Top Features to Look For in an IDE

What makes an IDE worthy of your developers?
December 28, 2021
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Your developers depend on very specific tools to get their jobs done. Although some developers prefer to work strictly from the command line, most opt to use an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) for the tasks at hand. With the right IDE, a developer is better equipped to write high-quality code and meet release deadlines. With the wrong tool, the developer’s job gets exponentially harder.

But what makes a good IDE? Given every developer uses their IDE differently and how many IDEs are available, that question can seem a bit nebulous. However, there are certain features most developers will agree are essential for their work.

If you’ve never used an IDE, or are looking to purchase or deploy IDEs for your developers, here’s a list of the features most developers will say are must-haves.

Incremental Search

A good search feature is essential for an IDE. There are 2 types of popular searches: Quick Find and Incremental Search. When you use Quick Find the IDE will find the first instance of a search string and highlight the remaining found entries. To move to the next entry, you must hit additional key combinations to move forward. 


With Incremental Search you simply hit the same key combination to move from hit to hit, making this type more efficient. Developers who prefer efficiency over feature-creep prefer the Incremental Search over any other type because it’s much easier to keep hitting the same key combination to move from hit to hit.

Smart Auto-Complete

Smart Auto-Complete (aka Intelligent Code Completion) is context-aware code completion. This is very similar to what you find on your smartphone. As you type the device attempts to anticipate what you’re about to type and auto-completes it for you. Within the realm of IDEs, smart auto-complete is geared toward programming languages, so it’s intelligent enough to auto-complete in your language of choice.

This type of feature not only makes the developer’s job more efficient but also more accurate. It offers a convenient method to access descriptions of functions and parameter lists while also helping developers in making fewer mistakes as they type. 

Background Compilation

Not every IDE features background compilation. Those that do, really stand out to developers. That’s because this feature presents a complete list of errors as developers type. As the name implies, Background Compilation runs in the background, which makes it possible for developers to compile and work (even on the files that are compiling) at the same time. 

Compiles run as separate and parallel threads. There are some restrictions to using Background Compilation, though, such as the inability to close a compiling project, change the active project, run or debug another application, do refactoring, or start another compilation.

Split Screen Mode

Split Screen Mode is an invaluable feature in an IDE because it allows developers to easily compare 2 files side by side or even compare 2 different portions of the same document. This makes it much easier for developers to find mistakes, work more efficiently, and avoid the eye strain associated with flipping back and forth between windows.

Code Refactoring

Refactoring is the process of restructuring or cleaning up code without changing or adding to its external behavior. Refactoring happens a lot. You’ll have developers release an application, only to realize that they’ve written messy code in their haste to meet deadlines. They’ll go back and clean that code up to make it easier to read or re-use.

Some IDEs include automated refactoring tools. Once you’ve used such a built-in tool, you will be able to preview the refactoring changes and then apply them (if the changes are acceptable).

Integrated Build Tools

Build tools include those that can download dependencies, compile source, package binary code, run tests, and deploy to production systems. Not every IDE includes all of those features, but it’s important to make sure the IDEs your developers use have at least some of them. 

Integrated build tools make the developer’s job less tedious and more efficient.

Syntax Highlighting

Syntax Highlighting is a very common feature in IDEs. It highlights code in different colors or fonts, depending on a specific category of terms. This feature makes code much easier to read and work with. Syntax Highlighting also makes the implementation of code easier, as highlighting is done in real-time, which means errors can be detected much more easily.

Brace/Tag Matching

Nested braces and tags can become very cumbersome. And when an opening brace doesn’t have its matching closing brace, errors will occur. Some IDEs include brace and tag matching, so when a developer types an opening brace ({) the text editor will automatically add the closing brace (}). This not only helps prevent errors but also makes the job more efficient.

Code Folding

A single file in a project can get very long. So when a developer needs to compare one section of the file with another, having to constantly scroll up and down for the comparison can not only be confusing, it’s a recipe for mistakes. 

Cold Folding makes it possible to hide sections of the file, so the two parts that are being compared are immediately above and below one another. Think of Code Folding as if you’re folding a piece of paper such that everything but the top and the bottom is hidden away from sight, so you can only see what you want.

Git/GitHub Integration

Nearly every developer works with either Git or GitHub. This is especially true when working with a team or in a DevOps environment. Some IDEs include built-in Git and GitHub integration. With this feature, your developers can do most of their work within a single tool. There’s no need to manually import code from a repository into the IDE and then export the new code to the repository when they finish work. 

Git and GitHub integration should probably be considered a must-have for any IDE you use.

Conclusion

Every project and developer’s needs are different. But every developer works with an IDE and will have a list of top features that matches or comes close to this list. Even if your developers make more demands of their IDEs, this list should serve as a good starting point to help you find the right IDE for the job.

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