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What is an IDE (Integrated Development Environment)?

November 19, 2018

If you’re browsing integrated development environments, you’re likely a relatively experienced developer. 

Otherwise, you’re probably better suited to use a low-code development platform or no-code development platform.

Those tools have more drag-and-drop components than a true IDE, which possesses straight-up code editors integrated with development programs such as compilers, auto-completion, class exploring, and hierarchy diagrams.

They provide virtually all of the tools a developer needs to write and build a program from end to end.

What IDE topics we'll cover:

What is an IDE?

On a more basic level, IDEs provide interfaces for users to write code, organize text groups, and automate programming redundancies. But instead of a bare bones code editor, IDEs combine the functionality of multiple programming processes into one. Some IDEs focus on a specific programming language, such as Python or Java, but many have cross-language capabilities. In terms of text editing capabilities, IDEs often possess or allow the insertion of frameworks and element libraries to build upon base-level code.

Throughout the writing process, one or multiple users create hierarchies within the IDE and assign groups of code to their designated region. From these, groupings can be strung together, compiled, and built. Most IDEs come with built-in debuggers, which activate upon the build. Visual debuggers are a substantial benefit of many IDEs. If any bugs or errors are spotted, users are shown which parts of code have problems.

Key Benefits of Integrated Development Environments

  • Serves as a single environment for most, if not all, of a developer’s needs such as version control systems, debugging tools, and Platform-as-a-Service.
  • Code completion capabilities improve programming workflow.
  • Automatically checks for errors to ensure top quality code.
  • Refactoring capabilities allow developers to make comprehensive and mistake-free renaming changes.
  • Maintain a smooth development cycle.
  • Increase developer efficiency and satisfaction.
  • Deliver top-quality software on schedule.

What are the Benefits of Integrated Development Environments?

There are a number of reasons to use an IDE, most of which revolve around software development. The platform centralizes three key tools used by most developers: source code editors, debuggers, and compilers. This allows users to write, perfect, and process code within a single environment.

Centralizing these tools also makes it easier to navigate the source code in question. Many include additional capabilities to test, organize and refactor code. Additional features such as autocomplete, along with build and deployment capabilities, significantly expand a developer’s capabilities and improve their development speed.

Improved organization and source code management can reduce errors as well as development time. Users can fine-tune applications after builds are completed. They can often save versions of a project in case they need to revert a program.

Eventually, teams use their integrated version control system to check in and out components of the program from their code repository. At the end, once all programs are fine-tuned and the application performs its desired functions, the project can be packaged and deployed from either the IDE or another integrated tool.

IDE Common Features

Text editor

Virtually every IDE will have a text editor designed to write and manipulate source code. Some tools may have visual components to drag and drop front-end components, but most have a simple interface with language-specific syntax highlighting.


Debugging tools assist users in identifying and remedying errors within source code. They often simulate real-world scenarios to test functionality and performance. Programmers and software engineers can usually test the various segments of code and identify errors before the application is released.


Compilers are components that translate programming language into a form machines can process, such as binary code. The machine code is analyzed to ensure its accuracy. The compiler then parses and optimizes the code to optimize performance.

Code completion

Code complete features assist programmers by intelligently identifying and inserting common code components. These features save developers time writing code and reduce the likelihood of typos and bugs.

Programming language support

IDEs are typically specific to a single programming language, though several also offer multi-language support. As such, the first step is to figure out which languages you will be coding in and narrow your prospective IDE list down accordingly. Examples include Ruby, Python, and Java IDE tools.

Integrations and plugins

With the name integrated development environment, it is no surprise that integrations need to be considered when looking at IDEs. Your IDE is your development portal, so being able to incorporate all your other development tools will improve development workflows and productivity. Poor integrations can cause numerous issues and lead to many headaches, so make sure you understand how well a potential IDE fits into your ecosystem of existing tools.

Best IDEs in 2018

The “integrated” component of IDEs is really what sets these tools apart from simple code-editing tools. Debuggers, compilers, and automation capabilities contribute as well.

But one of the biggest reasons IDEs can be more beneficial than other tools is the ability to customize an environment with plugins and integrations. Plugins help customize workflows and add functionality.

The plugins can be as simple as color themes and schedules, or as complicated as continuous deployment and database development extensions.

Best overall IDE in 2018

There are hundreds of options when it comes to selecting the best IDE for you in 2018. Here are the top integrated development environments in terms of satisfaction score from real-user reviews:

    1. IntelliJ IDEA
    2. Visual Studio
    3. Eclipse
    4. RStudio
    5. WebStorm
    6. PhpStorm
    7. PyCharm
    8. NetBeans
    9. Xcode
    10. Visual LANSA
Discover all of the tools and more, plus their user reviews, in our guide to the best IDE software in 2018.
Discover the Highest-Rated IDE Software →

Best Python IDE

Looking for an IDE specific to Python development? Here are the best on the market:

    1. PyCharm
    2. AWS Cloud 9
    3. Komodo IDE
    4. Codenvy
    5. KDevelop

Read a more in-depth review of these Python-specific platforms plus additional options in our 2018 guide to the best Python IDE tools.

Best Ruby IDE

Another language-specific type of IDEs are Ruby IDEs. Here are the best available for developers:

    1. RubyMine
    2. AptanaStudio
    3. Selenium IDE
    4. Eclipse
    5. Komodo IDE

Learn more about these offerings and more Ruby-specific IDEs in our ultimate guide to the best Ruby IDE for web development in 2018.

Best Java IDE

A third language-specific type of IDEs are Java IDEs. Here are the best available for Java developers:

    1. IntelliJ IDEA
    2. Eclipse
    3. NetBeans
    4. Xcode
    5. MyEclipse

Learn more about these products and more Java-specific IDEs in our informative guide to finding the best Java IDE for software development in 2018.

IDEs vs. text editors

While IDEs do have a significantly larger range of capabilities, there are situations when text editors are easier to use and better suited to complete a task. Users who aim to write a simple script or whip up some basic HTML will likely utilize a text editor rather than a complex IDE. Text editors still have syntax highlighters and search capabilities.

IDEs vs. command-line tools

"Command line" is a term most relatively tech-savvy people have heard of, but often don’t actually understand; in simple terms, it is the interface you think of when picturing 1980s computers. Command lines let programmers communicate directly with resources and access program source code.

They look relatively archaic, but some users prefer this traditional, purely text-based interface. To program directly into a command line (or portal if you’re a Mac user), you need a lot of experience and documentation because users are somewhat blind to visualizations and errors.

Next step in choosing an IDE

With hundreds of IDE solutions on the market, it's difficult to make a decision. Equipped with the knowledge you have now, you can utilize G2 Crowd's Integrated Development Environment software category to browse over 100 different solutions and read thousands of real-user reviews.

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