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The Ultimate Hand-Coding Toolbox

Text editor

A good text editor is the heart of the hand-coding toolbox. You could use notepad or whatever plain text editor is bundled with your operating system, but there’s really no reason to settle. There are plenty of free alternatives with features to make hand-coding faster and easier.

Windows Notepad++
Hands-down the best editor for Windows. With syntax highlighting, auto tag completion, code folding, and much more, Notepad++ is a lightweight program with everything you need to code XHTML and CSS. Make sure you grab the TextFX plugin (built into newer versions) and the Explorer plugin (a nice file browser) from the plugin repository. While you’re there, check out the 60 or so other plugins available for even more flexibility and features.

Mac OS XTextwrangler
Textwrangler is one of the best free text editors for Mac OS X. However, if you’re willing to shell out a little money, I’d recommend either TextMate ($60) or Coda ($99) for more robust features and support. They all have their pros and cons, so give each a try to see what works best for you.


If a text editor is the heart of the hand-coding toolbox, then a browser is the soul. It’s the reason developers build tableless websites. And for web design and development, there’s no better browser than Firefox. Not only does it adhere to accepted web standards, there’s a ridiculous number of add-ons available to streamline the hand-coding process. Just remember to limit the number of extensions you have enabled so the browser stays quick and stable.

Here’s a list of my favorite add-ons:

  • Firebug – I couldn’t live without Firebug. You can tweak CSS properties right in the browser and see the results live, inspect XHTML elements to sort out layout problems, monitor network requests, and more. This is a must-have add-on for Firefox.
  • Web Developer Extension – Another add-on with indispensable features. View the generated source code from pages with javascript, disable and enable style sheets and javascript, analyze XHTML elements, validate local and remote markup and CSS, and much more. Plus, it includes some nice features from stand-alone plugins like MeasureIt (a ruler to measure elements in the browser window) and Window Resizer (resize the browser window to test different screen resolutions).
  • Live HTTP Headers – It shows the HTTP header calls made with each page load in real time, which can help you sort out issues with caching and redirects.
  • Yahoo! YSlow – This is actually an extension to Firebug that works with its network monitoring features. YSlow tests the performance of your web pages and offers suggestions to tweak the underlying code and server settings. Shoot for an ‘A’ grade to push your web development skills to the next level.
  • Pixel Perfect – This is also an extension to Firebug. It lets you overlay a copy of your mockup in the browser window, which can save a lot of time flipping between Photoshop and Firefox.
  • GridFox – This creates a grid overlay in the browser window. Combine it with Firebug and you can nudge elements into perfect alignment.
  • FireFTP – I prefer a stand-alone FTP program, but this comes in handy on occasion. It has all the features you need to upload files, including directory comparison and the ability to transfer through SFTP (extremely important for security).

I know Internet Explorer is the browser everyone loves to hate, but it is used by the majority of people outside of the tech and design communities. Plus, there’s a little-known Internet Explorer developer toolbar that mimics the functionality of the developer toolbar for Firefox. Just food for thought.

Cross-browser compatibility

A website may look great in Firefox, but that doesn’t mean the layout is ready to be released into the wild. Cross-browser compatibility testing is critical and ensures visitors have a consistent experience regardless of the browser they use.

IETester provides Windows users with easy access to Internet Explorer 6, 7, and 8 in one place. It suffers from random crashes, but that’s a small price to pay for the convenience of three browsers in one. (I’ve found that you can avoid a lot of glitches if you open an IE8 tab first.)

If you’re on a Mac, you can to try the spoon plugin, which lets you run your websites through different browsers in an online “sandbox”. There’s also the Adobe BrowserLab. It’s free now, but expect Abode to charge for it in the near future.

In addition to those tools, you can always download the full versions of other browsers. Sometimes there’s just no substitute for the real thing. I have these installed in a separate folder and check finished websites in each one before I wrap up.


FTP, or File Transfer Protocol, is how you upload your shiny new, hand-coded web pages to the internet. FileZilla is one of the best stand-alone FTP clients and it’s available for both Windows and Mac OS X. If you’re using Notepad++ there’s an easy way to integrate Notepad++ and FileZilla so you can edit files directly on the remote server.

Remember to always transfer files through SFTP where possible. Otherwise you send your username and password over the network in plain text.

Local server

If you plan to do more than deliver static HTML pages, you’ll need a local server. A WAMP or MAMP stack (short for Windows or Mac + Apache-MySQL-PHP) allows you to run server-side languages and even database driven packages like WordPress from your desktop. I install Apache, PHP, and MySQL from scratch on my Windows boxes, and there are plenty of online tutorials to walk you through the process. But if you’d prefer a simpler solution…

XAMPP will have you up and running in a few minutes with everything you could need from a local server.

Mac OS X – Built-in or MAMP
Mac OS X has a built-in Apache server and there are lots of online tutorials that explain how to access it. Or you can go with MAMP, which is a one-click solution that installs Apache, PHP, and MySQL.

Five Finger Coding

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