Flux 3 for all your online design?

The first time I laid eyes on Flux I was literally enchanted with a product that even then finally could potentially measure up to Dreamweaver. When I saw Flux 2 I knew the developers were going to try very hard to make that happen, and with each update (there were quite a few) of Flux 2, the product closed in on Dreamweaver — you could almost see the evolution unfold in front of your eyes. With Flux 3 The Escapers have again raised the bar. Adobe won’t mind; they have been doing their best to turn Dreamweaver into a strange amalgam of features of which some make you scratch your head, while others are truly useful and innovative. They should mind, though, as Flux 3 is not an amalgam. It’s a structured online design application with a clear interface and feature set that will appeal to anyone designing for any type of online presence or publication.

Flux 3 Code panel

The Escapers are a small team of developers in the UK; small compared with the army of developers Adobe has working on Dreamweaver, but big in ideas. Flux 3 is the last version of The Escapers’ design application that started out as a web design program. Flux 3, however, knows more tricks: it can be used to program Ruby on Rails sites, ExpressionEngine sites, even DOJO sites, with little manual coding. It knows Spry, but also jQuery, MooFX, and MooTools (some programming skills required).

Version 3 also knows HTML 5, has WebKit support, Google and Cufon font API support, and you can use it to publish ePUB publications (properly zipped) and design WordPress sites (although the latter more in code editing mode than anything else). Just as Dreamweaver, Flux 3 is capable of connecting to an existing site and working over WebDAV or FTP on your site design. On my system (a dedicated server hosted with Liquid Web) the FTP connection was a bit flaky, i.e. I experienced dropped connections using the default settings (passive).

With Flux 3's Actions you can cover scripted actions without writing code for about 75%.

Flux 3 supports a tabbed interface, multiple Inspectors and control panels and a plugin system that now also supports specific Coda (yes, the Panic IDE (Integrated Development Environment)) plugins. Furthermore, Flux 3 supports the HTML 5 code that is already supported by some browsers (Apple Safari, for example), including video. It does this in a real no-brainer way, with you selecting the HTML 5 code you want to use and Flux 3 dropping the code and showing the result in real-time.

There is now also a widget palette, which allows you to really, really easily create jQuery effects and even complete galleries. Complete WebKit support and support for colour swatches and the ability to import swatches from “colourlovers”, rounds up the new feature set of Flux 3.

Widgets are complete, ready-made packaged scripts that you can add to a page.

Everything in Flux 3 works in a highly visual manner, and all visual elements can be edited in the Inspector — much like you work with CSS in CSSEdit. For example, Google Font API support is as easy as selecting automatically downloaded font samples in the Pages dialogue, and see the code appear in the code panel. The two other supported methods for external font embedding need a bit more input from you, the designer, but only a bit.

The Escapers have stayed true to their original idea, which was to develop an online design application that would work much the same way as a layout program, i.e. you can still design a web site without worrying about the underlying HTML or PHP, or whatever other scripting language that makes you tick.

The Widgets in Flux 3 are of high quality and really nice and useful. They allow for a personal touch.

This has in essence turned Flux 3 into what is probably the absolute top in the market of visual online design applications. It is far beyond comparison with RapidWeaver, Sandvox or iWeb, and at its visual design level it even leaves Dreamweaver biting the dust. But the code panel is a disappointment and is probably the reason why Dreamweaver users aren’t jumping ship en masse. The coding panel doesn’t support auto-completion, or the automatic closing of tags, or suggestions…

In order for Flux to really knock Dreamweaver KO, The Escapers will have to make the coding panel at least as good as Coda’s or Espresso’s. And another critique I would like to add is that external CSS stylesheets shouldn’t be treated by Flux as text files, but rather as files the coding panel can handle the same way it handles HTML or PHP.

I know this is probably not what The Escapers want to hear, because it would indeed break with Flux’s original concept of an application that is to be as powerful as Dreamweaver and beyond without a designer ever having to touch code, but online design is becoming increasingly complicated and complex, and some code writing is inevitable, really. This is quite clear when designing ePUB or WordPress sites, where the underlying PHP code of a page template does not even remotely resemble a HTML structure.

Flux 3 now has a tree view of the site in its Site Manager.

Despite this criticism, I have absolutely no problem with recommending Flux 3 to even the most experienced of online designers, for two reasons:

  1. Because it keeps evolving towards greater power and flexibility
  2. Because, when you limit its usage to being a prototyping tool, it will give you so much control and visual feedback that it will save you huge amounts of time with clean code as the end-result — before you start adding the “difficult” code afterwards.

For approx. 82.00 Euros, Flux 3 simply belongs in an online designer’s tool chest as much as Coda and CSSEdit should.