6 best Mac web design apps for beginners

21st Jun 2009 | 11:00

6 best Mac web design apps for beginners

But which one gets the job done fastest?

Ease of use, templates, adding images

The web has come a long way in a short space of time. Today, many people live huge amounts of their lives online, engrossed in social networking, consuming news and media, and shopping via thousands of online retailers.

Although the likes of Flickr and Facebook can provide you with an online home of sorts, they're akin to renting a flat from a really strict landlord. You can hang your pictures on the wall, but can't do anything about the décor – and knocking down some walls is totally out of the question. However, create your own website and you can do whatever you like with it.

Unfortunately, web design can be complex, and although online website creation services exist to lend a helping hand, their interfaces are often alien, and working online can be slow, due to connection speeds. Also, many of these services churn out unimpressive results.

Instead, you're better off working with a dedicated desktop-based application, and we've brought together six leading Mac-based examples for this group test. Since this test is centred around beginners, we're placing firm emphasis on usability and speed.

We'll look at how easy the tools are to use, and whether any bundled templates are visually pleasing, flexible and relevant. And we'll also find out whether our half-dozen chosen apps are suitable for getting galleries, blogs and more online with the minimum of effort.

On test:

  • The Escapers Flux
  • Apple iWeb
  • Karelia Sandvox
  • XtraLean Software ShutterBug
  • Realmac Software RapidWeaver
  • Softpress Freeway Express

Ease of use

There's stark contrast between the user-friendly apps on test and those that are more impenetrable. Of the latter, Freeway Express and Flux want to be QuarkXPress and Coda, respectively, and are too complex for beginners, while ShutterBug's esoteric interface is hard to love and often unforgiving.

Freeway express screen

TOO HARD: Freeway strives to mimic QuarkXpress, making it too complex for absolute beginners

At the other end of the scale, iWeb is a huge success. It's everything you'd expect from an Apple application – the clean interface, with large icons, straightforward sidebars and usable inspectors, is a joy to use. iWeb is very occasionally awkward, but mostly works in exactly the way you'd expect, and in a very 'Mac' manner. Sandvox is similarly accessible and intuitive, aping iWeb's clean, efficient style.

RapidWeaver also takes a modern Mac-like approach, and is mostly intuitive, despite offering more under-the-hood power than iWeb and Sandvox. However, we weren't keen on the split between editing content and visual previews, preferring the 'live' editing of the other leading apps.

Scores:
Flux 2/5
iWeb 5/5
Sandvox 5/5
ShutterBug 3/5
RapidWeaver 4/5
Freeway Express 1/5

Templates

Unfortunately ShutterBug and Freeway Express offer rather dated templates, but the other four applications provide a good, varied and modern selection. Although some templates are more specific and limited than others, every one of these applications provides at least a handful of smart generic themes that you can use as the basis for a wide variety of sites.

With the exception of Flux and Freeway, themes are switchable, and iWeb curiously enables you to apply an individual theme to each page.

iWeb, RapidWeaver and Sandvox also go the extra mile in another way, providing pre-set page types, such as galleries and blogs.

RapidWeaver screen

CHOICE: RapidWeaver provides an ample selection of pre-set page types to add to your website

iWeb makes more effort regarding interesting layout variations (Sandvox and RapidWeaver's are more rigid and uniform), but lacks a contact-form page type. Some customisation is also available, although complex templates often suffer when tinkered with. RapidWeaver's ability to save custom styles for templates is welcome, however.

Scores:
Flux 3/5
iWeb 4/5
Sandvox 4/5
ShutterBug 2/5
RapidWeaver 4/5
Freeway Express 2/5

Adding images

When it comes to helping photographers Flux and Freeway Express do very little, and RapidWeaver also disappoints in this area. Although it integrates nicely with iPhoto, the resulting galleries are divorced from the layout, and RapidWeaver's Flash slideshows aren't terribly impressive. Sandvox also comes a little unstuck — although gallery setup is simple (drag and drop from the Media palette into a Photo Album page) and display options plentiful, the resulting galleries are dull.

For images, iWeb's the clear winner. Integration with iPhoto is first rate, and plentiful options for gallery layout and thumbnail decoration are provided and easily applied. The optional slideshow is also impressive.

ShutterBug screen

IMAGES: ShutterBug is only just pipped to the post by iWeb, when it comes to image options

However, ShutterBug comes a close second. Although it can't complete with iWeb regarding gallery appearance, ShutterBug betters it in slideshow functionality, even offering a LightBox overlay option when thumbnails are clicked. Both it and iWeb also provide tools for fine-tuning images.

Scores:
Flux 1/5
iWeb 5/5
Sandvox 3/5
ShutterBug 4/5
RapidWeaver 3/5
Freeway Express 1/5

Blogs and media, flexibility, publishing

Blogs and media

Sadly, Freeway Express and Flux barely acknowledge time-based media and ignore blogs entirely. Given the popularity of these things, such exclusions are problematic. And while ShutterBug can attach video, the process is convoluted.

The remaining applications all offer video integration and blogging to some degree. iWeb's blogs are the prettiest, and the RSS feed is dealt with flawlessly. Podcast and movie page types are also available, as is a user-friendly YouTube widget. iWeb can also announce updates on Facebook, which is a nice touch.

iWeb screen

CLEVER BLOGS: iWeb offers the prettiest-looking blogs and also posts updates on Facebook for you

By comparison, Sandvox's blog pages are plain and the system for creating them basic, but, importantly, commenting functionality is built in and simple to use. YouTube and other video pages also exist, although, again, the results look a little bland.

RapidWeaver's penchant for pop-up video-windows irks, but it matches iWeb in terms of blog functionality, if not layout, and betters it for tagging, also offering strong RSS and permalink support.

Scores:
Flux 1/5
iWeb 4/5
Sandvox 4/5
ShutterBug 1/5
RapidWeaver 4/5
Freeway Express 1/5

Flexibility

Entry-level tools are often considered 'locked down', and that's largely true of ShutterBug, which proves limited in functionality. Flux, despite enabling you to code directly, presents a barrier via shoddy UI elements and a lack of automated functions. Sandvox is rigid in dealing with layout and page components, but it at least benefits from useful extra page types, including contact forms and download pages.

Flux screen

CODING: Flux enables you to code directly but unfortunately comes with a shoddy user interface

iWeb is more versatile than many give it credit for – layouts can be heavily modified, and perceived holes can be plugged via output from a vibrant developer community. The same is even truer of RapidWeaver, which has a slew of extras available. Crucially, it also enables more experienced designers to create HTML/PHP pages, vastly increasing scope, and bettering iWeb's comparatively limited HTML widget.

Freeway Express also impresses: it may not be easy to use, nor offer drag-and-drop components, but layout is unrestricted, and HTML can be embedded.

Scores:
Flux 3/5
iWeb 3/5
Sandvox 3/5
ShutterBug 2/5
RapidWeaver 5/5
Freeway Express 4/5

Publishing

Our benchmark for publishing was strict: straightforward configuration; the ability to use MobileMe or FTP; a means of publishing to a local folder and previewing a site locally prior to upload; incremental publishing when few changes have been made; and a progress meter.

Flux hit us with bugs and a bizarre interface, and Freeway rattled along slightly unintuitively, but every other app impressed, bar the occasional cryptic error from iWeb when something wouldn't upload. However, Apple's app's clear configuration screen and large Publish Site button ensured the good far outweighed the bad.

Sandvox screen

NEARLY DONE: Sandvox impresses when it comes to publishing, with a clear upload progress meter

Sandvox and RapidWeaver beat iWeb, though. Both offer superior local previews to iWeb, and each has a unique and extremely clear means of showing upload progress: RapidWeaver offers an almost ostentatious animated sheet, showing files flash before your eyes as they upload, and Sandvox provides a sheet with collapsible lists that detail progress on a per-component basis.

Scores:
Flux 2/5
iWeb 4/5
Sandvox 5/5
ShutterBug 4/5
RapidWeaver 5/5
Freeway Express 3/5

The winner: Realmac Software RapidWeaver

It's important to reiterate that this conclusion and our ratings are based on the suitability of these applications for beginners. To that end, three apps can be immediately dismissed: Flux, despite its templates, wants to be Coda and is too complex, as is QuarkXPress-for-web wannabe Freeway Express. Meanwhile, ShutterBug's lack of user-friendliness and range counts against it, although if you're only interested in web photo galleries it's worth a look.

Of the remaining three, each application has its pros and cons. iWeb '09 is fantastic for galleries, has great templates, and enables you to get a site online fast, but it's a bit inflexible and has curious omissions (not least the inability to import iWeb sites from another Mac). RapidWeaver feels the most grown-up of the apps on test, and offers an excellent range of features, but comes unstuck with rather poor galleries and a slightly awkward editing mechanic. Sandvox sits between the two, with fewer restrictions than iWeb, but also less class.

RapidWeaver screen win

WINNER: RapidWeaver wins the race as the perfect app for the novice

By a nose, RapidWeaver takes the gold. It's easy enough to use for a beginner, but offers great value in its scope for expansion. However, Sandvox also comes recommended, and if you're a dedicated iLife user primarily looking to get galleries online, iWeb will be enough for your needs.

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