Better ASP.Net 2.0 development

One of the big advantages of developing ASP.Net 2.0 Web sites with Visual Studio 2005 or Visual Web Developer Express is that you can accomplish a great deal in design mode by dragging, dropping, and configuring components before manipulating the components programmatically. Microsoft supplies dozens of controls in its Standard and Data toolboxes; it also allows developers to add controls to the Visual Studio toolbox.

When those controls aren't enough, developers can expand their selection third-party offerings. Two of the most prominent control collections for ASP.Net 2.0 are Infragistics NetAdvantage for ASP.Net and telerik r.a.d.controls for ASP.Net. Each includes about 30 controls and supports AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML).

I found both of these control sets to be potentially invaluable for Web developers. Both deliver excellent grid controls, rich edit controls, and a useful assortment of user input controls. Most of the other features balance out, with a few exceptions. Among them, Infragistics offers a significantly more capable chart control, as well as somewhat better documentation.

Taking control

Both NetAdvantage and r.a.d.controls add significant capabilities to Visual Studio 2005 that will allow developers to be more productive. Many of their controls are directly comparable with each other; a few are unique.

Consider the simple but extremely common problem of getting a number in a specific range from the user. Using standard Microsoft controls, you would add a TextBox to your Web form along with a RangeValidator. With NetAdvantage controls, you add a WebNumericEdit control to your Web form, set its DataMode, MinValue, and MaxValue properties, and choose a design preset to match the desired look and feel; this control returns the validated number in the correct type of variable, which, compared with the standard Microsoft controls, can save quite a bit of time programming validators.

Using r.a.d.controls, which lacks a specific input control for numbers, you add a RadMaskedTextBox control to your Web form and either set its Mask property to the maximum number of digits or set a NumericRange into its Mask property. The final capabilities are very similar here; in fact, NetAdvantage has a

WebMaskEdit control that uses the same approach as the RadMaskedTextBox. Overall, however, I find the NetAdvantage approach to user input controls a little more convenient because it has controls that have already been typed and customized for editing numbers, dates, currency, and percentages.

As for allowing the user to edit RTF or HTML with spell checking, the standard Microsoft Web controls fall down completely, and these two products pick up the slack. Using NetAdvantage, you drag a WebHtmlEditor and a WebSpellChecker to your form, configure the editor style, set a property in the WebHtmlEditor to connect the two, and set another to activate a SpellCheck button. The WebHtmlEditor and WebSpellChecker are recent additions to NetAdvantage, but they are very competitive with their telerik counterparts.

Using telerik's offering, you drag a r.a.d.editor control to your form, and the r.a.d.spell component will be activated automatically. The recently "AJAX-ified" r.a.d.editor is quite mature, boasts improved performance, and can spell-check in multiple languages. As a new capability, r.a.d.spell offers a .Net API that can be used from Web services, WinForms applications, and AJAX callbacks.

Both the WebHtmlEditor and r.a.d.editor provide a full set of editing toolbars. Overall, however, I slightly prefer telerik's Rich Text editor and spell checker to Infragistics's.

Chart your course

The standard Microsoft controls don't cover charting; NetAdvantage and r.a.d.controls again pick up the slack, both offering grids, menus, tree controls, tab strips, toolbars, panels, date pickers, and calendars. Between the two sets,

NetAdvantage's UltraChart has more mature and capable chart control over r.a.d.chart. UltraChart displays more than a dozen types of 3-D charts and a couple dozen types of 2-D charts, allowing for multiple linear and logarithmic axes, multiple layers and areas, annotations, and most of the features needed for financial, scientific, and engineering charts. One of the very few chart types I've used in my work that's missing from UltraChart is a triangular line/spline chart, used for representing ternary phase diagrams.

As far as charts go, telerik provides just enough functionality for simple business charts. The r.a.d.chart control displays 2-D point, line, bar, area, pie, spline, Bezier, Gantt, and bubble charts, with one set of axes. The telerik set also has a ticker and a rotator, as well as a docking manager. Also included is a bunch of controls for enabling AJAX for visual components that don't support it themselves; these are very useful integration tools.

On the other hand, the Infragistics set is compatible with the Microsoft Atlas AJAX framework. It also has a calculation manager for implementing a subset of Excel's numeric capabilities, useful for implementing online calculations without writing a lot of code.

One of the most powerful data controls that Microsoft supplies in ASP.Net 2.0 is the GridView. I have built useful Web sites with little more than a SqlDataSource, a GridView, a populated SQL database, and a few SQL queries and property settings. The GridView is such an improvement over the older DataGrid that I was concerned that third-party vendors such as telerik and Infragistics would have trouble keeping up.

I needn't have worried. Not only have Infragistics and telerik added AJAX functionality to speed the performance of their grids; they've added other useful functionality -- in fact, a lot of useful functionality.

NetAdvantage's UltraWebGrid has Outlook-style grouping by columns, target URLs for cells, flexible row numbering, cell merging, drag-and-drop column moving, XML-style presets, client-side sorting, AJAX sorting, multicolumn sorting, client-side cell editing, masked column formatting, and the ability to use WebDataInput, WebCombo, and WebDateChooser controls as cell editors, column footers, multicolumn headers, and hierarchical data display. Other performance optimizations include AJAX data load on demand, a variety of deferred data-scrolling strategies, an UpdateRow event that works with load on demand, AJAX data paging, AJAX type-ahead, and AJAX and client-side row filtering.

For its part, r.a.d.grid has many of the same capabilities, as well as dedicated checkbox, drop-down list, and text editors for grid columns. It appears that the UltraWebGrid might have some lazy data load options that r.a.d.grid lacks, and it might be a little easier to migrate from a GridView to a r.a.d.grid than to an UltraWebGrid. Still, I'm not entirely sure that either difference matters much in practice. I call this area a tie.

NetAdvantage also includes a Web scheduler, with recurring appointments and a notification service, and Web tabs support delayed data load. In addition to an upload control, r.a.d.controls contains a Window control, which is useful for creating dialogs with the user without triggering a popup blocker.

Both packages can be examined online as example Web pages with source code; you can also access their documentation. The products' respective samples are both quite good; as for documentation, Infragistics has a slight edge. Additionally, I have found both companies offer great support.

Pricing on these two products is similar enough not to be a factor in choosing one over the other. I like to be able to see the source code for third-party controls that I buy, which would favor NetAdvantage over r.a.d.controls for small purchases. It wouldn't matter for purchases of five or more units, however.

Fierce competition

Notably, these two ASP.Net control collections have plenty of competition.

Syncfusion Essential Studio has 11 component libraries for Windows Forms and eight for ASP.Net;

ComponentArt Web.UI has 13 controls.

DeveloperExpress combines dozens of ASP.Net and WinForms controls into a variety of product and subscription packages.

ComponentOne Studio Enterprise has 10 ASP.Net 2.0 components, as well as some for WinForms, mobile devices, and ActiveX.

Additionally, there's PowerWEB for ASP.Net, a collection of AJAX-enabled controls.

Nevron .Net Vision includes user interface components, diagramming, and charting for ASP.Net and Windows Forms.

SoftwareFX ChartFX and Dundas Chart for .Net compete with the charting components of NetAdvantage and r.a.d.controls.

Both Infragistics NetAdvantage for ASP.Net and telerik r.a.d.controls for ASP.Net will boost productivity and improve the robustness of the resulting Web site. Either one could easily return its investment in a few weeks of serious ASP.Net development. Frankly, you can't go far wrong choosing either one, although given its superior chart capabilities and documentation, I'd have to give the nod to NetAdvantage.

On the other hand, every development shop has its own needs. I'd encourage you to play with each company's samples on the Web, look at the source code, download and work with the trial packages, and make your own decision.

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