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The free tools I use to build PHP and MySQL websites

In the past 14 years, I have used a bunch of free software to build PHP and MySQL driven websites on my Windows machine and successfully deployed to and run on Linux based web hosts. My only cost so far is web hosting and a little bit advertising, not to say I have had fun time learning and coding in PHP and MySQL.

I have done that and you can do it too! Here is a list of free, Windows based tools I have been using to code, test, and maintain a PHP and MySQL based website.

1. 7-Zip - Free file archiving software

7-Zip is a free but powerful file archiver with a high compression ratio. 7-Zip is open source software. You can use it on any computer (including commercial organizations). 7-Zip supports (both compressing and decompressing) a number of archive formats, including (but not limited to) the popular zip, rar, tar, gz format.

2. HashCalc - download validation utility

Most serious software creators provide hash values for the software made available for free download on the internet. It is essential that you verify the validity of the download against the hash value provided by the software creator. This is to make sure that the software you downloaded is identical to the one provided by the creator and so has not been tampered in anyway.

HashCalc is a fast and easy-to-use calculator that allows to compute checksum values and HMACs for files, as well as for text and hex strings. It offers a choice of 13 of the most popular hash and checksum algorithms for calculations.

3. PHP - the scripting language for creating dynamic web pages

PHP is a the most popular scripting language for creating dynamic web sites (and it's open source). It's so popular because of its function based approach to coding. There are no complex class structures like other languages that force you to dig into multiple levels in the classes just to accomplish a simple task. PHP is also reliable and Yahoo! has chosen PHP as its official web development language.

To download and install PHP, follow the steps in this article How to install PHP on Windows as part of WAMP installation.

4. PHP Manual

PHP Manual is in Windows Help File format and is handy for search and bookmarking. Another great feature is that, for topics in the manual, there are tons of extremely useful user contributed notes. Because the manual is locally installed on your computer, you don't need to browse to internet to view these notes.

Another benefit of installing PHP Manual locally is that you can integrate it with code editor. For more info, refer to How to integrate PHP Manual with Crimson Editor for context help.

5. MySQL

With MySQL, you can build database driven websites very quickly. PHP works extremely well with MySQL. I have written a few articles on how to install and configure MySQL:

6. MySQL Reference Manual.

MySQL Reference Manual comes with styles in HTML, PDF, and CHM. I always use CHM version as you can search, view index, and easily browse the table of contents. Make sure you download the help file for the right MySQL version(s) you are after.

7. SQLyog

SQLyog free Community Edition is a MySQL query analyzing tool. It's similar to Microsoft SQL Server Query Analyzer. The community edition of SQLyog is sufficient for developing a professional website.

8. Apache web server

With Apache, you can run websites locally on your computer. Read the following articles on how to install and configure Apache web server:

9. Microsoft SMTP Server

Microsoft SMTP Server can be used to send out emails from PHP. For development purpose, I always send emails to my local directory (displayed as .eml file) rather than actually sending out the email onto internet. SMTP Server comes with Windows and can be installed by going to Settings -> Control Panel -> Add or Remove Programs -> Add/Remove Windows Components

Read my article How to use PHP and Microsoft SMTP Virtual Server to send emails on Windows to understand more about using Microsoft SMTP Server with PHP.

10. Crimson Editor - a professional source code editor for Windows.

After tried a few text editors in the past, I've ultimately settled down with Crimson Editor for more than 4 years. It has provided me with fast and professional results. I code nearly everything in Crimson Editor, but mainly including PHP, HTML, Javascript, CSS, and SQL (you should always code SQL in SQLyog before pasting it into your PHP file).

What's so good about Crimson Editor? There are a few features that I like the most.

  • Highlight active line in light yellow background color.
  • Quickly jump to last edited position by pressing Ctrl key and \ key (the one above Enter key).
  • Unlimited undo and redo.
  • Window splitter (Window -> Split) to see different parts of a document.
  • Find & Replace.
  • Bookmark and toggling between bookmarks.
  • A good replacement for Notepad.
  • Press F1 key to bring up PHP Help Manual for the keyword where cursor is at. Refer to article How to integrate PHP Manual with Crimson editor.
  • Line numbering (View -> Line Numbers) and Go To any line numbers (Search -> Go To...).
  • Syntax highlighting: configurable and preconfigured for more than 100 computer languages.
  • Switch between all open files or using file selection tab. Short-cut key Ctrl+Tab brings the last accessed document to topmost.

There are still a lot more useful features with Crimson but the above lists the ones I use most often.

11. NotePad2 - a light-weight, free and open source Notepad-like text editor.

Notepad is probably the most popular text editor, but frequently we need a more powerful Notepad-like editor. Notepad2 is such an editor that comes with extra useful features such as:

  • Syntax highlighting for a few commonly used languages
  • Line numbering
  • UNIX line ending support
  • Unlimited Undo/Redo
  • Regular Expression search
  • Ability to zoom in and zoom out
  • Supports text files that are encoded for Unicode, UTF-8, Unix and Mac.
  • No installation is required and so it does not touch your system's registry.
  • ...

12. FileZilla Client - FTP tool to upload files to your website

FileZilla Client is a free, reliable, and open source FTP client software with cross-platform support for as many features as possible. If you maintain a website, you need a FTP client software to upload files to your website and download files from your website to your local computer, FileZilla Client is such a tool. It gets updated very frequently by the creator and I haven't seen any problems with it for years.

13. ExamDiff - Visual File Comparison Tool.

ExamDiff is a freeware Windows 95/98/Me/NT/2000/XP/2003/Vista tool for visual file comparison.

I often need to compare different versions of the same PHP file to see what code I have changed between the versions or in the past few days. ExamDiff comes in handy in this regard even though it cannot compare directories or binary files.

Here are the features that I like the most.

  • Remembers recent files in pairs that were compared so you don't have to browse to them every time.
  • Auto re-compare files when any of the two files have been modified outside of ExamDiff.
  • Colored highlighting for differences: green for added lines, red for deleted lines, and blue for changed lines.
  • Go to next difference (Ctrl + N).
  • One button click to show only differences in the two files.

14. Color Picker

Color Picker is a free and nice little stand-alone (no installation required) software that allows you to find colors you need for a website. You can choose the color in a ColorDialog or pick a color from the screen.

Here is the screenshot of the Color Picker.

15. Agent Ransack - file and content searching utility.

Agent Ransack is must-must-have tool for finding files and information on your hard drive fast and efficiently.

I certainly can't remember all the code I have written and have no interests to memorize any particular code. But I can definitely recall if I have coded something similar before and roughly where about to find that piece of code. This is when I need Agent Ransack. It searches a particular directory for either filenames or content of all the files in this directory and sub-directories. Contents View in the right pane displays the content that are found within the selected file in the left pane.

Here is the screenshot of the Agent Ransack.

16. Microsoft Paint - simple image creation and editing

I often need to take a screenshot of an image on my monitor. The easiest way is to use Print Screen key on your keyboard and then paste it to Microsoft Paint.

Microsoft Paint has been included with almost all versions of Microsoft Windows since its first release. Paint is a simple graphics painting program you can use to create simple or elaborate drawings. You can also use Paint to work with pictures, such as .jpg, .gif, or .bmp files.

Paint is very light weight and can be opened very quickly. I often use it to paste screenshots captured by Print Screen (the key on your keyboard) and edit the images afterwards. It can accomplish simple tasks such as crop part of an image, draw a line or shape around the image, fill area with color, or erase some colors in the image.

If you are a professional graphic designer, you can use open source and free graphic editing and authoring software GIMP. In many aspects, GIMP can rival PhotoShop. GIMP is a freely distributed piece of software for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition and image authoring. It works on many operating systems.

Another professional-quality and free Windows based graphic editing software is Paint.NET. It features an intuitive and innovative user interface with support for layers, unlimited undo, special effects, and a wide variety of useful and powerful tools.

17. Firefox

You should expect people to view your website in different browsers. That's why you need to download and install some popular web browsers such as Firefox. A web page that looks perfectly done may look stretched miles away in Firefox. So make sure you always test you pages in both Internet Explorer and Firefox.

18. Firebug - a Firefox add-on for debugging JavaScript, HTML, and CSS

Firebug is a free and open source development tool set. Firebug integrates with Firefox to put a wealth of web development tools at your fingertips while you browse. You can edit, debug, and monitor CSS, HTML, and JavaScript live in any web page.

  • Debug and profile JavaScript
  • Quickly find errors
  • Explore the Javascript DOM (Document Object Model)
  • Execute JavaScript on the fly
  • Logging for JavaScript
  • Inspect and edit HTML
  • Tweak CSS to perfection
  • Visualize CSS metrics
  • Monitor network activity

19. Firebug Lite - an add-on for IE, Opera, Safari web browser

Firebug Lite is an extension for Internet Explorer, Opera, and Safari. You can edit, debug, and monitor CSS, HTML, and JavaScript live in any web page opened in these browsers.

20. KeePass - must-have password manager to manage your username and password more securely

KeePass is a free/open-source password manager or safe which helps you to manage your passwords in a secure way. You can put all your passwords in one database, which is locked with one master key or a key-disk. So you only have to remember one single master password or insert the key-disk to unlock the whole database.

I use KeePass everyday and it manages all my login credentials. That's why I devoted a series of articles introducing all the great features of KeePass Free Password Manager KeePass - a feature rich, free, very secure, and easy-to-use.

21. Backup and synchronize your files and folders

It's important you always backup your website in its entirety - including all files and folders.

I have been using SyncBack Freeware for a few years. SyncBack is a program used to back-up, restore, and synchronize files and directories, whether they be on a local drive, a network drive, an FTP server, a ZIP archive, or on removable media.

SyncBack Freeware is a multi award winning freeware and is free for personal, educational, charity, government, and commercial use.

Microsoft also provides a simple and free synchronization solution Microsoft SyncToy but it's not as powerful as SyncBack.

22. Keep revision history

SyncBack does not keep revision history copies of the files you modified - that's not what SyncBack is designed to do. If it is critical for you to track all revision history of changes you made on your files, you will want to use a revision control software. If you are a serious developer, you may want to check out Wikipedia article Wikipedia's list of revision control software. For me, I haven't installed any version control software on my home PC so I'll leave that to you to decide.

Here comes to the end of my list of free tools for building PHP and MySQL driven websites. This is definitely not a list that will suit everyone's needs but it has served mine extremely well in the last 14 years.

Happy Coding!


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