Reinvigorated Java IDEs change the development landscape
Java IDEs have improved steadily over the last few years. Products from IBM, Borland, and Sun show just how far they've come
As for GUI design, NetBeans bundles Matisse, which is the best GUI layout tool of its kind. As you drag and drop widgets onto panels and dialogs, they automatically arrange themselves correctly. Guidelines for optimal and alternative placements pop up during the drag-and-drop operations. Matisse then generates code from the design.
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Whereas the other Java IDEs in this review all use their own proprietary formats to store project metadata, NetBeans smartly relies on Ant files to hold project configuration data (in fact, it uses Ant, the open source Java equivalent of make, to drive builds). This has one important advantage: In teams that use multiple Java IDEs, any other IDE can load and run a NetBeans project without having to convert it manually or import it piecemeal.
There is a downside to the use of Ant files: NetBeans supports only a single runtime configuration. Most other IDEs let you choose from as many runtime configurations as you’re willing to write — not NetBeans. Instead, you must change the one configuration by hand each time you want to change the parameters you pass to your application. (The upcoming 6.0 release of the IDE remedies this problem.)
I ran into no bugs using NetBeans, and it has a snappy feel except when running instrumented code in the profiler. My only complaint about the user experience is that Sun does not use anti-aliased fonts, so text is more difficult to read than in Eclipse-based solutions.
Clearly, NetBeans has an unusual mix of features — some superbly implemented, others entirely missing. If the mix of features appeals to you, NetBeans is definitely your ticket. Not only is it free, but it is more responsive than the Eclipse-based products and easier to navigate, as it forgoes the “views” design embraced by Eclipse and simply uses windows. Also, NetBeans is frequently revved, enjoys a very active community, and benefits from a plug-in inventory second only to that of Eclipse.
To be fair, NetBeans is most disfavored by the timing of this review — the company is preparing version 6 of its IDE, which fixes many of my complaints, including the fonts and the runtime configuration. If you’re considering NetBeans, examine the version 6 beta currently available before making your decision.
So which of these IDEs should you choose? If you’re running IBM’s software stack or you have multiple languages spoken at your site, RAD 7 is your best bet — as long as you don’t need support for Java EE 5 or Java SE 6.
If you want an inexpensive solution or one that runs on Mac OS and Solaris (in addition to Windows and Linux), your choice is NetBeans. For all other situations, JBuilder 2007 is the clear choice — and a truly standout IDE.