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Choosing your Java IDE

Martin Heller | Sept. 7, 2016
Comparing Eclipse, NetBeans, and IntelliJ IDEA for features, usability, and project size and type

Java searching support allows you to find declarations, references, and occurrences of Java packages, types, methods, fields. You can also use Quick Access to search, and use quick views to pop up things like class outlines.

Adding methods and generating classes are supported by error annotations and content assist. Common code patterns can be generated from code templates, and Eclipse can automatically generate and organize your import statements. Refactoring Java in Eclipse supports 23 operations, ranging from common renaming operations to more obscure transformations right out of Martin Fowler's book. Refactoring can not only be performed interactively, but also from refactoring scripts.

Eclipse supports debugging both locally and remotely, assuming that you are using a JVM that supports remote debugging. Debugging is fairly standard: you typically set breakpoints, and then view variables in a tab of the debugging perspective. You can of course step through your code and evaluate expressions.

Eclipse has extensive help and documentation, of varying age, currency, and utility. It's not unusual to discover that the documentation includes images that don't match the current version of the software, or that the keystrokes for your operating system are different from the ones called out in the help. I'm afraid it's one of the common problems with open source projects: the documentation can lag the software by months or even years. Eclipse has more than its share of documentation issues because the ecosystem is so big.


The NetBeans Java IDE started life as a university student project in Prague in 1996, became a commercial product in 1997, was bought by Sun in 1999, and was released to open source in 2000.

The current version, 8.1, runs on Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and Solaris, and a portable subset runs on other systems that support Java. I downloaded the Java EE bundle, one of 6 stock options. This bundle includes JavaScript and HTML support, GlassFish, and Tomcat, but not the support for PHP, C/C++/Fortran, Groovy, and Grails included in the "All" download bundle. I could easily add those plugins and many others if and when needed: NetBeans has fewer plugins than Eclipse, but they are less likely to interfere with each other.

Oracle, which still manages and contributes to the NetBeans open source project, considers NetBeans the official IDE for Java 8. While that distinction mattered for about a month after Java 8 was released in 2014, when the other IDEs were being updated to support new Java 8 features, I'm not convinced it matters today.

NetBeans does have good support for Java 8, and for conversion of older code to use Java 8. Its editors, code analyzers, and converters can help you to upgrade your applications to use new Java 8 language constructs, such as lambdas, functional operations, and method references. JavaScript plugins in NetBeans 8 include improved support for Node.js and support for newer JavaScript tools such as Gulp and Mocha, as well as support for Nashorn, the JavaScript interpreter.


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