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Website creation group test - Duncan Evans rounds up a collection of software packages designed to make creating your own web empire as simple as possible.
With domain names costing peanuts and webspace ever more affordable, there's never been a better time to create your own presence on the web, except perhaps in 1996 where you could have registered iphone.com or myspace.com and now be very, very rich. The trouble with making your own site is that it's a fairly complex process for the rank beginner so software that has templates or wizard-driven menus will make the process considerably easier. What you should be looking for is a package that makes the creation of the webspace easy enough, with banners and menus. Whereas nested menus down the side of the screen was all the rage a few years ago, drop down menus are now in vogue. The program should be able to use all manner of multimedia plug-in elements like flash animations, video and sound. You should look for extra features like page counters, polls, visitors comments book and even methods of purchasing, if you want a retail element to the site. For consistency, being able to apply site styles uniformly across anything you've created will allow you to change the look and feel quickly. Extras such as button creation or graphics programs might sound good, but only if you don't have any other software installed on your computer. The other element to look for is to ensure that it's easy to upload the created site to your webspace through built-in FTP.
Antenna Web Design Studio 2.7
Stormdance - £29.99
Precise position of web-elements in a free-form creation process is the main attraction of Antenna Web Design. It presents a clean and simple interface, with a range of functions laid out across the top. The basic ones stay there all the time, while the more advanced ones can be changed for different types. Creating a text box is as simple as click on the T icon, then drawing a box. Text can now be added and the box resized or moved around. Items can also be stacked and ordered and hot spots and timers added. All this is good, there are no real templates, so everything has to be designed from scratch which makes it more time consuming to get going. Also, the method of importing graphics and other elements is a little idiosyncratic. Instead of just browsing from a graphics box to use a file, the graphics either need to be copied to the file location of the website being created, or be imported through a separate function. Overall, this is a neat, clean program, but the lack of ready-made designs and the off way some of the elements work make it unsuitable for the outright beginner. At this price point, it's a little underpowered.
NetObjects - £140
One of the longer-running series of programs, Fusion has reached version 10 and has a big, bright, welcoming front end. There's also a site wizard to automatically create pages, styles and colours, just leaving you to fill things in. However, the designs offered here are very limited, quite dull and corporate - even the music and entertainment ones - and all use clunky menus down the left side of the screen. This is okay for the rank beginner though, because it gets you up and running very easily.
Ignoring that option and creating a new site yourself brings up the traditional Fusion interface, which shows page structure where pages can be easily added, the page design screen which is drag and drop but can also show the HTML source, then pages for Styles and Assets. The Site Style section brings up all the styles created for the last few versions of Fusion, most of which aren't great, and also a new batch of 24 more modern looking ones with drop down menus. This is good, because the default page for a new site is dire stylistically. Any new site style can be added at any point and they can also be previewed to see how they work.
On to the actual page design and this uses layout forms to help place text and graphics boxes - handily it flags when they overlap. There are the usual tools of adding hotspots, forms, tables, anchors, images and the much appreciated gallery, but now there's a whole new section on flash elements that can be added, as well as links to adding e-commerce functionality. Drop down menus can be created and there are database options using PHP as well - but these are well beyond the abilities of the beginner. All objects and items have their own properties boxes, though sometimes it isn't obvious why certain characteristics aren't listed or don't work in the expected fashion - this is usually because a site style is over-riding the settings.
Fusion 10 has certainly added more advanced functionality and more complex sites can now be created. The wizard creation is a boon for the newcomer, and the advanced elements will please those wanting a little more power. The entire site or individual pages can be republished via the built-in FTP system. There's even a site checklist to tick to ensure you've done everything required to make it as efficient and search engine friendly as possible. Just a pity that the supplied site styles are fairly limited.
Serif - £59.99
Also up to version 10 is WebPlus from Serif, which kicks off with offering to create a site from a template. These are more varied and feature better graphics than the ones in Fusion, but there are still gaps in the types being offered. However, they do have a template for photographers. The initial view brings up the home page, with a palette showing the other pages on the site. The site structure can also be displayed - this comes up as a pop-up box, where pages can be added and properties set. This is clear, but not as obvious or friendly as Fusion's drag and drop site management.
Down the left side of the screen are where all the functions and objects can be added, from tables and text and graphics boxes, to audio clips, e-commerce objects, navigational bars and even RSS feeds. These latter two are nice inclusions - the navigation bars are easier to understand, have greater variety of styles and are easier to implement than those in Fusion, and the RSS feed will enable you to provide a news feed direct from your site. There are more options on the drop down menus at the top of the screen.
While this is drag and drop editing how the properties for each object are accessed can be obscure. For example, on the photography template, there are animated bullet points under a generic company name. While it's easy to see how to edit the other elements on the screen, finding the editable properties for this area isn't clear.
What WebPlus does is provide a pleasant and clear graphic interface with good user control over the look and feel. It may lack some of the advanced editing functions - particularly in the use of Flash it is second best - but it has other useful features that are very worthwhile. With better starting templates and at half the price of Fusion 10 it's certainly worth considering.
Visual Site Designer
Coffee Cup - £25
If you want a more home-brew approach to web-design then this very simple program will appeal. It can do all the basics like text boxes, graphics, links, effects, rollover animation and shapes, but that's it really. There are a decent collection of templates that do show some imagination, and will instantly your site a fresh look, but there aren't a lot of them. Site navigation is very basic, and the intermediate features like flash, music player, forms and a gallery are all additional programs that you need to pay to use. Really, it's a bit much to have a photo gallery as an extra. However, the advantage of this system is that it's the cheapest here - but not cheap enough - and very simple to use, though not suited to making a large scale site.
Magix - £29.99
On running Magix Website Maker there's a nice intro screen showing all the features the suite has to offer. These encapsulate photo-fixing, management, movie and music editing. If you're unsure how it all works, there's a tutorial and an online help section. Then there's the actual website creation software program and the website control centre. Now that's a good spread of utilities and makes life much easier for the beginner.
When the Website Maker is first run, it needs activating, which, as well as making the program work, clears you for 250Mb free webspace. This leads to the next point that differentiates the program from the others reviewed. The Website Maker is an online design program that creates the site on a Magix sub-domain. Needless to say, this makes things a little trickier if you want to use the program to create the site on your own webspace and it's already been registered. There's an optional to register additional domains with an £8.99 sign up fee, and a £1.49pm charge which include one e-mail address. That equates to around £18 for hosting for the year which is fairly cheap, however the domains supported are only .com, .net, .biz, .info and .de but not .co.uk. If you have already registered your website, then the Transfer Domain option will set about moving it over, though you would probably be better off simply getting a different website creation package.
On to the actual creation process then, and a range of quite funky templates to choose from. There aren't a lot of them, but they do offer a bit more variety than most, with selections like football manager, Las Vegas, weddings, Casablanca, but no photography though film is represented. There are some that are simply generic designs, so can be applied to any subject. However, the more defined concepts do work well - the film design for example has a running projector with dust motes floating about.
The designs create text and graphics panels, as well as menus and six basic pages covering pictures, videos, music contacts etc. The text panels are easy to edit, both in terms of size and positioning, as well as content. In terms of decoration, there are interesting things like animated elements that be added to the page, like falling snow, or ticking clocks and dials. However, page management is very basic - everything just falls under the home page and appears on the menu.
Multimedia is very well taken care of with plug-in players for audio and video, but it lacks a picture gallery function. Pictures would have to be inserted into picture boxes and designed one at a time. The plus point about all this is that it is very easy to take one of the templates and have yourself a website inside an hour. It also has some neat features like guest books and a visitor counter.
The animation, graphics and designs can create a very neat or funky looking website quickly, but as there aren't that many, you could end up with a site that looks like a lot of others. Still, for the real beginner, this option will create the best looking websites out of any on offer, with 250Mb webspace thrown in for free as well.
For complete beginners there's no doubt that the web-based Magix Website Maker is visually pleasing and simple to use. It's a shame that there isn't a photography template, but you can modify some of the more generic ones. This isn't the best choice for everyone though, so for those who want a bit more functionality and user-control over proceedings then either Serif WebPlus10 or NetObjects Fusion 10 are the two to select from. WebPlus has a host of great features and is simpler to use than Fusion, but Fusion scores heavily on the use of Flash, site design, precise control and more advanced features. The fact that Fusion is twice the price of WebPlus should be factored in as well, and can be considered a little pricey at around £140. It, however, is the most powerful of the packages reviewed.