Long gone are the days when programmers typed in code by hand. The size and complexity of modern applications has led to the introduction of much more sophisticated tools to enable developers to design, test and debug their programs. Referred to as Integrated Development Environment, or IDE, packages, several such products exist, designed to work with all the leading platforms, with support for Windows and, more latterly, mobile, Web and cloud platforms seen as key selling points.

What is it and who is it for?

Without doubt the leading IDE for Windows developers, Microsoft’s Visual Studio is a well-established and much used package that can be used to design, compile, test, debug and deploy Windows, Web and mobile applications using a variety of industry standard programming languages. Its primary audience is the professional developer working either alone or as part of a development team, with different versions to address the needs of these two specific markets.

The 2010 version is a major release which sees the core design and editing tools re-vamped to use the latest Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) technologies. Support for multiple versions of the .Net Framework has also been added, up to and including the latest 4.0 implementation, along with tools to develop applications using Silverlight, Microsoft’s Web application framework and Azure cloud computing platform. There’s support too for the 2010 editions of SharePoint and Office plus a whole raft of other enhancements including a new language (F#), support for parallel programming and a much improved help engine.

Pricing & setup

The Visual Studio 2010 family comprises three editions, starting with the Visual Studio Professional aimed at individual developers and priced at £605 (ex. VAT). For that you get the application plus a one-year “Essentials” subscription to the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN), giving download access to current versions of Microsoft operating systems. Alternatively, for £1,062 (ex. VAT), the product can be purchased with a full MSDN subscription giving access to all current and previous Windows products together with support and online developer forums. Good value given that by itself the MSDN subscription is £543 (ex. VAT).

Higher up the scale, the Premium edition (£4,254 ex. VAT) is for individual developers and teams looking for more advanced database development tools and testing facilities. And lastly, for a whopping £9,275 (ex. VAT) you can get Visual Studio 2010 Ultimate, an all-singing, all-dancing implementation for large development teams with everything found in the Premium product plus additional modelling and lab testing facilities.

Premium and Ultimate versions both come with full MSDN subscriptions including access to Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing platform. They also include a bundled copy of Team Foundation Server, Microsoft’s collaboration platform for developers (costing £499 ex. VAT, when bought separately), which adds support for a team portal complete with version control, build automation and other management tools.

A free but much cut-down Express implementation of Visual Studio is another option, while to run any edition a PC with a fast processor (1.66GHz or greater) is needed, plus 1GB of memory (2GB on 64-bit systems) and at least 3GB hard disk drive space. Most desktop and server implementations of Windows can be used to host the product, minimum requirements being Windows XP with Service Pack 3.

Does it do it well?

As an already very usable application it was hard to envisage much room for improvement but there are several very obvious benefits to upgrading to the 2010 product, not least the enhanced code editor. Among numerous improvements it’s now possible to zoom code independently in each window and float toolbars anywhere you like, even onto other displays in a multi-monitor setup.

Debugging is made easier plus there’s a neat incremental search option inside the toolbox, while the IntelliSense auto-completion technology has been made a lot more “intelligent”, making it a lot more usable and less of a simple syntax checker.

Improved support for Silverlight is another welcome addition, with new visual programming tools added to the more basic support of the previous version. Likewise it’s good to see support for Azure in this release, complete with a local development fabric for debugging purposes. Plus it’s now possible to write programs that distribute work across multiple processors without having to work directly with threads or the thread pool.

Elsewhere Web programmers will like the ability to package and publish applications direct from the IDE rather than have to resort to FTP to upload the code plus, overall, there’s much better support for test-driven development.

Where does it disappoint?

Price could be an issue for some users, with the 2010 product significantly more expensive than its predecessors. That said, it is an essential tool and there’s a lot of extra value in the new version. Upgrades for existing Standard edition customers are also available at a discounted cost of £229 (ex. VAT).

Other disappointments include a lack of tools for mobile development, although support for Windows Mobile 7 has been announced and will be added to the product when the new platform is released. The new help engine could also do with an indexing option and, despite the major re-write of the underlying code, performance is only slightly improved compared to the 2008 version.

Would we recommend it?

For new customers looking to develop Windows applications, Visual Studio 2010 is pretty much a no-brainer with little else available to match it. For existing users, however, switching to a new IDE will always be a big decision likely to affect both individual developer productivity and the ability to produce quality code.

That said there’s enough in Visual Studio 2010 to warrant upgrading, not least enhanced support for the latest technologies such as Silverlight and Azure. Moreover, despite being a major re-write, there are no big changes in the way the product is used. Yes, there are changes to how things work and new features and tools have been added, but they all make sense and make an already usable and feature-rich product even better. [9]