For some time now I have believed that PHP lacks a good quality, affordable, IDE with many of the features we’ve come to expect from IDE’s. I’ve heard of Zend Studio and I understand it gets excellent ratings but it, like many other development environments I come across, is just too far over budget for the average semi-hobbyist website developer. Zend Studio is available for free for non-commercial but my use, although I make a tiny profit from it, is likely to be classified as commercial because it does, nonetheless, make a profit. Measured in pounds rather than thousands but a profit. And one day I’d like it to turn a handsome profit!
But as a semi-hobbyist website owner I can’t afford Zend Studio, on top of the other applications I already do have licenses for (and that I have to admit were quite seriously expensive too) such as Frontpage and Visual Studio.Net from my ASPX days. Fortunately Microsoft do look after the small business guys with their Microsoft Action Pack!
I’ve looked at dozens of ‘free’ PHP editors, and I’ve used them all for a week or so until I get bored of them because they don’t allow me to do the one thing I want to do – especially with the advent of Smarty, the PHP template engine – and that is to design my pages. I want to be able to use an editor that I can see instantly how my layout looks, such as the way Frontpage, Dreamweaver or Visual Studio allow me to. Some of the PHP editors I’ve tried in the past had no FTP upload capability, some of them had no project control capability so you were opening one page at a time. Using Windows Network Places to do the uploads… Some of the PHP editors I tried outright destroyed my source files or corrupted them in nasty ways that resulted in instant opening of the Add/Remove Programs icon.
When I first tried VS.php back in June or July of this year, it fell into the category of yeah, it’s OK but it lacks an awful lot of functionality. It crashed a lot too and took Visual Studio with it, often without giving a chance to save your files first. The dreaded Send / Dont Send would come up all too regularly and it too found its fate in the Add/Remove Programs icon. I didn’t go back. In fact I started doing all my PHP using Frontpage, I told it that the .tpl extension should be opened in an HTML Designer view and off it went.
But at the beginning of last week I decided to take another look at VS.php because Frontpage lacks one of the big things you’d want from a PHP editor, and that’s code syntax highlighting. I’m glad I took another because VS.PHP has grown considerably in the last few months, and the developers are actively working – round the clock judging by the timestamps on some of the e-mails I’ve received – to improve it further.
I downloaded the latest version and had a play. Since the time that I last looked JCX Software have improved VS.PHP in a number of areas;
- Support for Visual Studio.Net 2002 is now far more stable. This is a good thing for me because that’s the version I have to use. The installation routine went flawlessly and everything fired up fine
- FTP Deployment support now works fine, whereas before it didn’t.
- The intellisense has had a LOT of work done on it, although it still has a long way to go, the developers are acutely aware that its an area that needs work – and are actually doing work on it rather than paying just lip service.
- It doesn’t crash regularly any more. Although the intellisense dies fairly often, the code highlighting doesn’t die and I’ve only seen one Send Dont Send in the last week.
- Collapsible regions and navigation bars. Its just like writing C# or VB now.
- The project management works. First time. Every time. I’m not sure exactly what went wrong with the older version I tried, but I distinctly remember on occasions that you would close down VS.PHP and when you re-opened it, after having saved your project diligently, that it was no longer there! This is now fixed, which is just as well because it was the biggest reason VS.PHP ended up in the Recycle Bin originally for me.
So that’s the things that have changed, what about the other things that are reasons why other people should look at it? Well VS.PHP wraps itself up very nicely, the version of PHP and Apache are totally seperate from any existing web services you might have installed on your system. The Apache that it comes with starts up and stops automatically when you Preview your site so you don’t need to mess around with System Services or anything nasty like that.
One of the things that often bugs me about the ‘non commercial’ (and I put VS.PHP into that category largely because of the price of a license, and it being Try Before You Buy Ware) world of software is that getting started can take forever. Usually there are configuration files to tweak, or something doesn’t install right and takes you half an hour, if you’re lucky, to adjust registry settings or ini files. There was none of that headache with VS.PHP, it installed and I ran it straight away, just like developing ASPX applications.
One BIG advantage to using VS.PHP compared to developing in with ASPX.Net is that I can actually do web development on my current environment. I bought a brand new laptop from PC World back in June, and it came with Windows XP Home as standard. Now I have no reason whatsoever to change that, especially since its got all the drivers for the screen pre-installed and being an HP, it all runs pretty darn smoothly thank you. Except that when you install Visual Studio it says ‘You are on XP Home, you can’t do web development projects on this PC – upgrade to XP Pro’. No. I won’t. Because I don’t need XP Pro, and I don’t honestly see why I should give myself that headache. What drongo at Microsoft figured that Home users wouldn’t want to develop .Net based web sites? They might as well say you can’t develop .Net at all on XP Home if they’re going to say that. Of course its because they don’t want you to use IIS on XP Home, but gee, get with the plot guys. I paid for Visual Studio so I could develop web sites… Anyway, with VS.PHP I can develop my websites and not have to risk an OS upgrade. That’s a big winner for me.
VS.PHP comes with an integrated debugger, but as yet I have not tried this feature.
To summarize this review, if you have a copy of Visual Studio and you like it, but you want to develop PHP then get VS.PHP. I can honestly say that in my experience it is the best PHP IDE I have seen by far. It supports Smarty templates, although if you want to use Design View (as I do) then you have to use .stm as the extension instead of .tpl. The developers are extremely active, it’s got an excellent forum for giving feedback, wishlist, bug reports and the developers respond (sometimes instantly) to problems. You certainly won’t be left high and dry after your purchase as I’ve experienced with some online purchases.
VS.PHP has a lot of potential for even further improvement, but right now it’s an extremely useful, and valuable product.
Check it out now at I give it 8 out of 10 already. And if the developers continue to support it as well as they have recently, it won’t be long before its a 9.5 or 10 out 10