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Mac OS X Website Builder Face-Off

by Giles Turnbull

Anyone can make a website these days. The easiest way is to spend five minutes at and come away with a simple blog. The complicated way is to buy professional-level software like Dreamweaver, or hand-code everything in a text editor, and make everything from scratch.

Or, in some circumstances, you could take the middle path, using one of the growing selection of simpler web builder applications--those that offer predesigned web templates for you to tweak and customize with your own content.

The idea isn't that new; RapidWeaver has been around for years and now is at a mature Version 3. But during his keynote at Macworld in January this year, Steve Jobs announced that the new addition to iLife 06 would be iWeb, another of these website makers and one designed to incorporate multimedia from the rest of the iLife suite.

Now, shortly before the keynote, a reference to iWeb mysteriously appeared on, then vanished from, Apple's website. Conspiracy theorists suggested that this might have been a deliberate ploy by Apple to divert the attention of rumor sites away from something much more interesting. Whatever the reason, the leak appeared and caused frowns down at the offices of Karelia Inc., a software company working on a third web builder: Sandvox.

The Karelia team had been working on Sandvox for quite a while, and for good reason. Their previous best-selling Mac OS X app, Watson, ended up being knocked aside by Apple's introduction of the remarkably similar Sherlock 3. Undaunted, they started work on something new, confident that it wouldn't happen again.

But it did, when Steve Jobs announced iWeb onstage at the Moscone Center. Apple's software was all about making websites quickly, using a template system. Just like the Sandvox app that Karelia was working on.

In this article, we're going to take a sweeping look at RapidWeaver, Sandvox, and iWeb, in an attempt to fathom their differences and drive a wedge between their feature sets. Can one of them do it all? Or are they slightly different tools, each suited to building different kinds of websites?

There's only one way to find out.


The first thing that happens when you launch iWeb is this:

A little nag screen

Nag screens are frustrating in any application, and there's no means that I could find to switch this one off. You're stuck with it.

So this nag is doubly frustrating, because it's not the kind of nag that's asking you to register or pay a license fee for the software you're using. Rather, it's trying to sell you more stuff.

By this stage, you've already paid your fee for iWeb by purchasing the iLife disk or a new Mac, which comes with iLife pre-installed. This nag is a sign of things to come. While iWeb is not dependent on having access to a .Mac account, some of its features work a whole lot better when such access is available. And iWeb makes use of every opportunity to remind you of this. A simple "Don't show me this again" checkbox would be nice at this point.

Nagging frustrations aside, what's iWeb like to use?

There are two kinds of people who are going to use iWeb, and their answers to this question will be different.

People who have made any kind of website before, no matter how they did it, will say: "Nice, but there's not much flexibility."

And people who have never made a website of any kind before will say: "Wow. This is cool."

It's important to remember this when you try iWeb, or compare it with the rival web builder applications. iWeb is a tool designed not for web experts, but for complete novices. It's intended to make the task of creating a website as easy as making a document in Pages, and it largely succeeds in this regard.

But at a cost.

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The same kind of creative cost that you encounter in Pages, in fact. These new-style apps have been described as "What You Get Is What You See" software, as opposed to "What You See Is What You Get." You are offered a template and you are forced to bend your creativity to fit.

Now, anyone in the first category of users--anyone with experience of making web pages, whether by hand in BBEdit, in Dreamweaver, or even just messing with Blogger templates--is going to take one look at the limited page templates available in iWeb and gasp: "That's all?"

Sure, you can tweak these templates. With enough time at your disposal, you can make them look radically different. But it takes a long time, and every change you make to one page will have to be replicated manually across all the others (assuming you want them all to have the same look). There's no way of tweaking a page template and copying those tweaks around.

There are limited preference options

So, unless you have lots of time to spend adjusting the built-in templates, you're stuck with using them. And that might put you off somewhat.

There are 12 themes on offer in this first release of iWeb. All of them look OK from the outset, but there's a marked difference in style when compared to the template offerings from RapidWeaver or Sandvox.

Lots of things that iWeb does will make experienced web users (or web creators) gasp in horror. The code it generates is variously described as "awful," "abhorrent," "a nightmare," and "rather ugly." So, not good then.

In taking the decision to use iWeb, you not only sacrifice artistic creativity, you also lose some control over the structure of your site. You're forced to stick with the all-at-one-level, somewhat idiosyncratic structure chosen by iWeb. You also have to put up with iWeb's insane page URLs (FCE47259-78BA-4B5E-ABF2-F39B93520C85/Blog/16F11A70-848F-4143-A814-36DAA6CDAAB9.html), and huge file sizes (let's hope your site's readers are on broadband). You can mix template styles within a site, but having created a page using one style, there's no way to switch it to a different style without deleting it and starting again.

Then there's publishing. By default, iWeb will only publish direct to a .Mac account, a decision that seems frankly bizarre to me. Sure, they could have added extras that made using .Mac hosting more enticing, but to strike out any other kind of publication except to your own hard disk comes across as simply mean-spirited.

A quick wedding album takes moments

It's only when you actually start building pages in iWeb that you can appreciate its good side. Drag text boxes around, throw in pictures, put the one on top of the other, edit images in situ; you can make things look exactly how you want them to, just so long as you stick within the limits imposed by the application. Your project exists only as a set of instructions until you hit the Publish button; only then is the HTML generated.

There's no edit mode or preview mode. You're always editing, even once you've published the site. Integration with iLife makes adding photo albums, movies, or podcasts incredibly simple.

Despite the rigid site structure, despite the limited templates on offer, despite the output HTML that will make your hair stand on end and the page URLs that will have you reaching for your link-shortening bookmark; despite all these things, iWeb does a good job of making a nice-looking website in no time at all.

And that's what it's for. It's not for expert bloggers who want a change from Moveable Type. It's not for web design aficionados who want to show off their portfolio. It's not for anyone who actually cares more than a jot about the source code behind the scenes.

No, iWeb is for people and projects where speed and simplicity are what counts.

You want a quick online photo gallery to share with your friends? Bam, it's done. You want an instant blog to share movies and photos of your newborn baby with the grandparents? Zap, it's built in less time than it takes to change a diaper. With iWeb, everyone who has always wanted a website can get themselves one with no more challenging task than thinking up something to say.

And that's not to say that iWeb hasn't got something to offer even the geekiest of web professionals. Take author, explorer, cigar smoker, and fellow O'Reilly writer Ben Hammersley, who recently wrote of iWeb:

"Yes, the code is clunky. Yes, the URLs bring me out in hives. No, there are no comments. But there's also no messing around, very little time wasted between knowing what I want on the screen and producing it, and no trouble at all in administering it. I publish to a local folder, and rsync takes care of the rest. Some things I want to customize, others I just want to get the hell out of my way. The whole thing is frictionless--and frictionless tools are what I want this year."

That's it, in a nutshell. If it's frictionless web building you're after, there's nothing much smoother than iWeb.


RapidWeaver is a modal application. Either you're editing, or you're previewing, and things work very differently in each mode.

Rather than offer templates for you to edit like iWeb, RapidWeaver has a set of themes that you can apply to your pages. The difference is subtle but makes working in RapidWeaver very different from working in iWeb.

This time around, there's more flexibility and more chances for you to meddle directly with what's happening under the hood. You can edit raw HTML if you wish, add custom CSS files, mess about with metadata. Almost all of this happens in the Inspector palette.

RapidWeaver's inspector open

The only controls visible in the main working window are modal ones; they switch you between edit and preview modes, open the Themes drawer, and publish your pages when you're done. Everything else is controlled in the Inspector, which has pros and cons.

On the plus side, squeezing all the detail into the Inspector means they can fit in a lot of stuff. You can do anything from change page title attributes, to set a file format and compression level (if appropriate) for images. The negative side is that it's easy to get lost in the Inspector; am I changing the title of just this page, or the whole site? Is this going to affect the navigation menu or not? How do I make that text box disappear?

Some of the things that are intuitive in iWeb might be more of a challenge in RapidWeaver. And because it uses themes, not templates, some aspects of content creation are hard to accomplish. For example, it's easy to drag an image into any styled text area, but impossible to make text wrap round it nicely.

But, the theme approach means that you can re-design an entire site, one comprising hundreds of pages, with a single click in the Themes drawer. The built-in themes are adequate, but there are plenty of third-party themes available at fairly low cost. You could spend a lot of time trying out lots of themes.

And that's one of the most appealing things about RapidWeaver, and why its name is so apt. Having started off with some basic content, you can build something and try it out in all manner of different designs in just a few minutes. The preview mode is very impressive in this respect.

But edit mode is less so. Partly because editing a page takes you into something that looks nothing like that page; you're editing in a form field, and your changes will be reflected once you return to preview mode. It's a mental leap from one to the other that not all users will be comfortable with.

If you can get comfortable with it, though, you'll enjoy it. The weblogging interface is nicely made, works faster than iWeb, and is easier to get your head around than Sandvox. It offers built-in categories, and podcast support, and can save items as drafts.

RapidWeaver makes a nice weblog tool

RapidWeaver lives up to its name. It's rapid. Building a basic website that includes a photo album, well-featured weblog and sundry text pages takes just a few minutes. Having entered all your content, it's quite fun to flick through the various themes and see which one best suits your needs.

It also benefits from being a 3.x version (as of the time of writing, 3.2.1). Many of iWeb's drawbacks are the kind of thing you'd expect to be fixed in future releases, but RapidWeaver's already been through that and its relative maturity is a big attraction.


Having been beaten down once before by Apple's decision to release Sherlock 3, the folks at Karelia software started afresh. Sandvox is the result, and Karelia unfortunately finds itself back at square one, competing directly against iWeb.

Sandvox looks colorful

Sandvox combines elements from both RapidWeaver and iWeb. It's not modal, you edit your web pages directly. It's also template-based, but there are rules you must follow. The templates will only bend so much.

Within them, there are a lot of nice features to play with. As well as the text, photo, and weblog pages common to all these applications, Sandvox introduces the concept of "pagelets," little boxes of fun that can be filled with all sorts of automated or multimedia content. Drag an RSS feed into a Sandvox document and it becomes an RSS pagelet (doing the same thing in iWeb just displays a link to the feed URL).

Sandvox pagelets are useful and potentially powerful

Pagelets can be manipulated with the Sandvox inspector; it's simple to stick them in the sidebar, or add them to the main section of the page as callouts. Recently added pagelets include a contact form (which is transparently processed by Karelia's own server--you don't have to worry about the back end), a link list, and a Flickr badge.

Like RapidWeaver, Sandvox's templates can be applied and changed at any time during the edit process. The supplied templates are nicely made, but I suspect only a few of them will appeal to each user, and you might find that a bit limiting. New templates will emerge, of course, once the Sandvox Developers Kit is released.

Remember, this is still beta code. There are unexpected crashes and some odd behavior, such as times when the Inspector wouldn't allow me to inspect, or times when a new selected design didn't get applied.

Sandvox is very appealing, despite its buggy beta status, because the people who made it have thought of so many neat little extras.

Using the Inspector

Every page can be assigned keywords, every template can be used as a wrapper around your own HTML. The Collections feature, which creates an automated header page gathering together content from other pages, is especially useful and very nicely implemented.

It's an appealing package because the developers have obviously spent some time thinking about real-world uses of their application, and designed features to suit. You can look through the selection of templates and pagelets and instantly think: that one would suit an independent software developer offering downloads; that one is ideal for babyblogging; this one could be used for a corporate web site. Sandvox does a great job of showing you what the end result of your work could be, and of demonstrating the features you might use to achieve it.

For the time being, it shines in terms of features but cannot be used for mission-critical work until it escapes beta.

Final Thoughts

When I started writing this article, I had a number of preconceptions based on previous experiences with RapidWeaver, a built-in suspicion of iWeb, and genuine curiosity about Sandvox. Having played with all three, I now have new opinions about each.

Each of these apps has advantages and disadvantages, and if you have enough time to spend testing all of them, you might be able to pinpoint where each of them is better suited to building a certain kind of website.

If I had to build a fresh new website today, and I had to choose between these apps, I'd probably go for iWeb, despite its long list of annoyances. If Sandvox had already reached final release, that probably would have taken the top spot instead.

And that's not to say RapidWeaver is a bad app; it's not, it's a very polished, usable app with a great deal of power under an apparently simple front end. Personally, though, I found iWeb easier to use. I had to grit my teeth sometimes, though.

Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer and editor. He has been writing on and about the Internet since 1997. He has a web site at

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