If you’ve just started to learn how to program, you’ll have heard of something called an IDE, a type of application that coders use. So what is an IDE, how is it different from a text editor, and when would you use it?
What Is an IDE?
IDE stands for integrated development environment, and it’s a type of software that helps programmers create code. It does so by combining a number of functions into a single program, allowing users to write, test, and execute programs all from the same place, sometimes even with a graphical user interface.
If you’re just starting to code, the easiest way to explain how an IDE works is to compare it to a text editor. When using a text editor, you enter the code into the main field, save the file, and then run it, usually via the command line.
A text editor is an important and useful tool, but it can really only do one, maybe two things. In comparison, IDEs are Swiss army knives: they have the utility of a text editor, allowing you to enter code manually, but will also host a number of other features.
For example, almost all IDEs will highlight different parts of your code’s syntax, like giving different colors to operators and strings, which can help you spot syntax issues visually. Many IDEs also have some kind of autocomplete function, handy if you’re repeating commands a lot or can’t come up with a specific term. There often are some editing tools available, as well.
Some IDEs take autocomplete a step further and will even let you automate part of the coding process. Though this takes some programming knowledge in and of itself, it can be a huge timesaver, especially in projects that feature a lot of repetition.
Besides writing code, IDEs can also take over a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to compiling, testing, and debugging code. This means that you can run a program within the IDE, test if it works, and then have the program help you fix at least some of the bugs you find that way. As a result, programmers don’t need to pore over lines upon lines of code every time there’s a small mistake somewhere, saving a lot of time and frustration, especially in larger projects.
IDE vs. Text Editors
In practice, though, the line between text editors and IDEs isn’t all that clear. Many text editors have started taking on features of IDEs, like highlighting syntax or compiling and running software from within the editor. As such, the line between the two types of program has become blurred at times, especially to untrained eyes.
A good example are two darlings of the programming scene, Vim and Emacs, which are text editors first and foremost, but to most beginners will seem more like IDEs. This is in part because they can be hard to get started with, but also because many programmers will trick them out with add-ons that let you do a lot more than just type out text.
Much the same goes for Geany, which confusingly advertises as both a text editor and an IDE. It looks like a text editor, but also autocompletes code for you and can run it in its own compiler.
Once you know a little more about how these types of programs work, though, you’ll quickly realize that IDEs offer a lot more than text editors do. Let’s take a look at a few out there to get an idea.
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Examples of IDEs
There are hundreds of IDEs to choose from, but for this article we’ll quickly go over just three popular options to get an idea of what’s out there for you.
First up is Microsoft’s Visual Studio, a very popular IDE that offers a host of tools allowing programmers to get all kinds of work done quickly. It supports a large number of programming languages, and can be used for all kinds of apps, from mobile games to, of course, Windows applications.
Xcode is an IDE aimed at Apple developers. Published by Apple, it’s fully integrated into that ecosystem and can be used to create apps for Mac, as well as iPhone, the Apple Watch, and Apple TV. It’s meant to be quite user-friendly and is popular among Apple-focused devs.
Our last example is Jupyter Notebooks, an IDE that mainly uses Python and R to crunch numbers. It’s used a lot by data scientists and the like and has become famous for being beginner-friendly, even though it’s aimed at a very specific type of user. If statistics is your game, Jupyter Notebooks is what you want to use.
Should You Use an IDE?
At a glance, IDEs seem pretty awesome, and they are. However, they’re not tools for everybody. Because they can do a lot, they’re pretty tough to come to grips with. On top of that, since most users are already experienced programmers, many IDEs assume you can already think and act like a programmer.
As a result, people just starting out with coding will probably not enjoy using IDEs very much. They can be just too complicated. To return to an earlier analogy, it’s like being handed a Swiss army knife when all you need to do is peel an apple. You’ll be pulling out all kinds of different tools before you find the one you need to get your fruit ready to eat.
Add to that the steep learning curve associated with many IDEs—and let’s be honest, some advanced text editors, too (you can’t even quit VIM without knowing a special command)—and beginning coders are likely much better off sticking to a simple text editor like Notepad.
If you know what you’re doing, though, IDEs are a great way to get a lot more done in far less time. If you’re at a point where you’re gaining confidence with coding and feel you could use new tools, trying out a few IDEs might be a very good idea.
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