Sandvox vs iWeb 2

sandvox_bucketSo anybody who knows anything about iWeb 2 probably realizes that this template I'm currently using doesn't exist in iWeb. I'm now trying Sandvox by Karelia instead.

Sandvox is a web site building tool much like iWeb. In fact, it actually launched a little before iWeb was announced so the folks at Karelia had the misfortune of seeing their innovative product suddenly have a direct competitor from Apple almost overnight. Apparently this type of bad luck has happened to them before with a search product called Watson in which Apple soon introduced Sherlock.

Like iWeb, it uses prebuilt templates to do things, and you basically just substitute your own content. From my naive viewpoint, both programs look very similar from a feature set perspective. So why am I using Sandvox now?

Well, a little history: I attended an early session of CocoaHeads a year or two back where Dan Wood of Karelia gave a talk on Sandvox, and spoke of many of the implementation details, such as Core Data and WebKit. At the time, I wasn't doing any web sites, so I wasn't thinking about a purchase, but was impressed with the tool and kept it in the back of my mind in case I ever needed such a thing.

Now that I've started building a website and realized I didn't want to hand-craft it from the ground up, I decided a tool was in order. But iWeb came with my computer (a part of iLife), so I thought I would give that a try first. There are many things I like about iWeb, but I quickly hit a lot of the limitations which started becoming a huge nuisance.

The things I liked about iWeb were:

  • It came with my computer
  • It was easy to use
  • The Google AdSense 'Web Widget' was a really nice touch
  • The templates were pretty (though maybe too exotic for my personality)
  • Nice blogging feature down to certain details such as 
    • Automatic page and link generation
    • RSS feeds
    • a table-list with scrollbar for each blog entry (which is good if you generate a lot of entries)
    • links to the previous and next entries on each page
    • A 'Read More' link on the truncated entries from the top-level page
    • A place holder for an image for each blog entry (and the image is scaled down on the main page, presumably saving bandwidth)
    • Archive page for blog with link
  • Fancy slideshow support
  • Really good drag-and-drop support for images
  • Really good support for resizing images and also scaling/positioning images within a constrained mask region.
  • Really good undo support
  • Fancy shapes and shadows (though not all web browsers can render this)
  • Nice search bar (though it doesn't work unless you use .Mac)
  • File format contains all the individual files that make up the website instead of a single opaque data file. (I'm a developer, so I like putting these things into revision control, plus I've been tempted to try to do distributed development and merge via Mercuial or Git.)

But here are the problems and things I didn't like about iWeb:

  • If you don't use .Mac, a lot of features are crippled (sometimes needlessly)
    • 'Publish to ...' is only for .Mac (to disk doesn't count).
    • Search doesn't work without .Mac
    • Comments won't work without .Mac
  • Templates seem to be really hard to modify/tweak (at least for me) because there seems to be a lot of reliance on the perfect sizing and positioning of the image assets.
  • Adding HTML snippets that don't generate any visuals (hidden code) seem to cause some web browsers to display a big white block.
  • The templates I focused on didn't have enough width for me to drop in the HTML snippets I wanted such as a Google search bar.
  • Couldn't find a template to reflect my personal tastes
  • Not easy to add things like Google Analytics to every single page. (Very tedious.)
  • Adding HTML snippets for things like comments and trackbacks didn't get the positioning quite right.
  • Colors are not easily modifiable in templates

So, the HTML snippets were really starting to bother me in iWeb. It's good they have the feature, but there always seemed to be some issue. First, I wanted to try adding Google Analytics to every page. It would have been much nicer if iWeb had a built-in for this like AdSense, but they don't. So I needed to manually add this to every page which was kind of a nuisance.  Second, every snippet seems to take up a physical space on the page, even if there is nothing to actually render. In WebKit, things look fine, but I noticed in Opera, the empty space gets rendered as a blank white square which looks ugly. And I had discussed HaloScan and JS-Kit before, but I didn't really focus on the problem I had of getting them to render in an acceptable manner in iWeb. They would often get cut off by iWeb or be placed in a position that looked really bad (and get cut off). iWeb also could not handle these comments dynamically growing as more comments were added so things would most likely get cut off.

I also spent way too much time trying to get a Google search bar to look nice. Since I could not get it to fit in an iWeb column, I tried drawing a shape with rounded corners and drawing that underneath the Google search bar with a shadow so it at least had a little pizzazz and wouldn't be a total eye-sore and it would look like it's floating above the column divider instead of crashing through it.

Anyway, I started getting very tired of fighting these things. I then found out MacSanta had Sandvox for 20% off on a specific day. I had not test run Sandvox prior to this point, but the 20% put the pressure on me. Mulling over the decision for most of the day, I finally bought a pro-license before the sale ended. (I did see there is a 60-day money back guarantee which helped, though I hope I don't have to use ask for it.)

So things I like about Sandvox:

  • Also easy to use
  • Also automatic link generation
  • RSS feeds
  • Pagelet concept was easy and seemed to work well for my limited cases
  • Built-in Google Analytics, SiteMaps, and Verification.
  • Embedding Raw HTML doesn't have the problems iWeb has
  • Built-in support for HaloScan trackbacks and comments (though in my other article, I wonder if I really should be using these)
  • Publishing features are open so you can set your own non-.Mac server information

Things that I don't like about Sandvox:

  • No built-in Google AdSense support (and manually adding these to every page is kind of tedious)
  • Blogs don't have an image place holder like iWeb
  • If you do drop images in blogs, they don't get reduced on the top-level page
  • Also, if not truncated, the content from a blog entry will appear on the top level blog page which makes sense, but after manually dropping in a Google AdSense ad, I noticed it got caught on the top-level page which just looked weird. (It seems like built-in AdSense support could avoid this problem.)
  • Drag-and-drop of images doesn't seem to work quite correctly. I think this is a bug. Sometimes when I drop in an image, when I click on it, the image disappears (like it got undone).
  • Images seem to get resized to fit within a certain width limit. This is actually a real huge problem for me and may be the show stopper for me because I wanted to put some screenshot heavy tutorials up, but the small image size will not work.
  • Undo/Redo seems to trigger a lot of invalid state bugs and I manage to crash Sandvox a lot. Changing a font and undoing, drag-and-dropping an image and undoing, creating a page and undoing, etc, etc, all seem to lead me to bad things.
  • The side that a pagelet appears on is not customizable (unless you hack things which I actually did with my current template).
  • Colors are not easily modifiable in templates
  • Templates are not that easily modifiable (though I did have more success than with iWeb)
  • Can't remove the comments/trackbacks link on just the Home page
  • Truncated blog entries on the top level page don't get a 'Read More...' type link or hyperlink in the ... text to take you directly to the blog. (You can make the date a hyperlink to the entry, but to me, it doesn't ring obvious that clicking on a date will take you to that blog entry. In my mind, it could take you to a list of things that correspond to that day or even just a calendar.)
  • Single opaque data file (not good for what I want to do with revision control)
  • Blog entries appear in a collapsable tree in a source list view. The problem is that with a large number of blog entries, this might get clumsy (compared to the iWeb way). 
  • I also wonder about what to do when you get too many blog entries to display on the page. There doesn't seem to be some automatic nice link generation mechanism to take you to a page to see more with a complete list.
  • Cmd-E and Cmd-G don't behave like other Cocoa apps w.r.t. the Pasteboard server. It looks like Cmd-E exports the website, and Cmd-G just beeps. This is annoying when just typing an article like I am now and expect to use these features like in any standard Cocoa TextView.

Anyhow, there wasn't any particular Sandvox template I was in love with either. I tried out a few and then tried to modify the templates and got overwhelmed. I ended up with the current template you see now, but gave one last effort to modify the template again. I didn't care for the orange too much (made me think of Halloween every time I looked at it) so I tried to change all the image assets to blue. (Easier said than done with my horrible art-tool skills.) I also didn't care for the pagelets on the left-side because most of my sidebars are dominated by Google AdSense right now and the left side seemed to make the ads too prominent in the way I look at things (admittedly western).

After spending way too much time on it, I got something I reasonably liked (or maybe just got too tired of mucking with these things and convinced myself I liked).

Despite the list of issues I have with Sandvox, except for the image size problem (which is still quite serious), none of the other issues bother me enough and I no longer have the glitches iWeb had.

All in all, I do like Sandvox so far. It's been easy to use, produces nice, clean looking web sites, and seems to have fewer, harder to avoid roadblocks compared to iWeb. If the image limitation is fixed (and I read that it's supposed to be fixed in 1.5), then I can probably stop thinking about the 60 refund policy (assuming the 1.5 upgrade is free). Unfortunately, there is no word on when this is coming out. And if my other gripes are addressed, I will probably be elated.

Copyright © PlayControl Software, LLC / Eric Wing