InfoWorld review: Eight PHP power tools

Eclipse PDT, NetBeans, NuSphere PhpED, and Zend Studio lead a capable field of IDEs for Web developers

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Zend Studio
Produced in the heart of PHP country, from whence comes the core of the PHP runtime (the Zend engine), Zend Technologies' Zend Studio IDE is part of a collection of PHP-related products that includes Zend Server, Zend Platform, and others. Zend Studio is built atop the Eclipse IDE. In fact, Zend provides an Eclipse plug-in version of Zend Studio, in case you want to enjoy the capabilities of Zend Studio from within a vanilla Eclipse installation. We downloaded and tested the full Zend Studio installation for Windows. A 30-day evaluation version is available from the Zend Website.

When we first executed Zend Studio, it detected that we had not installed Zend Server and recommended that we do so. We downloaded and installed the free community edition of Zend Server. It is built on Apache Server and includes performance enhancements such as PHP byte code acceleration, data caching, pre-installed database drivers, and more. In addition, Zen Server is well integrated with Zend Studio; you can open the Zend Server administration directly from within Zend Studio. Also, when you create a new project in Zend Studio with Zend Server installed, the IDE will automatically set the new project's home directory in its proper location in the Web server's base (htdocs) directory.

[ Eclipse is a winner of InfoWorld's 2010 Technology of the Year Award, which recognizes the year's best hardware and software. Take a slideshow tour of all 20 winners. ]

When you create a new PHP source file, you can choose from a number of code templates to jump-start the file's content. Many are based on the open source Zend Framework. If you create a Zend Framework-based project (available as a project template), Zend Studio will prepopulate the project with components that support the MVC (model-view-controller) structure of a Zend Framework application and open an outline view that gathers each component into the appropriate category.

Because Zend Studio is built on Eclipse, its editing capabilities are virtually identical to those of Eclipse PDT. Its code completion for HTML, PHP, and JavaScript is pretty much the same as in Eclipse. In addition, all the familiar Eclipse constructs appear in Zend Studio: perspectives, views, and so on.

If you've installed Zend Server, setting up a debugging session in Zend Studio is easy. Zend Studio will locate Zend Server, and provided that you set your project's directory in the server's htdocs directory as recommended, debugging pretty much works out of the box. The combination of Zend Studio and Zend Server also simplifies execution profiling. Simply start a profiling session in the Studio and run your application, and Studio produces a variety of execution and coverage statistics, such as time spent in a given file, number of times a function was executed, average time in function, and more.

05TC-php-zend_sm.gif
Zend Studio's foundation in Eclipse is obvious from this screenshot. The servers tab (bottom) indicates that Zend Studio has found the local instance of Zend Server.

Zend Studio installs the Eclipse Data Tools Platform (DTP). This gives you, among other things, the Data Source Explorer, which provides connection to and management of close to a dozen well-known RDBMSes. (Actually, the number of accessible databases is limited only by the number of JDBC drivers you can lay your hands on.) MySQL was one of the pre-installed drivers, so it was easy for us to connect to our XAMPP database. The Data Source Explorer lets you prowl tables, stored procedures, views, and more. Open a table in the explorer, and you can drill into its columns, constraints, indexes, and triggers. You can modify the contents of a table directly in the database table editor. To alter table structures, however, you must manually enter SQL DDL statements. This is done easily enough by creating an SQL file and opening the Database Debug view, from which you can execute ad-hoc SQL code.

Zend Studio is a fine marriage of the open source Eclipse IDE and the Zend family of PHP tools and technologies. As with Eclipse PDT, you can turn Zend Studio into a Swiss Army Knife of development tools. Zend Studio's biggest advantage, however, is its swift and tight integration with Zend Server, which makes executing, debugging, and profiling your PHP application a breeze.

PHP IDEs at a glance

Platforms & Pricing Pros Cons Bottom Line
ActiveState Komodo IDE 5.2 Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux | $245 for a single user license
  • Single license lets you run on all supported platforms
  • Code completion works even with embedded JavaScript
  • Debugger can be set up with configuration wizard
  • No built-in database tools
  • Debugging mixed PHP and JavaScript requires multiple sessions
Komodo is an excellent IDE, particularly if you work with more than just PHP. An included database management system would help, but we're willing to overlook that, given the good code completion capabilities.
CodeLobster PHP Edition 3.1.3 Windows only | Free to registered users; CodeLobster charges for its plug-ins
  • Free with registration
  • A good collection of plug-ins
  • Windows only
  • Although the IDE is free, you must pay for the plug-ins
  • Documentation needs work; you have to explore the Web site to figure the product out
CodeLobster has the best product name, but the product itself is undercooked. A real help system is practically nonexistent.
Eclipse PDT 2.1.2 Any OS that runs Java | Free
  • Free
  • Can draw upon a wealth of Eclipse plug-ins
  • Works on all major operating systems
  • Eclipse IDE can require getting used to
  • Configuring for debugging is involved
Users familiar with Eclipse should not hesitate to add Eclipse PDT to their arsenal when it's time to do PHP development. New users should be willing to take the time to learn Eclipse -- it is well worth the effort.
MPSoftware phpDesigner 7 Windows only | €99 for a commercial license, 45 Euros for a personal license, and €29 for an academic license
  • Installation is simple
  • Editor help for languages other than PHP
  • Includes HTML preview feature
  • Windows only
  • No built-in database manager
  • No built-in JavaScript debugger
phpDesigner is developed by a single individual, and while that's laudable, the result is rough around the edges. The documentation needs improvement, and an integrated JavaScript debugger would be an enormous help.
NetBeans IDE 6.7.1 Any OS that runs Java | Free
  • Free
  • Works on all major OSes
  • Includes JavaScript debugger
  • PHP documentation needs improvement
  • Scarcity of PHP-related information lengthens learning curve
NetBeans is free, easy to install, and loaded with the tools a PHP developer needs.
NuSphere PhpED 5.9 Windows only | Standard edition costs $119, Professional edition costs $219; other editions available
  • Configuration check at startup
  • Includes database client and SOAP tools
  • Web site has lots of useful tutorials
  • Windows only
  • No code completion for JavaScript
NuSphere PhpED is a solid PHP IDE with all the requisite features. It could be made perfect if its JavaScipt support were improved.
WaterProof PHPEdit 3.4.6 Windows only | €89 for professional license; discounts are available for students and "personal" users
  • Debug configuration wizard
  • Simultaneous debug of PHP and JavaScript
  • Support for multiple frameworks
  • Windows only
  • Help system could use work
  • Scripting language not adequately documented
An otherwise excellent IDE, PHPEdit is tainted by an incomplete and difficult-to-understand help system.
Zend Studio 7.0 Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux | $399 for 1 year of upgrades and support
  • Multiplatform support
  • Integration with Zend Server simplifies debugging and profiling
  • Can be extended with Eclipse plug-ins
  • New users will need to spend time with the Eclipse paradigm
  • Unlike Eclipse, the commercial version is not free
If you like Eclipse, you'll love the Eclipse-based Zend Studio. Its tight integration with Zend Server greatly simplifies debugging and profiling.

Author's note: Special thanks to Reuven Grehan, who assisted in gathering the information for this review.

This article, "InfoWorld review: Eight PHP power tools," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest news in software development and PHP at InfoWorld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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