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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

I tend to recommend that new Java coders not use Eclipse. Even though it's the most popular Java IDE, it has the steepest learning curve and the most potential for confusion, both in daily use and when maintaining the IDE. The many perspectives and views offer all sorts of functionality, but switching from one perspective to another can be jarring and disturb your flow.

Eclipse has the largest plugin ecosystem of any IDE, and also the greatest tendency to become unusable because of the installation of an incompatible set of plugins. Sadly, I've had to delete my broken Eclipse installation and start over with an official distribution bundle at least half a dozen times over the years. At this point, I always start fresh when a new Eclipse "release train" comes out in June.

NetBeans is good enough for most people, and has a nice profiler. I use it in a pinch, but I still prefer IntelliJ IDEA Ultimate.

For new Java coders without a budget for tools, the choice is between NetBeans and IntelliJ IDEA Community Edition. If you're coding Java servers with little or no budget for tools, then NetBeans might be the better choice, unless you fall into a category that would entitle you to a free or discounted copy of IntelliJ IDEA Ultimate, such as being a student or working on an open source project.

Lightweight Java IDEs

While most people do best developing Java with IntelliJ, NetBeans, or Eclipse, there are still cases where you might want a lightweight IDE, or even a programming editor such as Sublime Text, emacs, or vim that has Java plugin support.

Assuming that you really do want a lightweight IDE, consider these reasonable options:

  • DrJava is a free lightweight development environment for writing Java programs. Designed for student use at Rice University, it currently has over two million downloads. DrJava is intended to foster test-driven software development. It includes an intelligent program editor, an interactions pane for evaluating program text, a source level debugger, and a unit testing tool.
  • BlueJ is a free Java development environment designed for beginners at the University of Kent. It is supported by Oracle. BlueJ has a deliberately smaller and simpler interface than professional environments like NetBeans or Eclipse, and there is an introductory college textbook about learning OOP with BlueJ.
  • JCreator is a lightweight Java IDE for Windows, written in C++ for performance reasons. The paid Pro version has a debugger, Ant support, and code wizards; the free LE version does not.
  • Eclipse Che is a browser- and cloud-based IDE and developer workspace server. Che supports Java along with C++, JavaScript, Python, PHP, Ruby, and SQL.

Project-based tips for choosing a Java IDE


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