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WebStorm vs. Visual Studio, and how to choose the right IDE

WebStorm and Visual Studio represent two ends of a wide spectrum when it comes to the IDE platform market. However, their true differences go well beyond their pricing structures.

An integrated development environment provides programming tools and features that anticipate design actions and make it easier for developers to rewrite or refactor code. Microsoft's Visual Studio and JetBrains' WebStorm arguably represent two distinct ends of the integrated development environment market when it comes to development capabilities, support for certain languages, and, of course, cost.

That said, there are plenty of developers and architects who may not be exactly sure which one is the most practical choice for their particular project, or if it's even possible to use these two integrated development environments together.

In this article, we'll examine the key considerations when it comes to WebStorm vs. Visual Studio, comparing the two options against aspects like debugging, error handling, library integrations, plugins, subscription costs, open source resources and potential drawbacks. We'll also take quick note of some ways developers can successfully use Visual Studio and WebStorm in tandem.

What is Visual Studio?

Microsoft Visual Studio is an integrated development environment (IDE) that supports a wide array of well-established development languages and data formats, such as C, C++, JavaScript, XML, XSLT, HTML and CSS. While Visual Studio's background is (unsurprisingly) rooted in Microsoft's .NET Framework, it can handle a range of software design approaches, all backed by the proprietary support of Microsoft development communities.

Visual Studio provides a vast suite of tools and access to add-ons that developers use to create things like cloud, mobile and internal business applications, particularly in enterprise-level scenarios where there are many development teams involved. Users can also access support for languages like Python and Ruby via readily available plugins.

Despite their differences, some programmers have found ways to use both Visual Studio and WebStorm for one project, and alternate between them to perform certain tasks.

What is WebStorm?

In contrast, the lightweight, no-frills WebStorm IDE is based on the IntelliJ platform from JetBrains. It provides features aimed at simplifying and expediting the development process, along with CSS and JavaScript plugins ideal for small-scale web development projects.

While it might not offer quite the same amount of proprietary language support as Visual Studio (.NET languages being a major example), it still boasts an impressive array of features that make it a competitive IDE, especially for JavaScript-based web applications. Other supported languages, formats and frameworks include TypeScript, Markdown, JSON, YAML, React, AngularJS and Node.js.

Debugging and error handling

Visual Studio offers strong features to keep code clean and error-free. For starters, the editor automatically tracks code commits, and developers can group, filter and search for particular code elements using the Find All References feature. Additionally, Visual Studio includes strong tooling for error handling, such as an Error List feature that helps developers keep an eye on failures and determine necessary fixes.

On top of this, Visual Studio's ReSharper extension provides precompilation code analysis that can detect and highlight errors right in the editor. Visual Studio also provides a series of testing templates and tooling, including IntelliTest for live unit testing and UI-driven tests.

Like Visual Studio, WebStorm boasts a collection of both dynamic and static code analysis features that help detect language and runtime errors. Developers can expand that analysis to look for things like unused variables and defunct methods. Both Visual Studio and WebStorm are proficient at debugging Node.js and React applications, and both offer support for JavaScript-based applications. However, WebStorm's affiliation with JetBrains gives it a slight upper hand when it comes to refactoring JavaScript and TypeScript code -- particularly in cases where functions and variables must transfer between files.

Another notable feature in WebStorm is the Find in Files command, which programmers can use to find and view specific text strings within a project to help with routine debugging tasks. Developers can also use the integrated test runner to perform tests directly from the IDE, skip to failed code sections and rerun tests as needed.

Tool integrations, libraries and plugins

When it comes to a debate over WebStorm vs. Visual Studio, their respective collections of libraries, tool integrations and plugins is a major talking point.

Because the NuGet package manager is built into Visual Studio, developers can easily include third-party libraries and frameworks. If a new package has been added, the IDE alerts developers that other packages need upgrades. Visual Studio also uses Active Directory to visually track things like permissions, developer contributions and changes across branches, and a tool known as CodeLens, provides developers a straightforward way to navigate unfamiliar call structures and locate specific functions.

For development workflows, WebStorm relies on the JetBrains ecosystem, which offers hundreds of tools and plugins to automate tasks. While the ecosystem of WebStorm-specific libraries and tool sets are small compared to Visual Studio, there are still plenty of effective integration options, including plugins for GraphQL, PostCSS and Dart. WebStorm's affiliation with JetBrains also comes significantly into play here, as those geared toward JavaScript will likely have an easier time finding the resources they need.

Subscription costs and open source access

The open source version of Visual Studio, called Visual Studio Community, is accessible for free to developers using Linux, macOS and Windows platforms. Of course, this Microsoft-backed IDE is also available via two major (and notoriously expensive) subscription packages: Visual Studio Professional and, for even larger development operations, Visual Studio Enterprise. It's worth noting, too, that both Visual Studio Professional and Visual Studio Enterprise include a subscription to GitHub Enterprise, allowing paid users to still access valuable open source assets.

WebStorm, on the other hand, offers two subscription levels: one for organizations, and another, less expensive subscription, for individuals. While both subscriptions are monumentally cheaper than Visual Studio, WebStorm does not offer a standalone open source option like Visual Studio Community. However, there is a catch: JetBrains offers free subscriptions to WebStorm for certain types of users, such as students, teachers, independent open source developers and organizers of active user groups. Additionally, the company offers discounted subscriptions to universities, startups, nonprofit organizations, recent graduates and -- perhaps most notably -- those who own tools that compete with WebStorm's offerings.

Limitations and challenges of WebStorm vs. Visual Studio

Visual Studio comes with its own set of unfortunate downsides. While Visual Studio Community offers developers a perfectly viable option for low-level development projects, the amount you can accomplish with this open source version is still relatively limited. Unfortunately, in addition to the prohibitive cost of paid versions, its large installation footprint, the environment takes up considerable memory.

While this is a somewhat more obscure (and debatable) issue, it's arguable that the complexity of full Visual Studio offerings may not be the best for novice developers to use. The sheer number of features and options found in these more sophisticated subscription tiers may prove overly complex -- and possibly overwhelming -- for developers accustomed to working on smaller projects. Some might also say that Visual Studio's high level of automatically generated and reusable code snippets deprives newer developers of the trial-and-error learning process required to genuinely refine one's skills.

WebStorm, of course, has its own shortcomings. While WebStorm is known to minimize the amount of drag it places on memory and use less RAM than other IDEs, the environment is often found to be slow at startup. Another troublesome shortcoming is that non-native file systems can become desynchronized and hamper development as an application grows in scale. For example, developers must often synchronize directories with their file systems manually, which can be a dreadfully time-consuming task.

Since its initial release in 2010, WebStorm has also gone through a couple dozen version releases. Arbitrary changes to version-controlled files might mean that all developers on a team will need to regularly confirm that they are using the same version to avoid conflicts. And, finally, WebStorm likely won't be a good option for particularly large-scale development efforts, especially those deeply entrenched in .NET-based projects.

Using WebStorm and Visual Studio together

Despite their differences, some programmers have found ways to use both Visual Studio and WebStorm for one project, and alternate between them to perform certain tasks. For example, a team might choose WebStorm to refactor a specific set of JavaScript code, and then switch over to Visual Studio to access extensions like Prisma schema files and GitHub Copilot suggestions.

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