Every developer needs a good development enviroment, whether you're into mobile development or web apps or even if you're just learning your first programming language.
Just like any beginning developer, when I began to learn coding I needed some guidance on how to get started. And one of the most important things that I had problems choosing was an application to help me write my code.
There were plenty of options to choose from, and every tutorial I followed used a different one. But eventually I was able to find one and stick to it.
Now if you happen to work in web development or any programming related field, then there is an application you'll use to write code. It's called an Integrated Development Environment, or IDE for short. But, what exactly is an IDE and how does it help you out?
In this article we are going to focus on what an IDE is, the different types of IDEs out there, and how you can utilize them to make your work flow easier. We will also look at some of the top IDEs out there today.
Let's get started!
What is an IDE?
In simple words, an IDE is a handy piece of software that acts as a text editor, debugger, and compiler all in one. IDEs are designed to make coding easier for developers.
So basically, an IDE is an application that facilitates application development, and gives you a central interface featuring all the tools you'll need like:
- A code editor that's designed to help you write and edit your code. It also helps you make it more readabile and clean.
- A compiler that transforms code written by a human into machine-readable form.
- A debugger that helps you eliminate errors from your programs so that your code executes and performs the way it should. This feature provides tools to help you examine your code.
Some IDEs also allow plugins to be installed in them to give you even more features.
Just like any other piece of tech, there is a history behind it. Have you ever wondered how developers back in the days used to work? Let's learn a little of the IDE's history.
History of the IDE
Back in the day, you could say that coding was "text-only". It may sound boring but I suppose professional developers back then liked it a lot (or didn't have any other options).
Developers used to write code in a text editor (like Notepad, Emacs, and others). They would write and save applications in the editors with various extensions like
.java, and then later run the compiler, note the errors, and go back and fix them until the code worked.
Over time, these various activities started to get baked into coding enviroments and became more automated by just the click of a few buttons. Microsoft's Visual Basic was the first real IDE, and later many companies developed different IDEs for different languages (as we will discuss below).
So how did this work – with different companies developing different development environments? You'd think they should adhere to consistent rules of work, right? For example an IDE should support one or more languages, and should be either web development or mobile development based.
Well, let's see the different types of IDEs we have today.
Types of IDEs
We have a variety of different IDEs today, depending on how you work and the kind of code you are working on.
We have IDEs designed for specific languages, and there are multi-language IDEs. Some are customized for the development of mobile apps, and others for web apps. There are also have cloud-based IDEs.
Let's look at each one in turn.
Just like the name says, these are IDEs that support more than one language. As a beginner starting out (and planning to advance on your knowledge later) you might want to consider learning to use a multi-language IDE.
Here are some examples of multi-lang IDEs and their supported languages:
Eclipse – A free and open source editor. It's highly recommended by many professional developers. Eclipse began as a Java-based enviroment but has recently been updated to support languages like: C, C++, Python, PHP, Ruby, Perl, and Java just to mention a few.
Visual Studio – One of the most widely used IDEs, Visual Studio is known for its amazing features and continuous support for extensions and updates. And it can easily support a new language by adding an extension.
- NetBeans – Just like Eclipse, NetBeans is an open source, free, and a cross platform IDE. Developers mostly use it to develop mobile apps, desktop apps, and web applications.
It provides simple features like drag and drop, making it easir to work with. And just like Eclipse you can also extend it via plugins.
- Komodo – A cross platform IDE that has a premium option. You can enhance its features by adding packages and other addons.
Common Features of Multi-lang IDEs
Most multi-language IDEs have certain features in common that prove very useful when you're coding.
- Intellisence – IDEs with this feature can provide code completion, quick info, and member lists on a project.
- Smart code editing – your IDE can indent code lines, match words and brackets, and also highlight keywords.
- Debugger – most IDEs provide powerful debugging features and along with a graphical debugger and breakpoints.
- Extension/plugin manager – you can add new extensions/plugins to extend your IDE's functionality.
- Version Control – IDEs offer support for various version control systems like Git, Subversion, Mercurial, CVS and so on.
Mobile Development IDEs
Mobile app development is one of the most compelling and exciting fields of development today, and it's a common reason that people learn how to code.
Not only that, but almost every organization from governmental bodies to individuals are building mobile apps.
As the mobile app development industry grows, there are lots of new tools to help out. In order to develop good and resourceful apps, mobile app devs need a platform that's focused on that type of development.
For example if you're building an app for Android, iOS, and web, you'll need a cross-platform IDE that supports all that tech.
Some of the multi-language IDEs also fall in this category, like Visual Studio, Eclipse, Visual Studio Code, and others. But now let's look at some specifically mobile development-focused IDEs.
Here are some examples of mobile dev IDEs:
- Android Studio – the official Android IDE, created to help developers build high quality Android apps for Android devices. It supports Java and Kotlin.
- Intellij – Mostly known to support Java (Java Centric), but with plugins it can support other languages as well. It was created with intelligent coding and ergonomic design. Using it is like a treat.
- Xamarin – a cross-platform app that is completely free and open source. Used to develop apps for both Android and iOS. It supports .NET and C#.
- Xcode – Apple's very own IDE, which is used only to develop Apple products. It allows you to manage your entire workflow from start to finish. Support langs like: Swift, Objective-C and C++.
Recently, cloud-based IDEs have started growing in popularity. This is because they give you access to your code from anywhere compared to offline IDEs. No matter the language you use, there is a cloud-based IDE for almost every usecase.
Here are some examples of cloud-based IDEs:
- Cloud9 – the most powerful and extendable online development platform available because of its integration with AWS. It combines a code editor with a terminal and also has powerful debugging tools. Also allows collaborative programming with teams.
- CodeTasty – a quick and simple to set up IDE. It supports all the major langs we have. It also has its own terminal and an output window. Although it's free, to get other functionalities like collaborations with team members you have to use the paid version.
The above are the most commonly known multi-lang cloud based IDE, but there are a number of others that just don't have the same capabilities as these I listed. They include: Codepen, Replit, Codevny, Codeacademy, and CodeRun.
Many of these more limited IDEs are capable of doing everything you might need them to do. Although they may have some limitations, like you need an internet connection to use them or you may also have to subscribe to others.
If you haven't yet encountered your favorite IDE, then it probably falls into our 4th type. In fact, my favourite IDE is a single-language IDE, which we'll talk about below.
Specific language IDEs
I think most developeres have a favorite language they would choose over the rest. If that is the case, chances are there is an IDE designed specifically for that language. And it probably has more features to help you out compared to the other enviroments. Let's have a look:
- For Python – PyCharm, Spyder, Thonny, IDLE, PyDev.
- For Java – Intellij IDEA, Jikes, Jcreator.
- For C/C++ – Code::Blocks, C-Free, Dev-C++
- For Ruby/Rails – RubyMine, Redcar, RadRails.
Alright, we've now learned what IDEs are, the different types we have, and what their main functionality/capabilities are. Now, on to the next step.
Why do you think developers use IDEs? Or rather, what are the advantages of IDEs (as well as their disadvantages)? Let's break that down to understand the why.
Why Should You Use an IDE When You Code?
Here are some of the main advantages of using an IDE:
- IDEs save you time and effort – the entire purpose of using an IDE is to make development faster and easier. IDEs do this by providing you many helpful resources, shortcuts, and error recognition, and more.
- They're Easy to Setup – An IDE brings different capabilities together in one place, and therefore reduces the struggle of constantly switching between tools. If you're having trouble setting up your IDE, check out this article Here for guidance.
- They support collaboration – most IDEs support groups working together and so can help speed up production.
- IDEs can correct syntax, give warnings, and help you write quality code.
- You can also use them to create drivers and utilities.
Disadvantages of IDEs
There are a few tricky parts to using an IDE, so let's see what they are:
- It's hard to keep up with constant updates including new samples, templates, and newly added features.
- IDEs can't automatically fix errors – you still need knowledge to write clean code.
- Some IDES are complex for beginners to understand.
How to Choose an IDE
Is there something like the perfect IDE? In my opinion, I don't think there is. Usually it depends on the job at hand.
But here are some of the things to consider when you're choosing an IDE:
- The cost – although most IDEs are free, the addons may not be. Most of the paid IDEs comes with premium features and also support, so just choose according to your project's needs.
- Ease of use, packages, and libraries – IDEs that contain plenty of packages and libraries can become harder to use. But this depends on how those libraries and packages are implemented. Choose wisely depending on your needs.
- Server connection – check to see if you're able to deploy your code to the server from your IDE.
Choosing an IDE usually depends on the type of the project you're working on, along with various environmental requirements like platform, programming language, version control system, and more. And of course you also have to take into account budget and personal preferences.
But now that we've gone through these examples above, hopefully you will find the one that's best for you. If you have a favourite, do share which one. Personally I switch between PyCharm while writing Python code and VS Code in other situations.