Coding Basics: A Guide to Choosing Your Optimal Text Editor or IDE

A Guide to Choosing Your Optimal Text Editor or IDE

When you first become interested in learning how to program, it can be difficult to find a place to start. A lot of questions come up, especially if you're new to the idea of programming entirely. After you pick which language you want to learn, you have to worry about how you're going to write the language.

In today's Null Byte, I'm going to walk you through some of the methods and options you have at your disposal when writing out code. This is essential in your journey to becoming a programmer, because if you aren't comfortable in your work environment, you won't be spending enough time programming. Our mission is to find the method that works for you. We can either use an IDE, or a text editor with programming support. We have a few options to choose from, so let's get started.

Picking an IDE

An IDE, or Integrated Development Environment, is a software application that provides comprehensive tools to make programming easier. This usually includes, but is not limited to:

  • Code editor. This is what you would use to edit the contents of a script or piece of code. Think of it like a text editor.
  • Syntax highlighter. This will highlight key words for you that are associated with the language in use. This makes code easier to read and understand. Keeping code pretty is a breeze.
  • A compiler and/or an interpreter. These tools will aid you by compiling your code (for compiled languages) or executing the script directly from the IDE (interpreted languages).
  • Automation tools. Code completion, autotabbing, and tag closing are all a part of this. These features speed up programming time greatly by effectively closing tags and code for you automatically. These tools also assist in formatting. By placing code into blocks, they can be minimized for readability and organization.
  • A debugger. A debugger will try to automatically find and sometimes fix bugs in code for you.

An IDE is honestly more useful for people programming in compiled languages, such as C, Haskell, or Visual Basic. Here is a list of some great, free IDEs:

  • Eclipse (OS independent) - An IDE with too many features to count. Available for all platforms, Eclipse has an extensible plugin system which allows modification of supported languages and features. Eclipse does everything mentioned above, and allows support for any language through its plugin system.
  • NetBeans (OS independent) - A great IDE with support for many languages. The NetBeans platform allows applications to be developed from a set of modular software components called modules. Applications based on the NetBeans platform (including the NetBeans IDE) can be extended by third party developers.
  • Geany (OS independent) - Geany is a lightweight, cross-platform GTK+ text editor. It's actually not a full IDE, but a text editor with loads of IDE features. A few of them are: Auto-completion, syntax highlighting, code blocks, an embedded terminal emulator and its extensible via plugins.
  • Visual Studio Express (Windows) - VSE is a lightweight IDE that focuses on simplicity and ease-of-use for new programmers. It's the best IDE on Windows for a novice to programming. It covers the most common languages on Windows, such as: C/C++, Visual Basic, .NET, J#, C# and more. This is the greatest toolset avaiable for Windows, especially if you are a game programmer (Fun fact: Xbox uses C#), or mobile apps developer or weekend hacker.

Coding in a Text Editor

Using a text editor is commonly used for programming in scripted, or interpreted languages. Normally, a text editor used for code will have features to assist in programming, such as:

  • Code blocks
  • Syntax highlighting
  • Autotabbing on new lines

When you code in a text editor, it is just for simplicity and ease of use. They are lightweight and simplistic. The following is a list of a few of the great editors:

  • SciTE (OS independent) - SciTE, or the Scintilla Text Editor, is an extremely light text editor with support for many languages, syntax highlighting, and autotabbing. It is my personal favorite GUI text editor for programming because of its speed and ease of use. It also requires very few dependencies (Linux users only).
  • Notepad++ (Windows) - Notepad++ is nearly identical to SciTE. The only thing we see different is theming and a wider variety of supported languages for syntax highlighting by default.
  • Nano (GNU/Linux) - Nano is the lightest, and simplest text editor I've ever used. It can be tweaked with a little hack to enable syntax highlighting. I've already written a guide about how to enable syntax highlighting, you can find it here. Nano looks especially great in a terminal with a monospaced font.
  • Emacs (*nix) - GNU Emacs has over 1,000 commands. It also allows the user to combine these commands into macros to automate work. It's fast and very extensible. Emacs on Mac even comes with support for syntax highlighting on many languages.
  • Vim (GNU/Linux, Windows) - Vi Improved, or Vim, is an extensible terminal-based editor forked from Vi. Vim is operated completely from the keybindings and commands created using its own vimscript configuration. It supports syntax highlighting and much more. Vim is a very effective text editor for programming with the help of a few plugins.

There are many other choices to choose from, but with this basic list at your fingertips, finding and picking the right editor to program will be a breeze. It all essentially boils down to what you prefer in your environment. Make the choice!

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I <3 my emacs. I don't care if it seems odd to program and do everything from terminal on a mac, it has become part of my identity. I can't remember how long ago I started my serious dislike for downloading more software, but emacs is there OOB and Xcode sucks balls. It may be worth mentioning that at least on mac, emacs has automatic syntax highlighting for every language I've tried on it (C, Java, Python, NASM) The only one I've written anything in that hasn't highlighted was brainf*ck…

Wow, that's great! I'm right there with you on the "editing from a terminal" thing xD. I love the monospaced font and easy readability. The lightweight is a plus as well.

I would also recommend for coding in a Text Editor Notepad++ for windows. It has many different types of code that can be used with it including Java and Python.

I <3 my vim and geany.

I've actually taken a liking to Geany xD.

Is java any use for any kind of....say...hacking? I'm learning it in school, and I want to know if it has any se outside of creating programs

Of course! Java is a powerful language! Not only will you learn how to read decompiled programs written in Java for reverse engineering, but you can code your own tools for hacking. Any language allows you to write your own tools, it's up to you to pick the language you enjoy coding in.

And Java includes some fun crypto libraries right off the bat!

And in a speed test I saw once, for a brute-force styled wordlist creating program (a brute-forcing program without the hash computation basically) Java clocked in 3rd place, and 2nd out of the languages that could be altered into being a brute-forcer. I think the timing was done for computing every combination of the lowercase alphabet in a ten letter word?

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