Integrated Development Environments: What They Are, Why You Need One, and How to Choose

Integrated Development Environments: What They Are, Why You Need One, and How to Choose

When you first begin programming — or start programming in a new development language — the learning curve can be steep. It can take months to learn just the basics and get comfortable, and even years to learn all of the ins and outs of a particular language.

That’s where integrated development environments come in. Unless you are comfortable working within a text editor and know how to use a command prompt window, an integrated development environment, or IDE, can be a lifesaver. An IDE puts all of the tools you need for developing and debugging software into a single application that streamlines the process.

This is different than using a text editor because it puts everything you need to create the software into a single application and workspace instead of requiring the programmer to complete each individual step required to develop the program. In short, an IDE creates a seamless and streamlined environment for a software developer, saving time and frustration.

Comparing the Processes

The main reasons that a developer might opt to work in an IDE is, again, to save time and frustration. In the typical programming environment, a developer must use an editor, compiler, and linker to create code files, compile, and link them. Even when the developer is familiar with the programming language, working in a text editor leaves no room for error. When entering the code, the editor does not take corrective actions related to spacing, etc., meaning that errors aren’t caught until the program doesn’t work.

Some errors in the source code can be spotted when the files are compiled. However, every source file must be compiled separately, and if there are any mistakes, the compiler will not complete and will deliver error messages. At that point, the developer must go back through the source code files and attempt to locate and correct the errors, which can be time-consuming and frustrating, especially when you aren’t an expert in the programming language. And still, some errors may still appear during the linking phase, leading to yet another round of corrections.

An IDE on the other hand, eliminates some of these steps. Because the IDE offers templates for common commands and formatting, some of the more common errors, such as spacing, aren’t as much of a concern. In addition, an IDE will provide a pop-up window indicating where errors are located, making it easier for you to make corrections during each phase of the project.

Another feature of IDE’s that’s appealing to many developers is the fact that there are environments designed for different purposes. Some are standard text editor-based, while others offer multiple programming languages for maximum flexibility. Web-based or cloud environments like MPLAB Xpress increase the flexibility of your projects and allow you to collaborate with others and share ideas during the development phase. In fact, cloud-based programs, with their ability to share code and templates, are fast becoming one of the most popular types of IDEs among developers.

Integrated Development Environments

Choosing an IDE

There are literally dozens of IDE options to choose from, and each has its own features and benefits. And if you asked a dozen different developers which IDE they prefer, you are likely to get a dozen different answers.

While trying out a free version is a good place to start getting a feel for the IDE that will work for you, there are a few things to consider:

  • Is the IDE compatible with your operating system and programming language?
  • Does the IDE work with your target environment? For example, some IDE’s cannot develop software for Mac or Android operating systems.
  • Are there templates for specific applications, such as microcontrollers?
  • What are the capabilities of the environment in terms of debugging, error detection, coding, etc.?
  • Do you need product compilation?
  • Do you need the capability to build plug-ins and extensions? Not all IDE’s offer this capability.
  • What are the licensing and royalty fees?

Again, there are a number of different options for IDEs, so it’s a good idea to try several to see where you are most comfortable working. However, whichever option you choose, an IDE will undoubtedly make your software development easier and more streamlined, saving your business time and money.