Goodbye Aptana, Hello NetBeans

When I started developing Rails applications last fall, I looked at various Windows editors and IDEs and ended up going with RadRails. I was reasonably happy with it, but development stalled, and then it got picked up by Aptana. This seemed like a good move, since it gave the IDE a funded development organization and good HTML, CSS, and JavaScript support.

Aptana has been hard at work on the IDE, and it has been advancing pretty rapidly. They added support for Adobe AIR (aka Apollo) and for Apple’s iPhone as soon as those products were shipped, and the Ruby and Rails support has been moving forward.

I found the most recent release quite buggy, however. This is not entirely surprising, for software that is still beta and is evolving rapidly, but it was enough to make me look around at alternatives. I’d heard good things about NetBeans, Sun’s open-source IDE, but hadn’t wanted to take the time to switch tools. With the current state of the Aptana code, however, my willingness to switch increased dramatically, and a new milestone release of NetBeans made it look even better.

NetBeans vs. Aptana/RadRails

So this morning I downloaded NetBeans. It took me about two hours to download it, figure out how to use all the core Rails features, and get a few projects imported into it from my Subversion repository.

By the end of those two hours, I knew I’d be unlikely to use Aptana again. NetBeans just feels more capable and more polished, and while I found a couple bugs (using the latest beta release), it was much more stable than the current Aptana release. By mid-day I felt at least as productive in NetBeans as I ever was in RadRails.

I’m sure I never found many of the features in the Aptana IDE, and switching to a new IDE gave me the impetus to spend some more time learning to use it more effectively (and the documentation was very helpful). I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow comparison, but I feel very confident in saying that you owe it to yourself to check NetBeans out.

Some of the features I immediately appreciated were the code hinting, ability to split the editor window into multiple panes either horizontally or vertically, better UI for accessing generators and Rake tasks, highlighting of the begin and end of Ruby methods, blocks, and HTML statements, and marking of where in each file code has been deleted and inserted.

Installing NetBeans

To install NetBeans:

You need the full 172-Mbyte version to get the Ruby support, and to get all the Rails features, you need this early release of Version 6.0, not the stable 5.5 version. The final 6.0 release won’t happen until late this year, but from my one day’s use of it it seems pretty stable.

The installers are self-explanatory, and you don’t have to do anything special to get it running. Support for Ruby, Rails, and Subversion is built in. Once you’ve imported a Rails project, right-click on the project to run it (it starts a Mongrel server) and access Rake tasks from the context menu.

By default, NetBeans uses JRuby, rather than the standard Ruby interpreter. JRuby executes Ruby code on the Java virtual machine, which has huge advantages if you’re integrating with Java code. I’m not, and I figured I didn’t need one more variable to deal with, so I chose the configuration option to use the standard Ruby interpreter (which is painless).

NetBeans Resources

There’s lots of information on the web about setting up NetBeans milestone 9 and earlier for Rails development. Ignore them! It’s a lot simpler now, because Milestone 10 has it all built in.

Here’s a few places to look to get started with NetBeans Rails development:

I find it amazing that products of the richness of Aptana and NetBeans are free. They’re easily as deep and sophisticated as most of Adobe’s $500+ products, for example, and they’re evolving a lot more quickly. If there was a group motivated to make this kind of investment in a Photoshop alternative, it would be big trouble for Adobe… but luckily for Adobe, there’s not. At least those of us building web applications can enjoy this embarrassment of riches.

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I'm back to Aptana now from NetBeans 7 Beta 1. :(

I was wondering what are you using now, if you still work with Rails.