Microsoft Expression Web is what Microsoft FrontPage should have been all along, and the only shame of it is that it took Microsoft this long to get it right.

Microsoft Expression Studio - the definitive review

Among Web designers, FrontPage rightfully earned the status of a running joke. It generated bloated HTML jammed with proprietary tags; it was a terrible pain to use with FTP; and the mere thought of FrontPage extensions, those proprietary server-side additions that created more directory clutter and security issues than usable features, were enough to send people screaming into the night.

See also Adobe Dreamweaver CS3 review

Small wonder Microsoft dropped the name "FrontPage" entirely and decided to pitch Expression Web as a wholly new application (although you can pick up Expression Web cheaper if you have an existing edition of FrontPage).

There's another successor of sorts to FrontPage called SharePoint Designer, but it's used to build sites only in SharePoint itself - Microsoft's enterprise-level collaboration tool - and isn't intended as a general-purpose web-design app.

Expression Web's interface and layout are still very much like FrontPage's: a tree for the site you're currently editing, an editing pane that can be toggled or split between raw code and wysisyg (what you see is what you get) editing, and so on.

This immediately separates Expression Web from the rest of the Expression suite apps, which look radically different; but by doing this, Microsoft has kept the best parts of FrontPage's classic look and feel to retain existing users, while at the same time retooling the program from the inside out to be strongly standards-compliant.

At the same time, there's enough backward compatibility with FrontPage-specific features in Expression Web that one can continue to work more or less seamlessly with older FrontPage projects. These features include the dreaded FrontPage extensions and web bots, which render content like page includes when the site is published to a remote host. Most people, though, will probably want to migrate away from anything proprietary if they haven't already done so.

What's immediately apparent as new in Expression Web is the presence of panels that let you edit and apply CSS (cascading stylesheets) styles as well as work with tag and CSS properties. CSS and XML are now deeply ingrained into the way you work with pages, not just added as afterthoughts. This stuff is also made that much easier to use courtesy of some intuitive GUI (graphical user interface) mechanisms.

For example, in Expression Web you can move a given CSS class from a page to a style sheet by simply dragging and dropping. If you want to wrap objects within a DIV or a SPAN tag, just select the objects in question, choose the 'div' object from the HTML toolbox and select Wrap. In older versions of FrontPage, you had the Quick Tag Editor (and it's still present in Expression Web), but it isn't as immediately useful as Expression Web's new methods for accomplishing the same things.

The HTML and XML generated by Expression Web is as clean and free of Microsoft-centric tags as it gets, which is a welcome relief. The functions in FrontPage 2003 to clean spurious tags (such as those generated by Word) are all still here, but if you're starting a project anew you'll be pleased at how things look.

In Expression Web, pages can also be run against standards-compliance checks and automatically reformatted to use XML, and there's an option to automatically point out tags that don't validate against the current document definition (which is really handy if you're importing old quirks-mode pages and reworking them to be in strict adherence). Internet Explorer 7.0 is broken out as its own validation standard, so you can check sites against it separately - a useful choice, since IE7 renders things markedly unlike IE6 (and competing browsers, too).

Another major improvement over FrontPage is the way FTP is handled. Programs such as Adobe's Dreamweaver have very tight FTP integration; in FrontPage, it always felt like an afterthought. Expression Web lets you set up an FTP site so that pages can either be edited remotely (fast) or synchronised with a local cache of files (better support for quirky things like Web bot includes). Best of all, you can selectively make local copies of pages or folders, so you don't have to download a whole site at once to get working on something.

One thing that's noticeably missing in Expression Web's editor, and which might throw some people off, is the Preview tab. Instead, the wysiwyg editing view has been designed to approximate a preview as closely as possible. If you want a truly accurate preview version of the page you're editing, which was previously available only in the Preview tab, you can either press F12 to launch it in a browser - which is annoying, since you have to switch away from the app itself - or press Ctrl-/ to turn off all the on-screen visual aids (table borders, element demarcators). It's not a major omission, but for someone used to the old Preview tab, it's a bit annoying.

In conclusion, Microsoft Expression Web is a very worthy replacement for FrontPage as we have come to know it, although it's geared a little more toward professional web developers than novices. That said, there are a few accommodations for beginning users, like a bevy of good-looking quick-start templates for many common website types.

Quick links:

Microsoft Expression Web

Microsoft Expression Design

Microsoft Expression Media

Microsoft Expression Blend

Microsoft Expression Web 2: Specs

  • 700MHz Intel Pentium or AMD Athlon
  • Windows XP/Vista
  • 512MB of RAM
  • 1.5GB of hard disk space
  • 700MHz Intel Pentium or AMD Athlon
  • Windows XP/Vista
  • 512MB of RAM
  • 1.5GB of hard disk space


The Microsoft Expression Studio program we were most impressed by was Expression Web, if only because it represents such a positive step forward from FrontPage.