GGTS vs. IntelliJ IDEA

For years, I’ve been hearing about the superiority of IntelliJ over Eclipse from its enthusiastic fan base. However, I couldn’t find any evidence to persuade me to switch. I’ve had my frustrations with Eclipse, to be sure. I’d love to find a great replacement for any of my tools. But nobody could give me a clear reason. From its fans, I heard, “It’s just better.” Same endorsement I hear for OS X. And JetBrains’ feature list doesn’t having anything over GGTS. I needed a real reason to switch.

Well, earlier this month I got one. I won an IntelliJ Ultimate license at an LAJUG raffle. I now agree that IntelliJ is better, and I have clear reasons why!

The folks at JetBrains have always had a reputation at being language gurus. They’ve been able to provide support for languages faster than others, and frequently more comprehensively, even for dynamic languages. They’ve even invented a language. While I knew this, I assumed that for Java and Groovy GGTS would be on par due to it’s heritage. Unfortunately, it’s not.

To give you a clear example, I recently generated static scaffolding for a domain class in Grails 2.3. I noticed the controller uses the respond method instead of render, and the respond docs are not comprehensive. I tried opening the declaration to look at the code and it doesn’t work – GGTS has no idea where the code for controller methods reside.

I also tried some static imports of an embedded enum and again, GGTS had issues. Autocomplete (ctrl-space) didn’t work, nor did highlighting. In other parts of the code, it couldn’t locate the declaration for classes where a dynamic finder (e.g., User.findAllByName) was being invoked! In some classes it did work, but overall it was inconsistent. To be clear, there were neither compilation nor runtime errors – the code was fine, and to be honest there wasn’t much of it. This is a pretty new project.

As a test, I decided to import it into IntelliJ. The first attempt failed. I had it import it from Git, then parse the Eclipse project file when that was offered as an option. I was close to giving up as it didn’t even seem to recognize it as a Grails project, and there was no clear way to fix it in the configuration. But instead of giving up, I deleted the project and reimported it, this time ignoring the .project files and letting it discover the Grails nature on it’s own. Much better!

I opened the troublesome controller and noticed everything was properly highlighted, including those pesky enums. It understood the code and could open the declaration of all the classes, even those using a finder (and autocomplete was pretty nice). But best of all, it had no problem opening the declaration of those Grails controller methods like respond and render! This is a big win and clear advantage over GGTS.

I then checked out running/debugging. I’m a big fan of the debugger and had heard that IntelliJ’s method involves attaching to a separately run/managed Tomcat instance. This may have been the case in the past, but I was able to run and debug my Grails app the same way I do with GGTS – right from the IDE with “run-app -https”. No extra hoops to jump through.

Couple things I wish were better with IntelliJ:

  • Key bindings are not mnemonic. I’m sure they can be updated, but the choices strike me as odd.
  • Help window usability is bad, which is odd considering overall usability is good. Examples:
    • mouse scrolling is page-up/down, not smooth scrolling
    • searching highlights phrase – but you can’t turn it off!
    • back/forward buttons have no effect

Considering that help pages are the last refuge of the hopeless, making that a good experience is really important to customer satisfaction.

Couple tips for Eclipse/GGTS/STS users:

  • Search for “CamelHumps” in settings to navigate camel case like Eclipse
  • Play around with the Groovy/Java code style, in particular indentation, to match what you’re used to.


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