Microsoft Expression Web quietly went gold in December 2006. Made available to US customers the same month, UK users had to wait until the end of January. It was worth it. Microsoft has created a tool that will satisfy a discerning camp of users.

Replacing Microsoft FrontPage, Expression Web is a genuine, professional website development tool, built from the ground up. Though some template-based design features are retained, such as Master Pages, which apply a pre-defined layout to your entire site, the emphasis is now on CSS layout tools and dynamic, .NET-driven development.

When you fire up, there's a Folder List pane on the left - where it was in FrontPage. But where FrontPage actively hid your code, Web exposes every tag and property through a series of task panes. Tag Properties is always on, allowing you to change the attributes of any element contextually without direct coding.

Page creation

In the middle of the workspace is a large active document view, which can be alternated or split between design and coding views. On the right, we have the heavy-duty page-building commands. The Toolbox task pane lists HTML tags, form components and dynamic controls in a hierarchical tree, ready to drag and drop into the document window. Finally, we have Apply and Manage Styles panes complete with live previews of the formatting each existing class contains. CSS creation, layout and tweaking tools are at the forefront of Expression Web.

CSS layout layers now have their own task pane as well as a place in the main Toolbox. The execution is similar to Dreamweaver, with one key enhancement: in Expression Web, margins and padding can be altered visually in the document window. You can alter the same attributes in the CSS properties or Apply Styles pane.

Microsoft has been clever enough to keep things that worked in FrontPage. CSS for text styles can be generated automatically using Office-style formatting tools, and New Styles can be created from scratch in the Apply Styles pane. Usefully, embedded and inline styles can be dragged and dropped into any attached external style sheet.

Like Dreamweaver, there are Visual Aids accessible through the View menu - colour-coded outlines that show you where CSS blocks and other attributes are in your page.

Overdeveloped

Expression Web's many development features deserve a brief mention. Chief among them is the ability to present Rich Data with live XML, either as XSLT pages or XHTML containing XSLT snippets. Adobe Dreamweaver 8 has similar Rich Data features, but Microsoft's drag-and-drop implementation is much easier to use and could help popularise these technologies.

There's comprehensive support for ASP.NET in Expression Web - with drag-and-drop components available through the .NET 2.0 framework - which must be installed. Most impressively, ASP.NET pages can be tested live within Expression Web using a bundled, lightweight ASP Development Server. Unfortunately, ASP.NET is the only directly supported server-side scripting language. We hope Web's Dreamweaver-inspired extensibility features will lead to the development of third-party PHP plugins.

A selling point is W3C XHTML and CSS standards compliance. The rendering engine is tied directly to Internet Explorer, but Microsoft has emphasised that standards-based page building is a foundation of the new tool. The program writes XHTML 1.0 Transitional code, using the standard document type by default. You can switch to other standards or set preferences so the page previews in 'quirks' mode.

There are built-in Accessibility and Browser Compatibility checking tools, though Mozilla, Opera and FireFox are absent from the list of browsers that Expression Web checks your code against - the only browsers it does check against are legacy versions of Internet Explorer. Accessibility testing checks for compliance with the US Section 508 law and the W3C's Web Content Accessibility guidelines. Once your site has been verified, you can run it through Expression Web's HTML optimiser to format your code.

As the first of the main Expression tools to go to market, Expression Web poses a direct threat to the designer's favourite authoring tool Adobe Dreamweaver. It's a strong, standards-based contender, beating its competitor on CSS handling and coding workflow. Still, while boasting W3C standards support, Microsoft has failed to embrace other open protocols.

Microsoft .NET developers will love it, Rich Data designers using XML will welcome it, but PHP coders may well pass it by. Karl Hodge