after reloading and trying again. There were simply too many instances where unexplained and sometimes strange behavior would stifle productivity. Such as on occasion we found that the undo function would sometimes revert back several steps instead of one as it should, causing lost work.

In summary, while there are certainly numerous advancements in Expression Web over FrontPage, they are overshadowed by the litany of bugs, instabilities, inefficient code and strange quirks that are quite simply difficult to live with. This is a shame because Expression Web would most certainly have been a slam dunk if all or even most of the problems were addressed before going to retail.

Expression Web system requirements are Windows Vista or XP; 512mb memory; Pentium 700MHz processor or above (we would recommend a more contemporary processor such as a Pentium 4 or Core 2 Duo); 1.5GB of available drive space; and a minimum 1024x768 screen resolution. Expression Web has a recommended full retail price of $299USD and $99USD upgrade from FrontPage price. It is available immediately at major electronics retailers and online at the Microsoft web site for download.

PROS

  • Improved CSS handling over FrontPage
  • Familiar interface makes transfer from FrontPage easy for novice users
  • Significantly more opportunities to produce dynamic content through .NET 2.0 objects and RSS
  • Real-time analysis of code standards compliance and automated correction
  • Improved code view with context sensitive color coding of tags and variables
  • Automatic detection and highlighting of broken tags
  • Auto fill and tag suggestion drop downs expedite manual coding process
  • Comprehensive find and replace functionality that is excellent at bulk find and replacements

CONS

  • Seemingly random application crashes in addition to repeatable page specific crashes
  • Unstable undo stepping at times reverts several steps
  • Incredibly finicky resizing handles on design mode elements
  • Improper methods of applying styles to form elements
  • Often found abandoned, empty or unnecessary tags in code
  • Impossible design mode table column width sizing without manual tweaking
  • Help system that doesn't automatically address immediate window elements
  • Generation of identical, redundant and unnecessary CSS classes
  • Even with external style sheet specified continues to generate on-page style classes
  • Having to save prior to previewing page design edits, and will not render PHP extension pages
  • Quirky content selection makes selecting large areas of content tedious
  • Tends to butcher the code of older pre-CSS based pages
  • Occasional difficulty editing text in design mode without affect style of edited characters
  • General bugs and quirks that disrupt general day to day productivity
  • Would have liked to see the innovative Microsoft ribbon interface used

About The Author
Jon Deragon is president and founder of Visca Consulting, a firm specializing in web site design, development and usability for businesses of all sizes. His many years in the technology industry has enabled him to write quality, in-depth product reviews to assist businesses make more informed technology purchases. He welcomes any questions or comments you may have regarding his company's services, this review or interest in having your company's products reviewed.
info@viscaconsulting.com
http://www.viscaconsulting.com/

 

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