IDE: Why Use One And Which To Choose

Everyone wants to be more productive, make fewer mistakes and write good code. But in most cases IDEs help us to achieve those goals more easily. Unfortunately, choosing the right IDE is very difficult because a lot needs to be considered. And the website of almost every IDE tells us it is the best one.

We’ll take a close look at the most popular PHP IDEs, exploring their functions, comparing them in a table and drawing some conclusions. Hopefully, you’ll get an idea of what each PHP IDE has to offer and which one best fits your needs.

The following are some of the features that I found needed to be considered.

IDE Features

1. Syntax highlighting

Good syntax highlighting improves code readability a lot. Really! Just look at this:

Syntax Highligting

2. Code completion

Automatic code suggestions can help the developer avoid having to type so much. If it supports custom classes and phpDoc, it can even save you from having to read project documentation.

Good code completion can also prevent typos. For example, if typing $cotroller-> does not show you any suggestions, you’ll know something is wrong. Uh oh… it should be $controller!

Poor code completion can slow you down if too many variants are shown or your class methods are not picked up.

code completion

It is also good to have file name completion in HTML src=” and PHP include and require.

3. Navigation

One of the most boring things is trying to find where a certain variable has been defined or used. Some good IDEs can help with “GoTo” actions, like go to definition.

Another important feature is search. Searching should not take a long time, even with large projects. Even better is if the IDE lets you move quickly to the next occurrence of a search phrase, like Firefox does with its Quick Find feature.


4. Errors and warnings highlighting

On-the-fly syntax checking can prevent various typos and common programming mistakes. In the example below, the IDE indicates that you may have used = instead of ==:


The more the IDE detects, the better — except false positives, of course.

5. Refactoring and code generation

Refactoring is basically a set of techniques for turning weak code into solid code. Its implementation in PHP IDEs is very weak compared to that of compiled-language IDEs, such as Java and C, but it’s still very useful.

Very basic PHP refactoring includes:

* “Move,” which updates all includes and requires when moving a file to another directory.
* “Rename,” which renames something and ensures it is renamed throughout the project.
* “Safe delete,” which ensures deletion of a file does not harm other parts of the project.


In addition to basic refactoring, some IDEs can generate code for class constructors, getters/setters and even stub methods for a parent class.


6. Debugging

Debugging is not so critical in PHP because you can add echos or use something like FirePHP without even having to recompile your code. But for complex applications in which you need to add echo after each line to see what’s going on, debugging can save you hours.


If the IDE is good enough, it provides you with step-by-step debugging and lets you see the current values of variables in scope.

7. Versioning system

Versioning is extremely useful for both team and one-person development. It shows what changes have been made to a file, when they were made and by whom. A good IDE allows you to visually compare revisions, copy changes from one version to another, revert to previous states and merge changes made by different team members.


When performing common checks and commits, integrating a versioning system such as CVS, SVN, git or Mercurial in your IDE is usually much better than running a separate application.

8. Client-side features

Using PHP alone is very rare. CSS and JavaScript are almost always somewhere in your application. So, good code completion, highlighting, navigation and perhaps some refactoring would be just as beneficial for the other languages and technologies you use in conjunction with PHP.

code completion

Every IDE provides a lot of features. Some of those features are very useful, some are not. Here are some guidelines to follow to narrow down the one for you:

* Try free ones first. Their feature set may be enough for you, and you wouldn’t need to pay for a license.
* First, make sure the features you want are ones you really need. If they are, check that they work properly in your IDE of choice.
* If you find one IDE that fits well but is missing one or two features, try specialized tools.
* Once you choose an IDE, play with it for a week before implementing it in a big project. You may find your current working habits are too strong to allow you to feel comfortable with it.


Both PDT and NetBeans are good. If you need a lot of plug-ins, Eclipse is the better choice. If editing tools and code completion are more important to you, then pick NetBeans. NetBeans is a bit more responsive, too.

If you are mostly editing HTML and CSS, try Notepad++, vim, TextMate or Emacs. They all have very good HTML editing capabilities and can be configured for simple code completion. And they are faster and lighter than fully featured IDEs.

If you are editing complex JavaScript, try Aptana, which is amazing for JavaScript, or the Spket plug-in for Eclipse, which has nearly the same features.

And remember, IDEs are not meant to change the way you think. They simply speed up the development process.


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