What you see is what you get

A Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) editor is definitely one of those software packages you choose based on personal preference. Some people just want to convert Word or WordPerfect documents to HTML and be done with it. Other people want the ability to tweak the heck out of a page after converting it to HTML.

HTML editors come in many different flavors and have different abilities. Although some editors offer the same abilities, how they let you use those abilities is what makes some stand above the rest. I recently looked at SoftQuad HoTMetaL PRO 3.0, InContext Spider 1.1, Microsoft FrontPage 1.1, and Netscape Navigator Gold 3.0 beta 4.

HoTMetaL PRO 3.0
HoTMetaL PRO 1.0 was one of the first true HTML editors available. HoTMetaL PRO 3.0 has come a long way since version 1.0, but then so has the Web. HoTMetaL PRO 3.0 is a powerful editor that's easy enough for the beginner yet lets the experienced user manipulate a page beyond belief.

HoTMetaL is a near-What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get (WYSIWYG) tool, meaning that if you leave the markup tags (the icons that show the type of formatting applied) turned off, you can see what the document will look like--almost. I say almost because the tables aren't exactly as they'll appear in the browser. (Of course, why would you want to turn off the tags? I like the markup tags because they let me see what's really going on in my document.) HoTMetaL lets you easily manipulate almost everything on your page. Place your cursor within just about any tag pair, press F6, and HoTMetaL shows you a whole field of options to let you manipulate your page. You can see a sample HoTMetaL PRO page in Screen 1.

HoTMetaL supports the latest HTML version (3.0), including Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) extensions. This support means you can work with the newest HTML tags available. HoTMetaL runs HTML rule checking continuously. If you turn on rule checking, HoTMetaL won't let you proceed with an action if it violates any HTML rules.

HoTMetaL converts Word, WordPerfect, and other documents to HTML pages. The product also includes a spell checker, and it has a thesaurus.

Just a right mouse-click away is HoTMetaL's built-in graphics tool, MetalWorks. Now, Adobe PhotoShop it's not, but MetalWorks lets you create such effects as embossing, raised or inverted borders, and transparent GIF files. You can also create client-side and server-side image maps.

HoTMetaL lets you specify default settings to help keep your pages consistent. For example, if you have a background image and copyright footer you like on every page, you can configure HoTMetaL to automatically include those settings on new documents. The button bar is easy to use and even has a tear-away function that lets you place a button bar along the side of your screen.

HoTMetaL is a great tool for both power users and beginners. The product's advanced tools will make most power users happy. HoTMetaL comes with a complete manual and is full of samples and templates on line that get beginners on their way.

InContext Spider 1.1
InContext Spider is different from any editor I've seen. After you open a template, you see the workspace on the right and the Element bar on the left. The Element bar is a somewhat graphical representation of the HTML code in the workspace. The workspace is not WYSIWYG, and you have to check the Element bar to see the layout, which becomes especially tedious when you create tables. You can see a sample Spider page in Screen 2.

Incorrectly believing that few people use browsers that can view tables, InContext has no quick and easy way to create tables. Even when you open the template for creating tables, you face building the table column by column, row by row, rather than just telling the editor how many columns and rows you want in the table and then letting the editor build it.

InContext has automatic HTML rule checking. The product also supports HTML 2.0 with Netscape and Microsoft IE extensions.

InContext has a spell checker and automatically converts word processor and text files into HTML pages. In my tests, the conversion worked fine with plain text but made a mess of a Microsoft Word table.

This package doesn't support centering, background images, or default page settings, and what it does support is either difficult to find or difficult to use.

Spider's documentation is on line. It is easy to use and helpful.

InContext Spider probably has enough built-in abilities to improve some people's productivity. I think you're better off spending the time you need to get up to speed learning a more intuitive, more enabled authoring tool.

InContext released version 1.2 after I did this review, and the company tells me the new version rectifies the problems I found. Watch for a review of version 1.2.

FrontPage 1.1
FrontPage is more than just an HTML authoring tool. It's a complete Web-site-management tool that includes server software for personal webs, multiuser remote authoring, an outline and link view of your site, autoverify for all links, and the ability to recalculate back links for moved or renamed files. I'll focus on FrontPage's authoring capabilities but slip in some of its other abilities where they're relevant.

FrontPage is a true WYSIWYG editor. You can see it in Screen 3. What you see on the screen is what shows up in the browser (assuming your browser is compatible with the extensions you're using, such as tables and colored text). This screen display is handy for creating tables and wrapping text around an image. If you're familiar with any Microsoft Office products, you'll feel right at home with FrontPage because it has the same look and feel.

The button bars are easy to use and help you find things. If you can't find a way to tweak an element through the button bar, a right mouse-click will bring up all options available for that element.

FrontPage supports HTML 2.0 and some HTML 3.0 extensions. Surprisingly, unlike many authoring tools, such as Microsoft's Internet Assistant add-on for Word, FrontPage does not support IE extensions such as the sliding text effect of marquees and table background colors. Perhaps Microsoft is trying to encourage people to author pages that will be viewable by most browsers; however, I figure that decision is the responsibility of the Web master. I'm disappointed that Microsoft left out some of its own extensions.

FrontPage doesn't have a built-in ability to convert files or documents. It has a built-in spell checker and image map-maker. The product also has some image-manipulation abilities. You can make images interlaced and transparent.

FrontPage offers two ways to control the look of your pages. One is to set a default look (e.g., set the default background color, link color, and background image). The other is to have your document refer to a style page that contains the elements you want on all your pages.

The documentation included is just enough to get you up and running. The real documentation is in the Help menu.

FrontPage makes HTML authoring easy for beginners but is powerful enough for power users, too. That capability and FrontPage's site-management package make it a good choice.

Navigator Gold 3.0b4
Now here's an HTML editor in the last place you'd expect to find it--inside a browser. If I ever expected a package to be WYSIWYG, it would be Netscape Navigator Gold, but it's only near-WYSIWYG. To see what your page will look like in its final form, you have to click View in Browser on the toolbar.

You rely on the right mouse button for most adjustments you make to your document. If you select an image or some text and then right click, a properties box pops up with options for adjusting just about everything on the page, such as image spacing and alignment.

Gold supports the latest version of HTML, but doesn't have built-in rule checking. This product doesn't have built-in document conversion ability or a spell checker, but it has an easy-to-use button bar for formatting. Gold doesn't have a built-in image editing tool, but it lets you specify a path to your image editing tool. This approach is similar to the way Gold treats helper applications with the browser.

Gold lets you set up default styles so you can keep your site uniform. If you want a different look, the package also offers color schemes for your background, text, and link colors.

Documentation for the product is on Netscape's Web site. Though this location lets Netscape update the content frequently, it also means you must be on the Web to read the documentation. Even though I'm on line, many images were missing from the documentation, which certainly reduced its effectiveness. I can't tell whether it was simply a bad day on the Net or Netscape omitted the images, but this problem highlights a layer of potential problems that online documentation creates.

Netscape Navigator Gold is a quick- and easy-to-learn package and gives beginners a lot of capability. However, experienced users will require more than it offers, especially if your content already exists in some other format.

Personal Preference
No two tools are alike, or as these examples demonstrate, even close. For a hobbyist looking to create some fun Web pages, I think Netscape Navigator Gold is a great tool. For a tool that will manage an entire site, I prefer a package such as FrontPage. For a powerful, flexible package that will design that perfect page, HoTMetaL Pro is the tool I want.

FrontPage 1.1
Microsoft * 206-882-8080 or 800-227-4679
Web: www.microsoft.com/frontpage/
Price: $149 ($109 for Microsoft Office users)
HoTMetaL PRO 3.0
SoftQuad * 416-239-4801 or 800-387-2777
Email: sales@sq.com
Web: www.softquad.com
Price: $159 (upgrades $69)
Navigator Gold 3.0 beta 4
Netscape Communications * 415-937-2555
Email: info@netscape.com
Web: home.netscape.com Price: $79
InContext Spider 1.1
InContext * 416-922-0087 or 800-263-0127
Email: sales@incontext.com
Web: www.incontext.com (download a free evaluation copy from www.incontext.com/demo/icspeval.html)
Price: $79.95