World's Best Free HTML Editors 2012/2013 Review

First Impressions - World's Best Free HTML Editors 2012/2013 Review

by Larry Neal Gowdy - February 26, 2013 (updated November 22, 2013)



Over the past twelve years I have used and/or tested most every free and paid HTML editor that is available for Windows and Linux. The majority of the editors are useful for their intended use, but a few of the editors stand out as being heads above all others.


Free Microsoft Expression Web 4 Professional

Free Expression Web 4 Download

Expression® Web 4 is hands-down the world's very best HTML editor, and too it also has WYSIWYG editing. Microsoft® has recently discontinued Expression Web, and in its place Microsoft is offering a jaw-dropping free download of Expression Web 4. The Expression Studio 4 Web Professional suite is still selling for around $135.00 through retailers (which includes Design and Encoder), but you can download a free copy of Expression Web at Microsoft.


Expression Web 4 screenshot

The screenshot of Expression Web 4 is of a dark editor theme; the default editor theme has a white background and can be modified to suit your personal preferences. HTML, ASPX, ASP, PHP, CSS, and JavaScript: Expression has the typical web designer well covered.

Expression Web 4 has similar commands as Word® (e.g. ctrl-i to tag a word in italics), and for those of us who use office suites Expression is a lot like having an additional office application. Microsoft's Office 2003 included Script Editor® which was an excellent HTML editor but without features like spell checking, SEO tips, and enhanced validation.

I have been using and loving Expression for over a year. On my computers Expression has behaved goofy a few times by sometimes no longer validating a page if the program has been running about eight hours or more, but the problem is easily fixed by exiting and restarting the program. A couple times a page within Expression would somehow get weird and not permit spell checking while other open pages could be spell-checked (although the spell checker still worked on all pages if you first highlighted the text to be checked), and one time a page would crash Expression when attempting validation or using the SEO tools. I could validate all other files including a newly created file, but the one file in question crashed Expression even if I deleted the body and meta tags.

It has appeared that the errors may have occurred immediately after a Windows® update while the pages were open in Expression. Most of the time the odd behavior of Expression remains limited to a singular document, but if the goofiness gets worse I found that simply reinstalling the software fixed the problems (perhaps only temporarily though). Reinstalling Expression once every year or two is no big deal – other editors sometimes require reinstallation too – and considering how much I like Expression I do not fret about the minor inconvenience. Some users have reported having no problems whatsoever, while other users have reported a slew of bugs, so your mileage may vary.

Expression is an outstanding program and I do not hesitate to say that Expression is easily the world's best HTML editor. No other HTML editor except NotePad++ comes close regardless of the price. Even if you do not need an HTML editor right now, I still recommend downloading a free copy so that you will have one on hand if you should want it in the future.

Free Expression Web 4 Download


Free HTML Editor NotePad++

Free NotePad++ Download

NotePad++ is an open source program that is enjoyably lightweight in file size and heavyweight in features. An experienced coder might choose NotePad++ simply on the preference of the individual wanting to type code without being bothered with the unnecessary automated 'convenience' features that are often found in other editors. Expression and Visual Studio® by default insert a byte order mark into HTML pages, which is a no-no for UTF-8. The BOM feature is easily turned off in Expression, but Visual Studio requires a little extra effort to keep HTML files BOM-free. NotePad++ installs with the favored UTF-8 encoding without BOM, which to me simply tells me that the editor's programmers gave the extra effort to ensure that NP++ is setup correctly out of the box for web coders.


NotePad++ Screenshot

The NotePad++ screenshot is of the Waher-style dark editor theme. NP++ includes numerous themes, plus you can download or create your own editor text themes very easily. The menu, toolbar, and tab bar can be removed to enable maximum editor space.

While typing HTML (and most any other language) NotePad++ is very competitive with Expression. I have grown accustomed to Expression and I would prefer to continue using Expression for as long as possible, but I do not feel disadvantaged when using NP++. I prefer Expression's spell checker and validation tools, but when working with the code itself NP++ is as nimble and fast as Expression.

All good HTML editors automatically mark where a tag begins and ends, but NotePad++'s method of using a red line is in my opinion easier to notice and work with (even if I almost never make use of the feature). Many years back I had the tendency to not always close center tags, which of course required a bit of digging to find the errors; NotePad++ would have made the search much faster and easier. Sometimes it is the little things that make the biggest difference.

NotePad++'s language support is fantastic! NotePad++ is really good stuff and strongly recommended.

(Update October 06, 2013: Notepad++ now includes a spell checker in the download file. The spell checker plugin actually works pretty good, pretty good indeed. I used Notepad++ for about twelve hours today while updating a portion of files in a subdirectory, and I did not feel disadvantaged at all as compared to any other editor. I had started the day using Expression, but went to Visual Studio 2013 RC when I thought stuff was getting goofy (I later discovered that it was my fault for having omitted a zero padding), and I then left Visual Studio when it kept trying to be 'convenient' with automatic indentations and other unwanted formating that apparently can't be turned off in the settings. So far I got 30 files updated today along with full copies of all graphics, and not once has Notepad++ gotten goofy on me or tried to be 'convenient'. If NP++ had a skin like Visual Studio 2012/2013 I do believe that I would use it almost exclusively.)

Free NotePad++ Download


Free Visual Studio 2012 Express

Free Microsoft Visual Studio 2012 Express Download

The full version of Visual Studio 2012 Professional typically costs between $435.00 to $500.00, but the free lightweight express version is plenty good for HTML, CSS, and basic programming. The disadvantages of Visual Studio 2012 express are (1) no spell checker, (2) theme coloring is limited to light gray or dark gray, and (3) limited validation of coding (although validation is simple enough through use of the F12 tools in Internet Explorer®). The advantages of Visual Studio 2012 express are (1) a good stable platform, (2) well supported by Microsoft, (3) a person could move up to the paid version when the need arrives for additional features and programming languages, and (4) the express versions are always free to download.


Visual Studio 2012 professional screenshot in the purple theme

The spell checker add-on in Visual Studio 2012 Professional works well by checking spelling as you type. Unfortunately the express version of Visual Studio does not permit add-ons, and so a spell checker is not available except for the professional version and higher.


Visual Studio 2012 professional screenshot with the theme color add-on.

The Color Themes add-on is outstanding for allowing the user to create their own theme colors. Unfortunately the add-on does not work in the express version of Visual Studio.


Visual Studio 2012 express with the black editor theme.

A screenshot of Visual Studio 2012 express showing the highlighted beginning and end of a tag in a dark theme. Yes this is free to download and use!

The express version does not have the many features found in the paid version of Visual Studio 2012, but for free the express version is quite good and highly recommended. Earlier versions of Visual Studio express (e.g. 2008 and 2010) are also good and still available for download. I will likely soon purchase a full version of Visual Studio 2012 professional for other programming languages, but for HTML, CSS, JS, and PHP I very much still prefer Expression (but I may change my mind as I grow more accustomed to Visual Studio 2012).

Free Microsoft Visual Studio 2012 Express Download


Summary

The choice of which HTML editor to use often boils down to operating systems and personal preferences. All three of the HTML editors shown above are excellent high quality programs, and amazingly free to download.

If I were using a Mac® I would likely not consider any editor except Adobe's® Dreamweaver®, which is not free (around $400.00), but Adobe has an excellent reputation for the Adobe software that I have used, and since Mac seems to usually have a narrow selection of available software, I would save my time and effort by plunking-down the four hundreds and be done with it. But then too, I would rather put the $400.00 into a new Windows-based PC (or run Windows in virtual) and install the free Expression.

If I were limited to Linux I am uncertain which HTML editor that I might choose. Quanta Plus seems to be the best available for Linux, but there are several other HTML editors that can also be useful. I myself have difficulty with Linux-based software, not because of the software not filling my needs, but because of program skins and font displays (my purely subjective preference for Microsoft-ish look and feel). Someday I may return to working on a personalized skin for Linux, and if I do I might then rework an HTML editor to suit my personal needs.

Those of us who use Word as much or more than HTML editors within Windows may find favor with Expression simply because Expression has the similar speed, keyboard shortcuts, and feel as Word. If for some reason I were not able to use Expression ever again, I would only consider Visual Studio, NotePad++, and Script Editor.

While editing several pages on First Impressions I chose to use Visual Studio 2012 professional, and I must say that VS 2012 appears to have a few positive refinements over the previous versions. VS 2008 and VS 2010 did not sway me away from my other editors, but I am rapidly finding a fondness for VS 2012. For a free HTML editor I believe that Expression is still the choice, but Visual Studio 2012 is too sweet to ignore. Oops, wait, after a few more hours of using Visual Studio 2012 I am not anxious to return to Expression. Checking the spelling in Visual Studio 2012 express is not a problem, simply preview the page in Internet Explorer (ctrl shift w), select all (ctrl a), paste into a Word document (ctrl v), and do a quick spell-check (F7). Within about five seconds a file can be spell-checked through Word, and Word does a good job of checking tag spelling too if the file is copied/pasted directly from Visual Studio to Word. And sure enough I am pleased with Visual Studio's cursor speed and behavior. Okay then, my final recommendation (until next hour) is to download all three editors and see which one you like best.

(Update November 22, 2013: the new Visual Studio 2013 Express (yes free) seems to be a little smoother and have a more accurate feel than 2012 (it might just be my imagination, but I am liking 2013 a lot). The two advantages of (1) ctrl-mouse wheel for zooming text, and (2) the ability to rearrange file tabs in the tab bar (similar to browser tabs) are available in NP++ and VS 2013 (VS 2013's function is superior for both), but the functions are not available in Expression. VS and Expression both have modern skins, while NP++ retains the older style that is common in open source software. To me all three editors are very good, and though Visual Studio 2013 is obviously the best, I still feel most at home with Expression simply because to me it feels classier (and I just now wrote that while using Visual Studio 2013 Express. LOL! )


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