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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The CodeLobster PHP Edition IDE, available from CodeLobster Software, is perhaps the best-named product in this roundup. Registration for the IDE is free, but its half-dozen plug-ins are not. Each plug-in has a different trial period, ranging from one week to 30 days. The plug-ins provide support for the open source Drupal CMS, the JQuery JavaScript library, Joomla, the Smarty PHP framework, WordPress, and the PHP Web application framework CodeIgniter.

These plug-ins primarily assist in the editor's code completion functions, although the Drupal plug-in gives you a wizard for creating a Drupal Website project. The wizard leads you through a series of query screens -- which version of Drupal, database connection information, theme, and so on -- and builds a skeleton that helps get your Drupal project off the ground.

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A new user to CodeLobster will instantly notice something missing: a help system. There is "context help," but this appears to work only with code elements. For example, hover over the PHP function mysql_num_rows(), press the F1 key to activate context help, and the online PHP documentation for that function opens in your browser. For real documentation, you have to go spelunking on the CodeLobster Website.

CodeLobster is able to install its debugger automatically, but it needs considerable hand-holding in the process. And here's where the missing help system really hurts. To figure out how to configure your installation for debugging, you have to crawl through the features list on CodeLobster's Web page. There you will learn that you have to fill in a series of parameters in the Preferences window -- including the location of the PHP executable on your machine, where your Web server's virtual folder is, your Web server's host URL, and so on. We found the clearest explanation of the configuration process in the Web site's forums. It took us several attempts to finally get the debugger working.

Even then, we were unable to get the debugger to start at the proper file. There is a Debug URL selection on the Debug menu, which lets you choose the start URL. Though clumsy, that got us the function we needed; nevertheless, it would have been nice had we been able to deduce how to launch the debugger on a specific start file in our project.

At first glance, CodeLobster appears to provide an SQL management system for MySQL. You define a connection to a MySQL database and CodeLobster will open an explorer into the tables of that database. The explorer lets you drill down into the table's columns and their data type definitions -- but you cannot otherwise manipulate that database.

CodeLobster's "dynamic help" system is actually a sort of search engine. Here it finds the prototype for a PHP database function, and also provides a link to the online documentation.

It turns out that the SQL connection serves only to provide CodeLobster with information for SQL auto-completion. Whichever SQL database you have opened in the CodeLobster explorer will be used by the source editor to guide SQL auto-completion. Certainly, this capability is welcome, and CodeLobster is extremely good about deducing when you're entering an SQL statement in a string. We would have been happier, however, if CodeLobster had extended the database explorer to a management UI.

CodeLobster's auto-completion is its finest feature, because it is always on hand to suggest upcoming words or phrases. It actually works like a search engine -- which, though powerful, can sometimes be confusing. If you begin to enter "Select," it will suggest PHP, JavaScript, and SQL instances associated with that word.

CodeLobster is free, but so are two other IDEs in this roundup, which puts CodeLobster against some stiff competition. The lack of an in-the-IDE help system is extremely difficult to bear, especially for users new CodeLobster.

See the next PHP tool: Eclipse PDT

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