[ See important note at bottom of this topic. ]
The cornerstone of web design is your HTML editor. It's the tool that you're in front of most of the time and the one which pulls all your design elements together and shows you what your audience will later see. It's important that you are comfortable with it and that you can trust it.
It wouldn't be prudent of me to suggest you use any specific editor. I personally cut my teeth on Adobe PageMill which I felt extremely comfortable with. For good reason I later abandoned it for FrontPage 2000. There are some half dozen very popular editors today and the reasons you would choose one over another are quite diverse.
Considerations for choosing any specific editor include:
What I prefer to do is tell you what I like and don't like about FrontPage 2000 since that's what I've chosen for now. I'll be somewhat generic so that you can compare these features to other editors. I've listed a few leading editors and given you links to their publishers' webs sites. Later, I'll provide links to various information sources where you can read reviews. If this all seems overwhelming to you, I will guardedly recommend FrontPage 2000 and provide a few caveats.
I abandoned PageMill because it was quirky, did not support the newer technologies, was mired in HTML 3.2, and most important, Adobe had no intent to support it, instead embracing a product called 'Go Live'. I don't appreciate abandonment and was determined to adopt an editor which had some 'teeth', was mainstream, and was published by a company that would likely stay with it. When Microsoft offered a FrontPage 2000 evaluation CD for $5.00, I grabbed it.
HTML specifications are not created by Netscape, Microsoft, Mosaic, or any special interest. They are created by the Worldwide Web Consortium and they try to set standards, say for HTML Level 4, but they cannot force the software publishers to adhere to the specs, but instead, these specs serve as guidelines. The result has been varying interpretations and incompatibilities. This is a web designer's nightmare and a reason why I appreciated the compatibility options of 'FP2000'. It's also a substantial reason why we should test our web sites with a variety of browsers.
I like a WYSIWYG editor that makes extensive use of drag and drop technology. This makes it easier to insert graphics, create links, and other things. FP2000 could do more here, but instead offers dialogues as much or more than drag and drop. To its credit, the dialogues are thorough and contain many labor saving options like re-specifying an image's size and specifying a 'target' for a link. Also, FrontPage's automatic spell checking is a real asset and certainly helps me forgive some things it lacks.
Of considerable importance to me, FP2000 offers extensive administrative functions to help manage web objects. It is easy to determine 'dead objects', that is, graphics and pages which are there but never linked to. We can verify hyperlinks both internal to the web and external. We can select any page and see the pages and other objects it links to. These and many more features like it are available in FP2000's 'Reports' section.
Regarding Front Page Server extensions, my own opinion is that they're overrated. They support the insertion of canned routines (called 'components') to do things like run a hit counter, search a web site on keywords, store forms' data in a server file for batch retrieval or manipulation, and other features. The price to pay here is that your server must support these extensions (available on UNIX as well at NT) and I don't want my pages committed to this support. CGI scripts can be obtained to do things like this. To Microsoft's credit they allow the designer to opt against this feature, in which case certain pull-down selections are 'grayed out'.
In the area of image editing, several important features are provided to make use of images much easier. My favorite is making a GIF file transparent by a single click of the mouse after selecting the appropriate tool from an onscreen image toolbar. Double clicking an image placed on the page brings up the image editing program of the user's designation, with Image Composer (supplied as a no-cost feature to FP2000) initially the default. An image inserted from somewhere else on your hard drive (or CD-ROM) brings you the opportunity to save a copy of it into your web, at the time you save the page containing it.
Web Publishing is also a feature of FP2000 and most good HTML editors. I don't tend to use the built-in HTTP or FTP publishing option because of their limitations. The HTTP method requires the Server Extensions, and the FTP method is very limiting and awkward to use. (See the topic Web Publishing.) I prefer a full function dedicated FTP program like Ipswich's WS_FTP Pro.
So, all in all, you must decide what HTML editor you will use, and that should be your first order of business if you're going to design webs. If you can't make up your mind or don't want to expend the effort, then trust me and get FP2000. It's very rich in function, easy to use, easy to learn for basic things, and comes with support for web building features call Themes, Shared Borders and Navigation Bars. My section called Web Theme Samples will impress you.
A major negative of FrontPage 2000 is its insistence on creating hidden drectories called '_vti_cnf' in every directory of your web. These hidden directories contain 1K shortcuts on a 1 for 1 basis with the files in your web. This consumes an enormous amount of disk space on your hard drive and on your server, especially if you already have a lot of 'normal' files, and it can dramatically protract the FTP time and local backup time. I will sometimes use Windows' 'find' facility and locate all these directories and delete them en masse. Next time I use FrontPage, he rebuilds them anyway.
So ... my mission here has absolutely not been to sell you FrontPage 2000. In 6 months I may be using Dreamweaver or something else. But, you have a right to expect your HTML editor to be rich in function, state of the art, fairly priced, and supported by the vendor. Above all, it must 'feel good' to you. So far FrontPage 2000 offers me all this.
You can find many product reviews on HTML editors at PC Magazine Online, Windows Magazine, PC World Online and Home Office Computing The 6 editors shown at the top of this page are by no means an exhaustive list, but you'll see them mentioned frequently in the reviews.
Note: A very nice HTML 4.0 Reference Summary was added to the topic Reference Material [HTML]. It can be viewed right here on the web site or you can download your own.