Expression Web 4 Pro Review

First Impressions - Expression Web 4 Pro Review

by Larry Neal Gowdy - August 17, 2011 (updated October 6, 2013)

First Impressions Expressions Preferences

Rule of thumb: turn off almost all features.
(Note: the black text on a gray background is an experiment with XP themes and is not normal for Expression.)

It is rare for me to get excited about new software, but Microsoft's® Expression® Web 4 Professional kept a wide grin on my face for several weeks. Having downloaded the 60 day trial version, I literally woke each morning anxious to get to work with Expression, and the smile grew wider when the DVD arrived in the mail. (Admittedly the goofy smile may have partially been due to the lack of sleep of staying up late with Expression and getting up early to get back on Expression.)

My first impression of Expression was that it is the very best HTML editor on the planet. With an attractive user interface, quality word processor behavior, speed, and every feature that I personally want, to me Expression is the ideal HTML/CSS editor with no other editor coming close.

A large portion of a program's desirability is how similar the program looks and behaves with other programs that we use on a regular basis. For those of us who frequently use Word® and Excel®, Expression has a similar feel of cursor speed, cursor movement, file commands, and general layout. Since Expression is made by Microsoft®, it is to be expected that Expression would feel like it belongs in Microsoft's Office® 2003 suite. I am not yet decided if Expression blends well with Office 2007 or 2010, but it does agree well with 2003, which is what I still use. (Update: I now only use Office 2010 on all of my Windows 8 computers.)

Of the numerous HTML editors that I have used in the past, in my opinion each program had its own advantages and disadvantages, with it seeming as though the disadvantages too often outweighed the advantages. Some editors work well but have slow cursor speeds and terrible word wrapping, while other editors may have good cursor speed and word wrapping while having an unacceptable text display. The DragonFly debugging environment in the Opera® browser is one of the best free HTML editors, as are the editors in FireFox®, Chrome®, and Internet Explorer® very useful. The choice of which to use boils down to what we want and expect from an editor. If we are only working on a single page of small size, then most any editor can be found to be sufficient, but when working with hundreds and thousands of files, some of which are relatively large, the lightweight editors quickly begin showing their limitations. Similar to how Word is perhaps the only word processor that is capable of handling large documents, so is Expression one of the few editors - if not the only one - that can handle a large workload. (Visual Studio® and Notepad++ appear to also handle workloads well too.)

Screenshot Expressions Web 4

Screenshot of Expression Web 4 Pro

Screenshot Expression Design 4

Screenshot of Expression Design 4

Included in Expression Web 4 Professional is the graphics program Expression Design® 4. I have not yet used the program, but it appears to be useful for basic graphic modifications.

Screenshot Expression Encoder 4

Screenshot of Expression Encoder 4 with the light gray theme.

The Expression Encoder® 4 is another program included with Expression Web 4 that I have not yet used. The program appears to be quite useful for creating videos in the MP4, Windows Media, and IIS formats. From what I understand, to use the digital rights management capabilities of Encoder it will require a Windows-based Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning protocol (WebDAV) server with Internet Information Services (IIS) 6.0 or 7.0, and the user may have to install the Silverlight® plugin for the movie to be viewed. Encoder could be an ideal solution for a corporation using its own Intranet, as would Encoder be a good choice for digital rights management, but I am not sure that Silverlight is yet popular enough for a video to be used on a website that is aimed for the general Internet. Some of us are hesitant to install plugins, and for my own personal preferences I would prefer to not force a visitor to my sites to install a plugin that they do not already have. I already have good home video software, as well as the animation capabilities within CorelDraw!® RAVE®, and so at present I do not have plans to investigate Encoder further, but perhaps at a future date I may tinker with the software for no other reason than for me to become more familiar with its capabilities.

Screenshot Expression Encoder 4 Screen Capture

Screenshot of Expression Encoder 4 Screen Capture.

The Encoder screen capture module can capture a video of what is shown on your monitor. I have only tinkered with the module for a few minutes, and while the program is not at the moment useful for my needs, I do see that Decoder Screen Capture has a lot of potential benefits and ought to be quite excellent for creating tutorial videos.

Screenshot Expression 4 Super Preview

Screenshot of Expression Web 4 Super Preview.

Although most of us likely have the latest versions of all modern browsers installed on our computers so that we can see how well our pages work in each browser, few of us have Internet Explorer® versions 6 and 7. The Super Preview program within Expression is useful for ensuring that our site can still be viewed by individuals with the older Internet Explorer browsers.

The Expression Web 4 Ultimate version includes Expression Blend®. I looked at Blend while using the trial version of Expression, but I did not investigate Blend further since I am primarily interested in HTML/CSS and not much interested in visual editing nor creating Silverlight animations. Too, the basic Expression Web 4 Professional upgrade version costs under $50.00 while the Ultimate version typically runs around $300.00 to $600.00 depending on whether you want the upgrade or the full version.

Considering that Expression Web 4 Professional includes Design, Encoder, Encoder Screen Capture, and Super Preview, the package is priced exceptionally well. I am guessing that the price is currently low due to so few people knowing that Expression exists. Searching for HTML editors in search engines has not yet given Expression as a result, and the online stores like Amazon® do not list Expression in the HTML editor category. Expression is a bargain that should not be quickly passed by.

I have only toyed with Expression's visual design mode a couple times, but I did find that Expression wrote correct code for what little I experimented with. In the past it was unheard of for a visual editor to create accurate code, and so I am both surprised and pleased that Expression may be suitable for individuals who prefer visual editors.

A few peculiar program behaviors quickly surfaced when I first began using Expression, but I was steadily learning how to configure the preferences settings to have Expression work as an HTML editor and not as a 'you have no say, you are a slave to a WYSIWYG editor, you must accept what you are given, the software better knows what you want than you, you must accept what you are given...' I obviously do not have a desire for visual editors!

(Update February 1, 2012: A thought has been nagging me for months that I simply must place into words; in the earlier days of Word Perfect® the text display was relatively crude as compared to today's word processor displays (not much beyond an ANSI text), and we set font faces and sizes by highlighting the desired letters or words and then choosing the formatting. The displayed letters remained the same on the monitor, but the letters would print as desired. Graphics were also inserted manually and would not be viewed until printed. Microsoft's Word is a WYSIWYG word processor, and I cannot imagine myself ever returning to the old ways like with Word Perfect. I just wanted to clarify that I prefer to insert HTML/CSS code manually because it allows for accuracy of code, cleanliness of code, smaller file size, and I can manipulate intricate displays far more quickly manually than what a visual editor normally allows. And so I wanted to clarify that I love the 'visual editor' of Word, but for web design I still prefer the old school methods. Someday I may actually sit down and create a web page with the visual editor, and I may discover that I like it, but for the moment I am still loving Expression for its HTML and CSS coding. And let me reemphasize my great pleasure with Expression: my positive opinion of Expression continues to grow. I am approaching a year of having used Expression, and I am more convinced than ever that Expression is not only the world's best HTML/CSS editor but it is also extraordinarily excellent for my needs. Most of the little initial difficulties described below have been ironed out, and at present Expression is running superbly well on my XP Pro computer. Nothing in life is perfect, but Expression comes mighty darn close.)

One of the most troublesome problems was with Expression automatically reformatting sentences to word wrap at near the center of the page. While the word wrapping would not affect the final display of the page, still I very much dislike having an editor change code without my having a say. Too, when looking back over my code I want to see each line displayed as I typed it: there are specific reasons why we type the way that we type, and it is unacceptable for an editor to alter our work. I later discovered that the word wrap's right margin should be set to several hundred and not to 10-20 as we would normally think. Unlike normal word processors the right margin begins at the left of the screen, not at the right, and so the word wrapping works properly when the width is set to be wider than the monitor's display.

Too, not everyone wants to have indented lines of code, and Expression will automatically insert indentations unless the feature is turned off. It is not a happy thing to have to remove indentations from a file with over a thousand lines!

Another 'feature' that is greatly annoying is the automatic insertion of code. Before the user has a chance to type a tag, Expression (and many other HTML editors) will finish the tag as well as insert the closing tag. Some users might find the feature useful, but for me it simply caused me the extra work of having to delete most tags and then retype the tag the way that the tag needed to be coded. Fortunately the auto-insertion feature is easily turned off in the preferences settings. Generally, for my preferences of merely wanting an editor for editing, I found that Expression works best when most every feature is turned off.

I want to upload my files to the server by myself, whether by FTP or by single files, and I do not want a program to remove my freedom of choosing which files go where. It is unacceptable for a user to have to work at such lengths to set up automated upload configurations when it is so simple to merely upload a file by yourself. If you are accustomed to using Cpanel or FTP, Expression's server upload configuration can be a rather strongly unwanted feature.

An unpleasant surprise while using the find/replace feature is that Expression will alter every file in the directory if the directory is allowed to be set as a site. I have found that not using the site feature allows Expression to work relatively well. As repeatedly mentioned, as an HTML/CSS editor the general rule of thumb for Expression is to turn off almost all features.

Screenshot Expression Web 4 browser preview menu

Screenshot of the Expression Web 4 browser preview menu.

All installed browsers are available for previewing.

One of the few features that I have found useful is the automatic validator that checks for valid HTML and CSS while you type. I normally type a rough draft of a layout, and then later go back through the code to correct unfinished changes and errors. At first I did not like the automated validation, but after tinkering with the feature for a couple of hours I discovered that it was actually saving me a bit of time. To date the HTML/CSS validation within Expression has almost always been correct as per W3C.

One oddity with the HTML/CSS validation is that it becomes unstable when Expression has been used nonstop for five to eight hours. The problem is easily remedied by exiting the program and then reloading, but still the problem can cause a few minutes of lost time if you are needing to continue using the validator. I normally have two to four browsers open simultaneously so that I can view the page while I work, and the automatic validation plugin in FireFox® is good enough that I am not much concerned when Expression's validator gets goofy.

Another oddity is that Expression does not automatically include a graphic's height and width when inserting a picture. While it is not necessary to have the height and width stated, and it is an easy thing to type in the dimensions, I was so accustomed to working with dimensions that at first I was a bit displeased with Expression's omission. I discovered that it is possible to drag a photo into the visual editor, resize the photo a little, then undo the sizing, and Expression's automatic coding will insert the dimensions correctly. Nevertheless, within a couple of weeks I had acquired an acceptance of not having dimensions stated, and now I no longer worry about having width and height in an image tag unless I am resizing a graphic.

The single most important bug so far has been with the spell checker. After an automated update the spell checker stopped working for recently changed HTML files. The spell checker still works normally for older files and new files, but the files that were modified shortly after the update must have the paragraphs highlighted before the spell checker will work. Luckily the oddity is not major, but at first I thought that the spell checker had quit completely, which was very much displeasing and the cause of my saying the "Linux®" word. For those of us who do a lot of writing, it is common for us to repeatedly reread the articles while editing, and it is common for an author to become blind to his/her words due to having read the same words over and over, and so a spell checker becomes one of our most important tools. A spell checker is not wholly a necessity, but darn close.

There are several good HTML editors available - Script Editor® being one, which is the one that I used to write the first draft of this article - but one of the main advantages of Expression over the other editors is Expression's spell checker. Without the spell checker Expression would have no sizable advantage over Script Editor. For some articles I will type and spell check the text in Word® and then copy/paste the text into an editor where I will then insert the HTML/CSS code. When updating a page, however, I do not want to have to completely reinsert hundreds or thousands of lines of tags, and so Word is often only useful for an article's first version and none other. To me a spell checker is one of the most important features of an HTML editor, and so I was very unhappy with Expression's spell checker having stopped working properly. I am hoping that I will eventually discover a setting that will enable the files to be spell checked correctly again, but at the moment I am no longer concerned since the files are finished and the spell checker is working properly for all other files.

It is useful to note that some individuals have claimed that HTML editors should not be expected to check spelling, that all spelling should be checked in a word processor and not in the editor. Apparently the individuals either use visual editors where text is pasted from the word processor and automatically inserted without the user having any knowledge of HTML/CSS, or the individuals work with very small web pages that have relatively few words. A recently updated page of mine has about 11,450 words. While it is possible to proof-read a full sized article without the aid of a spell checker, I know of no professional writer who would consider the idea. Different word processors are chosen by different people for different reasons, and as professional artists and writers commonly choose software that works best for their trades, so is Expression considered to be a good choice for a specific genre of writers. To my knowledge no HTML editor is aimed for the professional writer, but Expression comes close simply because it has many behaviors similar to Word.

In spite of the several 'features' that are anti-productive for coders, Expression remains to be highly favored for its crisp text, word wrap behavior, cursor behavior, skin design, speed of saving files, and generally having a tidy workspace. I have not yet found any software that is 100% bug-free, and though Expression has a few undesirable oddities, it is still the best known HTML/CSS editor on the planet.

(Update October 6, 2013: As one of my other articles mention, Microsoft is now offering a free download version of Expression Web 4. Get it!! At present I have three editors on my primary computer; Expression, Visual Studio web 2013 RC, and Notepad++. Each of the editors have their own advantages and disadvantages: I still prefer Expression for its workspace, but I also like Visual Studio's modern skins, while at times I will jump over to Notepad++ when I need to work with a large number of files the old fashioned way (opening files from different folders without the editor trying to automatically link all files to each other regardless of how you have the settings set). Notepad++ now includes a spellchecker, and if someday Notepad++ updates its user interface to a modern appearance like Visual Studio I will then have a hard time choosing which editor to use, but for right now Expression Web 4 continues to be my favorite.)

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