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Review: Microsoft Expression Studio

Microsoft is breathing new life into Web authoring and content creation with Expression Studio, its new Web development suite that takes on Adobe.
Microsoft is breathing new life into Web authoring and content creation with Expression Studio, its new Web development suite that takes on design software stalwart Adobe.

Microsoft, Redmond, Wash., is getting serious about Web authoring for corporate professionals. Almost no traces of FrontPage, its previous stab at Web authoring tools, are found in Expression Studio. Microsoft reduced the FrontPage method of creating Web content to a simple backward-compatible deployment option to help transition customers.


Microsoft Expression Web's workspace provides docking pane views for code, design styles and properties.
Expression Web, the subject of this review, is the suite's integrated development environment (IDE), replacing FrontPage.

At first glance, it looks like an enhanced version of the old Visual InterDev. Like Visual InterDev, Expression Web combines hard-core development with HTML authoring. The editor supports ASP.Net's Master Pages. This is a new ASP.Net feature used for developing application-level layout templates. For Web site designers, Expression Web supports Dynamic Web Templates, which are roughly the HTML equivalent of Master Pages. Dynamic Web Templates are used for maintaining master copies of HTML page metadata and can contain editable regions for altering content.

Expression Web arrives with a slew of commonly used ASP.Net controls for accessing databases, validating content and navigating Web sites, plus a library of WebParts structural and UI controls. ASP.Net developers also can work with XML data sources.

Expression Web has inherited Visual Studio's great IntelliSense and code snippets features. The editor includes a style manager that does an amazing job categorizing and maintaining style sheets and has a cool quick text preview pane.

Expression Web's workspace provides docking pane views for code, design styles and properties. For each open file, Expression Web's main editing pane maintains a list of tags in a Quick Tag Selector Bar. By clicking on the tag in this bar, the editor provides users with content intelligent editing options. For HTML code, the editor knows to only highlight text inside body tags. This is a great feature for finding and editing code quickly.

Expression Web will not disappoint novice designers unfamiliar with code. They can quickly create templates and complex pages by dragging and dropping many HTML form controls and page layout tags from a toolbar. For backward compatibility, Expression Web includes Microsoft's old Script Editor for VBScript and JScript scripting, as well as an integrated Visual Basic editor for developing VBA macros.

CRN Test Center engineers expected Visual Studio-level help but were disappointed. The help menu is rather slim and only provides simple definitions for each topic. Most references to programming are linked to MSDN. The Lynda and Total Training Web sites have produced two comprehensive training videos. Test Center engineers recommend the video at the Lynda site, which was produced by Microsoft staff.

To help manage a Web development team, Expression Web can generate a number of Web site-level reports. The reports provide change management information and simple page status information. Developers also can use the reports to locate source code and errors in style sheets.