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The New IDE

The Integrated Development Environment (IDE) is what we use to write our programs in - it is the program we're paying our money for really. It is possible to write VB code in notepad and then use the command-line compiler through a DOS prompt, but that's really awkward and not much fun! I never thought of the Visual Studio 6 IDE as being bad, it never really annoyed me (except for when tool windows got in the way) and it did the job fine. But, it's actually using 4 year old interface design methods - look at some of the new features in other programs, and notice that they dont really exist in VB6 or VC++6. So it cant be a bad thing when we get treated to the very best in interface design, can it?

Well, in my opinion the new IDE is the star of the show - having used it for a week or so now it is most definitely an improvement. As much as it is the new features that I'm impressed by. Its the tiny little differences that I've noticed here and there that now having used Visual Studio .Net I wish I could also use in Visual Studio 6. I'll send a bit of time now running through the best new features.

(1) Visual Studio .Net's startup screen

First up, and probably the most noticable change to the IDE is that there is only one. If you have a full version of Visual Studio You'll know that you launch a different program for each language you want to use (VB, VC++, VJ++ etc...), and there would be a different entry in the start-menu for each one. Now there is one, and only one, program to run - Visual Studio .Net. There are additional programs for the supporting tools, and one for the "Combined Help Collection" (a bit like the MSDN library of Visual Studio 6). Once you've loaded the program (very fast) you get a pretty welcome screen and can then get to work on a project of any language you have installed.

 

 

 

 

(2) Hiding Unwanted information

The Second most important change has to be the tool windows. There are upwards of 15 windows displaying various pieces of information and properties that exist in Visual Studio .Net (all the old VB6-like ones and some new ones that were only in VC++6 before), therefore organising these windows is of top priority, and has to be done well. Even though there were only usually 4 additional windows (properties, toolbox, immediate window and project explorer) in most VB6 interfaces, I always felt that this left little space for the actual code-editing, and I often closed the windows to get more space (only to find I needed to get at them quickly to change a property/go to a different file). Click on the image to the right (number 2) to get a better look at what I'm going to be talking about. In order as marked on the screenshot; number 1 is the active document tab - when you have several code windows open they stack up along here (click on them to change), as well as the MSDN help files and the object browser (in this instance). This makes it very easy to jump from file to file with little effort, and you can always see what files you have open, and you can easily jump from the help page to your source code - a very useful feature. Number 2 is shown in 3 places here - in particular, the left, bottom and right sides of the screen. These 3 locations act as docking bays for all the possible windows that exist in the IDE, when you hover over the relevent icon/tab it'll slide out onto the screen (as you can see with the solution-explorer on the right hand side of this screen). This alone is extremely useful, and I've really come to love it (one of the features I'd really like to use in VB6/VC++6 now!), it is possible to stop the windows from being hidden by clicking on the little pin icon in every window, but I personally prefer to hide them. The only annoying thing I've found with this method (and it is minor) is that when I knock my mouse to one side to begin typing it often hits the edge of the screen, displaying the appropriate window - which can see you typing your code into one of the text boxes in the relevent tool window. Third, and finally for this screenshot is number 3 - which at first doesn't look like anything special at all. Look again and you'll notice a small [+] sign in the margin of the code window, if you click on this button (or the box with 3 dots) it'll expand a section of code (in this case a repetative bunch of File-writing calls). This is collapsable code, and can be quite useful once you get used to it, being nothing like anything in VB6 it is quite easy to go about ignoring it and continuing as normal (perfectly acceptable I suppose!). All functions, modules and classes come with a set of [+]'s and [-]'s, so you can "roll up" an entire function if you dont want to look at it, I've found this to be useful when browsing through large projects - hiding entire functions that are either complete, or dont need any work done to them makes browsings the source file very easy indeed.

Okay, the final things I want to point out is the code editing functions - as you're probably aware, VB6 had intellisense that went along and provided tooltips, suggestions and capitalized variable names etc... This is still present in .Net, but its gone up a level so to speak. One of the first annoying things from past versions of VB to be removed is the error-checking when you finish a line (if you type something bad, it goes red and you get a message box saying why), now all it does is draw a blue "squiggle" under the bad code (much like spelling mistakes in Microsoft Office), and if you hover over the text it'll give (in tooltip form) a brief explanation of why its marked that code. I like this more subtle approach, and it allows you to hop around your code much easier without having to complete the current line first.

(3) An example of the subtle error-warnings. If you dont correct this now it'll come back when you attempt to compile the program

The other noticable change is the indenting/collapsing of code - users of Visual C++ 6 will be familiar with this, but it's new for editing VB code. Basically, when you type "If ... Then" and press enter it'll automatically add a blank line then an "End If", and when you type in the blank line it'll indent it for you. This can be a blessing and a curse, a blessing because once you get used to it you can really write code very fast without having to worry about forgetting little pieces. A curse because if you're not used to it, it'll drive you mad, and if you dont like it, you're just gonna have to get used to it! For the first few projects I wrote in VB.Net I kept on typing my own "End If"'s and "Next" statements, thus doubling up - and causing it to "blue-line" my line of code because it doesn't actually mean anything. Also, the auto-indentation feature messes with my typing style quite alot, I often like to indent functions and lines of code that are related to each other - if I do this now, it often likes to undo this and put it in its own style!

(4) The New improved intellisense tooltips, the description at the bottom changes as you type different parameters. (click to enlarge)

The tooltips and intellisense, whilst much better are still not perfect, I've gotten some noticable delays while the program loads the relevent tool-tip into memory (or whatever its doing!); it's not usually more than 1/2 a second, and if I'm typing it doesn't "loose" what I type so no real harm is done; however, this is on my 700mhz Athlon / 288mb SysRAM - not the fastest computer around, but far from being a slow computer, so if I'm getting a noticable pause on this system it may well prove to be much more annoying on a properly slow system (450mhz and below I'm guessing).

 

As you can see, there are lots and lots of features to talk about in the new IDE, and if you get a chance to / decide to use this software you'll probably find a whole host of other features (I'm still finding the occasional short-cut/clever feature). I think I can safely say that all of the above covers the ground-breaking new tools, and apart from the code-indenting and the slight delay with intellisense it's a general all-round improvement. I know that it is a definite improvement because I still have (and use) Visual Studio 6 on this computer - and when I go back into the older versions and start working away I find that I'm really missing some of the short-cuts and interface features that I've started getting used to in VisualStudio.Net.

To continue with the review click here or click here to return to "Getting Started with Visual Studio .Net"

Introduction: Introducing the software, and the aims of this review.
Getting Started With Visual Studio .Net: The installer, version, prices etc...
• The new IDE: New things in the Integrated Development Environment, and is it an improvement?
Learning to Talk the Talk: Learning the new language (C#) and the changes to Visual Basic
Visual Studio .Net in the Real World: Performance and real world capabilities
Conclusion: Summing everything up in a neat way

 

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