The days are gone when most Java developers, as much as they like to hate Microsoft, were left amazed at the ease of development that Visual Basic had to offer. Creating a GUI-based application or performing even basic tasks in Java was an absolute pain compared to the drag-and-drop ease that Visual Basic offered. However, things have changed, and the new breed of Java IDEs can match the best of development tools, feature for feature.

The frontrunners in this race for the best Java development tool are Borland JBuilder, IntelliJ, and, my favorite, Sun ONE Studio. Sun ONE gains favor for a purely economic reason: It’s available in a free Community Edition (CE). To me, open source and freeware is so much part of the Java cult that it often feels strange to actually pay money for Java software.

Sun recommends a 500-MHz Pentium III with 256 MB of memory to run the IDE. However, if your processor is less than 1 GHz and running low on memory, Sun ONE Studio isn’t really a viable option. You would be forced to wait an eternity for the application to startup.

Although the IDE is free, if you expect a weak little development tool that just about manages the basics, you’re very wrong. It is an extremely powerful tool that boasts tons of very useful features. If your Java assignments are primarily in the domain of JSP, servlets, JavaBeans, and Swing, the CE would be more than sufficient. Even version 3 was very good at this stuff, but in version 4, it is even better.

Here are a few things about Sun ONE 4.0 that I found particularly useful:

  • Web apps—Developing servlets and JSP couldn’t be easier. It comes with a built-in version of Tomcat that can be easily managed from within the IDE. Packaging Web applications into WAR files, developing custom tag libraries, debugging Web applications, and HTTP transaction monitoring puts Sun ONE into a class of its own in regard to Web application development.
  • Smarter, cleaner code—Sun ONE includes tools to beautify your code. The indentation engine can be easily configured to get the indentation mode that you prefer. Another tool that I find extremely useful is Auto Comment, which can generate documentation. Generating javadoc comments is a breeze; it generates proper javadoc based on method signatures. It also checks existing javadocs and can autofix most javadoc errors.
  • GUI development—As much as I have tried to master Swing and AWT, it has always been a pain to recall which layout manager goes where and which components extend which, etc. With Sun ONE, you don’t really need to look at the code. All it takes is just a few clicks and you have a decent GUI; right-click and you can add event handling as well.
  • AntApache Ant has more or less become a standard in Java build tools, and it offers top class integration with Ant. Sun ONE does a lot of hand holding to ensure that you get going with Ant. And Ant help files that are bundled with it also come in handy
  • Misc—Built-in CVS client, image viewer, auto complete, good XML display and editing capability are just a few other useful features.

With all these added benefits, if you switch to Sun ONE from something like Notepad or a basic Java editor, you should notice a significant boost in Java coding efficiency and productivity on your team.