Ongoing growth in the availability of strong open source applications encourage keeping an eye out for Open Source alternatives to commercial applications. With the release of Nvu there is a potential alternative to FrontPage, GoLive and Dreamweaver as a graphical web editor.
This review is written for a non-professional web developer. A non-professional web developer is expected to have a mandate to create the web-site, comfort with 'publishing and design' concepts, and a light understanding of HTML and CSS editing. This developer relies on the graphical tool to guide the site creation, and perform the heavy lifting in terms of HTML coding. Microsoft FrontPage, Adobe GoLive and Dreamweaver provide the comparison. Nvu 1 (20050620), Windows version was used in this review.
Solid table-based web-site editor. A good choice for non-professional web-site developer following a table-based layout for sites with limited complexity. For basic web-page creation Nvu has it all there. Highly accessible standard features, clean interface and a solid community to provide assistance..
Nvu has significant weaknesses supporting more complex web-sites and current web-site practices, including CSS and DIV-based formatting. In this category, Nvu is in a difficult position, it does not provide enough site-management support to those who need it, and shortcoming will frustrate more advanced users. A number of bugs that limit usability of the product. As a final note: Nvu's included CSS editor should not be used.
Expected Features at a Glance
- Table Support Very Strong
- Image Placement Strong. Image Placement dialog assists including the attributes often forgotten. vForm Support Good. Very accessible form support through toolbar and configuration dialog.
- Site Management Limited. No site view or link-state warnings. Options to save images will save images to page location not a /media or /graphics folder.
- Template Management Limited. No site management. Saving a template-based page in a sub-folder breaks the links in the template.
- View/Edit HTML Limited. Auto-formatting doesn't. In ability to save or tab between pages in source-mode annoying.
- CSS Editor Abomination. Do not use the CSS editor.
- DIV-based layout No. Will show a layout created in source mode, but has no ability to create it.
- Graphical Head Tag Editor No. Glaring omission. * Online Help Mixed. Not all menu items can be found in the help. Separately downloadable tutorial is quite good.
Nvu is designed to lay-up basic table-based web-sites. For this function it works quite well. Like a word processor standard toolbars assist you to write text, format it, insert graphics and manage the structure through tables.
The toolbar, the menus or keyboard shortcuts provide the standard functions needed to create a page, such as the insertion of links, images, tables and forms. It is easy to step into your first page with Nvu. Tabs across the bottom allow you to switch between Normal mode, HTML Tags, HTML source and Preview. Buttons across the top provide the standard tools a non-professional developer will be reaching for - Anchor, Link, Image, Table, Form and Spell.
For basic web-page creation Nvu has it all there. If you are building a simple web-site it is an excellent choice. When you want to go beyond basic web-page creation to web-site development Nvu starts to show its limitations.
Strengths Clean Interface
Nvu has a very clean interface. The tools likely used are presented front and center on the tool-bar. Selecting Image, Table, or Form icons from the tool-bar presents a dialog that supports complete editing of the item and attributes. Attributes placed as CSS styles. 'Tool-tips' even display when a tool is not available.
Table management is a strength of Nvu. Standard table functions are easy - Creating, resizing, adding rows and columns is easy. Once you realize the triangles will add rows and columns, the circle-x is for deleting and there are no 'handles for a cell managing tables is easy. Resizing is managed by dragging the edges inwards or outwards. A double-click on a table brings up its properties (however, if your mouse is on text in a table the same double-click brings up properties about the text).
This brings us to one of the flaws in Nvu, inconstancy in the interface. If a table cell is empty, you can move from one cell to the next, or add rows just by pressing the 'Tab key'. With text in the cell pressing the 'Tab key' adds a non-breaking space.
Image placement is another Nvu strength. Selection of the Image tool opens a simple properties page that provides for the pertinent questions. Always available is an advanced edit button. Dragging the image moves it in the page tied to the text.
Working with images highlights two weaknesses of Nvu, site management and going beyond the basics. Nvu has no concept of a site, where pages may be grouped in a directory, where graphics and scripts are collected in a single location. If the preference 'save images and associated files' is selected images and associates files are copied to the current directory the page is in, even if they were selected from a /graphics directory. The second limitation is going beyond the basics - there appears to be no facility for creating an image map.
Nvu's front-and-center support of forms greatly assists the non- professional web developer. Many basic sites have contact and information gathering forms. (As an aside if you have a contact email that you want to hide from spam collectors use Mindpalettes' simple email form NateMail.
Reasonably Clean Code
All graphical web-editors tend to write unnecessary code. Nvu does a pretty good job. Behind Dreamweaver, but far ahead of the unnecessary junk included with FrontPage.
Nvu has an active helpful online community. We encourage Nvu users to participate in the on-line community. Read the help and examples, answer the questions within your knowledge, and help the next person along. A functioning community supporting an open source project is a critical test of open source software. Nvu, passes this test with flying colours.
Open Source Heritage
Nvu is built upon the Mozilla Composer codebase. The project is sponsored by Linspire Inc. Nvu is licensed under the Mozilla Public License 1.1.
The moment you go beyond the basics, or move beyond table-based layout to follow current web site development practices Nvu's weaknesses start showing. Any current 'How-to book' will guide a web-site developer towards using CSS and DIV controls. Once you start moving beyond the basics site management, HEAD tag editing, and HTML editing become increasingly important. In all these areas Nvu struggles, significantly limiting its appeal.
Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) Support
Nvu's CSS support is extremely limited. This is unfortunate for a product reaching the market in the spring of 2005. Most non-professional web-developers have other design responsibility and use styles to format text, whether in page-layout or even MS Word. With reasonable browser support for CSS it is a natural to use styles in web-site development.
The ability to apply a CSS style class to text through a simple menu is appreciated. Again, once you start to go beyond the basics Nvu stops supporting you.
A feature of CSS is the ability to have a common style-sheet that controls the entire site. With Nvu, a page created from a template into a directory not only unhooked the page from the site CSS, but saved a copy of the CSS in the subdirectory. Unselecting the preference to 'save associated files' eliminated this behaviour.
Nvu's single biggest weakness is its CSS editor. Nvu's CSS editor can only be called a disaster. Moving from one attribute automatically saves changes. Further, simply opening a CSS file results in proprietary Mozilla CSS tags being applied. Any editor that has no provision for not-saving should not be used. One that silently applies proprietary tags, and automatically saves them, shouldn't exist.
Recommendation: Nvu's CSS editor should not be used and the product would be strengthened by its removal.
Advanced Layout Support (DIV)
Associated with Nvu's table-based focus and limited CSS support is the lack of support to build a multi-column layout based upon CSS and DIV using the Graphical interface. Multi-column layouts are a standard used by many web-sites, and creation using CSS and DIV a staple in 'How-to publications. An inability to create them from the graphical interface is a significant barrier.
As a web-site grows managing its components becomes important. Nvu has limited support for managing templates, grouping pages and graphics in directories. Other basic features of site management include gathering images selected from elsewhere into the site, identifying in-site broken links, and site wide search/replace
If you have an existing structure, Nvu can accommodate it. However any changes after the fact require each page to be re- edited. As well, pages created from a template loose links when the created page is saved into a different directory than the template was created for.
HEAD Tag Editing
Nvu provides no graphical support for creating and editing of Header elements, such as META tags for keywords or adding an external CSS style-sheet. Any editing of tags in a page's header requires HTML source editing. Header-tags are standard in non- beginner web-sites.
HTML Source Editing
Nvu's HTML editor is weak. A standard features on most code editors, 'pretty formatting', is simply unreliable. There is no rhyme or reason to the line breaks, and manual coding doesn't result in any display change. Switching from Normal mode to HTML mode does not always result in the cursor being located in the same place. This is a serious weakness for the non-professional. Most non-professionals learn a bit of HTML coding, usually to work around their graphical editor, but they rely on context being maintained. To further our annoyance, when context is maintained the cursor does not flash after switching mode.
When editing source the tab interface supporting multiple pages vanishes, saving your work automatically reverts to 'normal mode'.
Nvu has a number of recurring bugs. Some are minor and transitory, the list below are significant:
- Spell Checker Vanishing - without warning the spell checker is menu is greyed out. Work-around: Use the toolbar spell checker icon.
- Insert function vanish - without warning insert functions like horizontal line and anchor from the Insert menu will be unavailable. Work-around: Close and restart Nvu (Note: Nvu is very quick to launch. It can be quicker to close and restart Nvu than to move around in GoLive or Dreamweaver).
- Context Loss - when moving between multiple pages Nvu will leave the context where you were instead of where you are. There might even be a flashing cursor where you think you are, but the cursor is really where you were. Common if you are copying and pasting between pages. Work-around: Save early and save often.
- Copy and Paste - with multiple tabs open pasting can go into the left-most tab even though the cursor is flashing in current tab. Even if no recent edits have been done in the left-most tab. Work-around: Save early and save often.
Solid table-based web-site editor. It is a good choice for non- professional web-site developer following a table-based layout for sites with limited complexity. For basic web-page creation Nvu has it all. Standard features and functions are presented in a clean, easy-to-use interface. As an Open Source product it is free, and has a good on-line community that will help you through difficulties. Nvu can be obtained, free of charge, from http://www.nvu.com
If you work with more complex sites and are using CSS and DIV formatting controls Nvu's weaknesses start to show. At this point the non-professional web-site developer should consider GoLive and Dreamweaver. Balance the high price-tags of these commercial products with the productivity loss and limitations of Nvu. As a last word of warning, Nvu's CSS editor should not be used.
About The Author|
Copyright © 2005 Dave Hornford Hornford Associates Hornford Associates
Hornford Associates provides professional services aligning Information Technology with business goals. Enterprise Architecture, IT Strategy, Project Management and Operational Efficiency support 4 focus areas (SME eCommerce, Storage, Business Continuity and Linux (Open Source). For more information, please take a look at: http://www.hornfordassociates.com Or, call her: +1 403-818-4303 For SME focused how-to guides on eCommerce and Open-Source infrastructure visit: http://www.hornfordassociates.com/library