Tom’s top 3… free upgrades for Visual Studio 2017

In a brief break from the ConTabs series, today I’d like to share my three favourite (free) ways to enhance Visual Studio. FiraCode and Solarized will make your code look great, as well as easier to read. Productivity Power Tools is an awesome collection of 15 extensions that each make Visual Studio that little bit better.

As I’ve written before, I believe it’s important to invest in a working environment that lets you do your best work. Whereas my last post on this subject focused on my choice of peripherals, this time I’ve decided to shine some light on some freebies that make my digital workspace more pleasant.

1. Productivity Power Tools for VS 2017

First up is Productivity Power Tools for 2017. Including this as a single item is cheating really, as it’s actually 15 extensions bundled together in a single convenient package. Whilst they are all available to download individually, bundling them up like this makes it a no-brainer.

I won’t go through all 15 extensions here (see the Visual Studio Blog post for that), but I will quickly cover my favourite three. (Did someone say “recursion”?)

  1. Align assignments. Such a silly thing, but you won’t look back. This extension allows you to quickly align assignment statements so that the equals signs all line up. When I’m working on someone else’s machine, this is (bizarrely) the thing I find myself missing: I’ll be writing out a multi-line object initialiser, will instinctively hit Ctrl+Alt+], and be disappointed when it doesn’t magically snap into alignment. Then, when I install this and show them – “POW!” – they never look back.
  2. Custom Document Well. By “well”, the developers of this extension are referring to the tab bar that holds all your open documents in VS 2017. There are loads of features in this one, but I’ll resist the urge to do another “top 3” here. Basically, if you’ve ever wanted to colour-code your tabs or arrange them some particular way, this is the extension for you.
  3. Fix Mixed Tabs. It does one thing, but it does it well. If a document you’re working on has a mix of tabs and spaces for indentation, this extension will unobtrusively ask if you’d like it to fix it. Really handy if you occasionally collaborate with people who prefer another (read: “wrong”) style.

These three alone make it worth your while to install the bundle, but there are 12 others I’ve not mentioned. It’s free, so why not give it a go?

Download link.

2. Fira Code

This next suggestion may seem like eye-candy, but I prefer to think of it as an “ergonomic font” for developers. Fira Code is a monospaced font that features ligatures for the sort of multi-character symbols we like to litter throughout our code. “What’s a ligature?” I hear you ask. Put simply, a ligature is the joining of two characters into a single symbol.

In this case, a picture is worth a thousand words:

Comparison of symbols rendered with and without ligatures

Fira Mono on the left, Fira Code on the right

Notice how a soup of characters are transformed into a set of instantly grokkable symbols? The ligatures are helping with spacing and visual parsing, making code easier to scan. As someone who primarily codes in C#, the ligatures I find most helpful are those for => and !=.

Download link.

3. Solarized colour scheme for VS 2017

Again, this one may seem easy to dismiss as visual fluff, but the Solarized colour theme is actually a scientifically designed “precision colour scheme”. Available in either light or dark flavours, Solarized is gentle on the eyes whilst offering a range of accent colours. It does look stylish, but that’s missing the point.

Image “borrowed” from the official repo.

Looks great, right? I prefer the light theme, as I tend to code in well-lit environments. Interestingly though, the foreground colours are balanced to contrast equally against both the dark and light background colours.

Ready to do your eyes a favour? Well, you’re in luck! Solarized is now available for Visual Studio 2017.

Wrapping up

Taken together, these enhancements make Visual Studio 2017 – already a great IDE – even better. They’re all free, so give them a go. I hope they make your coding that little bit more pleasant.

Visual Studio 207 with Fira Code, Solarized (light), and Productivity Power Tools.

Since I spend most of my time coding in Visual Studio, I’ve tailored these tips to that environment, but FiraCode and Solarized can be used in a wide variety of editors. In fact, I have Notepad++ set up to use them.

Got a favourite extension / enhancement for Visual Studio? Let me know in the comments.

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