Microsoft Expression Suite 4
I’ve decided to check out the Microsoft Expression Web 4 Upgrade to see what new features it has and how it compares to the previous 3.0 release. First off, it looks pretty much the same as far as the UI goes. When it comes to Microsoft apps that’s a good thing. They have a tendency to jumble up everything and make it more difficult to find the options you’re looking for.
It has the same layout with the Toolbox, Folder list and Properties boxes. It’s actually pretty easy to jump in and straight creating pages – if you know what you’re doing. Like the previous version this is mainly an editor. It’s not a design tool that will help you color pages, select buttons and be "artistic". It doesn’t come with templates, there is no picture gallery tool or site building wizard. If you need that as your base, Expression Web is just going to frustrate you.
So how is it as an editor? Pretty good actually. You can drag and drop items so it makes building pages quite easy. The code editor is easy to read and use and the split screen view is very handy. You can layer objects, edit your CSS files and insert HTML, ASP and PHP controls. Overall it’s a pretty powerful app.
One thing that Microsoft has been touting is the SEO Reporting tool. Before you get too excited, it’s really not that impressive. It makes sure that you have a unique title, keywords and description for the page and then checks to see that your images have Alt Text associated with them. All good practices, but it’s not really that impressive of an SEO tool.
There are a couple of things that are lacking though. One thing I wish the editor would do is Tag Highlighting. For example, in the the Rapid PHP 2010 tool I have (and you also get this in Notepad++) when you click a tag like DIV for example it will highlight the opening and closing tag so you know have them set up correctly. This is extremely useful especially when you text spans more than one screen worth. For some reason Expression Web doesn’t have this, or at least doesn’t have it turned on by default. I can’t find a way to make the editor function this way. That’s pretty disappointing since it’s standard with other apps. Apps that cost much less (free).
The Reports and Hyperlink functions are quite useful though. You can visually see the layout of your site and how the pages relate to each other and you can get statistics on how many style sheet links you have, how many internal and external links and links to dead pages. A nice tool to have to make sure you aren’t sending people off to La La Land.
I do like that Expression will open the entire site rather than just a single page at a time. It seems very unlikely that you would work on a file in isolation like that. Expression handles that quite a bit better than the others in that respect.
It is interesting to note that a lot of the Expression Web functionality is bundled up in Visual Studio 2010. VS2010 isn’t quite as user friendly, but pretty much everything is there. You can edit, format and see the design much like Expression shows it. That is just more of an observation on how Microsoft is merging their products.
Finally, the SuperPreview mode is actually pretty useful. You take a webpage and then load it up in multiple browsers at the same time. You can view IE8 and FF3 next to each other. Or you can view IE7 and IE8 next to each other. You can see alignment issues, see how the graphics layout, check the spacing and get a good idea of how each browser will look. That is definitely a handy feature for cross browser compatibility.
Overall I like this new version, but is it worth the hefty cost to upgrade? If you’re new to the Expression Suite then yes, this is a good investment. If you’re coming from version 3.0 I’m not really sure there are that many compelling new features. You would have to be a pretty hard core coding fool to get your money’s worth out of it. But check it out for yourself, there is a fully functional 60-Day Trial you can download.