Most recent update: 13 Jul 2021
Whether you’re a programming novice or veteran, you’ve probably encountered some kind of integrated development environment (IDE). Some IDEs are built for one language, like C++, while others support multiple languages.
In this article, we’ll look at the top IDEs for C++, all which you can start using today.
But before we can do that, let’s first explain what we mean by an IDE.
What is an IDE and Why is it useful?
An IDE is a coding environment that includes both an editor and a language-specific toolchain. A typical IDE allows the user to edit source code and build executables. A good IDE has the editor and the additional tools set up in such a way as to make a developer more productive.
IDEs have built-in functions like debugging, auto-completion, compilation, and syntax highlighting, all of which make programming easier and faster. For example, hitting a keyboard shortcut to compile and run a C++ project is much more convenient than switching to a terminal emulator, running multiple commands on the command line, and switching back to the editor to locate a specific line causing an error..IDEs can be great time-savers for seasoned C++ developers. Newer programmers can benefit from IDEs because they simplify the development toolchain, provide an appealing user interface, and are great learning environments. The best IDEs may vary per language, so let’s look specifically into the best C++ IDEs.
Top C++ IDEs in 2021
In this section, we cover five top C++ IDEs. We only include IDEs that are both suitable for C++ development and available free of charge to individual users.
1. Visual Studio
Visual Studio is a full-featured C++ IDE that allows developers to build C++ and C# apps. It is available on both Windows and macOS; there’s no Linux version.
This IDE has everything you’ll need to develop a project, including deployment tools, database integration, server setup, and more. Visual Studio includes code completion, but it’s not your typical IDE auto-completion tool. Rather, it leverages a powerful component called IntelliSense, which uses language semantics and your own source code to offer suggestions.
Visual Studio is considered the ultimate IDE by many developers, but it comes at a cost:to run Visual Studio you’ll need a powerful Windows development machine, and, if you intend to build commercial C++ applications you’ll need to purchase a Visual Studio license.
Visual Studio: Pros and Cons Summarized
- A smart editor that’s immensely helpful
- Fast debugging
- Powerful testing features
- Performance can be slow on old hardware
- Potentially complex to get started
Eclipse is a popular open-source IDE that you can use to develop C++ applications using Eclipse’s C/C++ development tools. This IDE is multiplatform and can run on Windows, Linux, and macOS. It will allow you to debug and compile your code as well as get auto-completion for your code while editing. Eclipse also features an interface with drag-and-drop functionality, remote project management, and ready-made code templates.
Eclipse: Pros and Cons Summarized
- Free and open-source
- Many plugins available for other languages like Java and additional functionality like static code analysis
- Can require lots of resources (both CPU and RAM) on large projects
- Not very stable — it may occasionally crash on large projects
- Somewhat outdated UI
NetBeans is an open-source IDE for building applications in C++. Like Eclipse, it offers multiplatform support, fast code completion, and development tools on remote hosts, allowing you to create, debug, and execute projects from your client system.
The NetBeans IDE is particularly user-friendly, going beyond the normal auto-indentation, syntax highlighting, bracket matching, refactoring, and formatting that most IDEs offer and implements features like code folding, templates, and a useful project window. It also comes integrated with the multi-session gdb debugger, useful for those who prefer it for debugging.
Netbeans: Pros and Cons Summarized
- Free and open-source
- Customizable keyboard shortcuts
- Clear and simple UI
- Occasionally slow performance
- Potentially requires lots of memory
4. Visual Studio Code
While Visual Studio Code (or VS Code; not to be confused with Visual Studio) is not formally a C++ IDE, it’s perhaps the best known open-source code editor for a wide variety of languages, and it can act as an IDE with the right extensions.
This developer-environment tool also offers multiplatform support and is excellent for those seeking customization and a high degree of flexibility.
Instead of a project orientation, VS Code is organized around a file system. What it lacks in that regard it makes up for with other features, such as a built-in command-line interface and a Git integration that allows for pulling, committing, and publishing code using a simple GUI.
VS Code also boasts a rich ecosystem of plugins and tools, has smart code completion, code refactoring, and snippets. It supports numerous extensions that bring in new functionality, such as other languages and new themes. With VS Code, you can manage multiple versions of a program with ease.
Visual Studio Code: Pros and Cons Summarized
- Open-source, free to use
- Rich plugin ecosystem
- Fast interface
- Many plugins are third-party developed and don’t work well
- The UI could use modernization
Code::Blocks is an open-source C++ IDE that also supports compiling, debugging, code coverage, profiling, and auto-completion of code. Like Eclipse, its interface lets you arrange elements by simply dragging and dropping.
Code::Blocks works on Windows, Linux, and macOS. The IDE supports multiple compilers, so if you’re looking to work with a particular compiler, this is an IDE for you to consider.
Code::Blocks: Pros and Cons Summarized
- Intuitive and fast interface
- Multiple compilers supported
- Not all plugins perform well
- Relatively few plugins available (e.g., compared to VS Code)
- The UI could use updating
C++ IDEs: Honorable Mentions
Certain IDEs can be a good fit for some developers, but did not make our list — either because they’re not free to use or are limited to only a few platforms. Three such IDEs make up our honorable mentions.
Created by Jetbrains, CLion (pronounced sea-lion) is a cross-platform C++ IDE that supports macOS, Linux, and Windows and is integrated with the CMake build system. CLion offers you much in the way of user-friendliness: testing individual units of source code, running and debugging code with ease, customizations, project management, code analysis, and auto-formatting are just some of its features that make coding easy and fast. This IDE also lets you analyze your application’s performance.
We didn’t include this IDE in our top five as it does not have a free version.
Qt Creator is a powerful C++ IDE that integrates tightly with the Qt framework for interface creation. Qt Creator supports all major OS platforms. It offers debugging, compilation, profiling, auto-completion of code, and refactoring. It’s also exceptionally fast and intuitive to use.
Qt Creator is a commercial product, and although you can download its open-source edition, you’re expected to contribute to the Qt project as a token of appreciation.
Xcode is a C/C++, Objective-C and Swift IDE for macOS. It contains most, if not all, of the features you’ll find in the other IDEs, and it can also integrate with Apple’s online developer services like iTunes Connect.
Xcode is only available on macOS, so it won’t be a fit for all users. In addition, many of the Xcode use cases are optimized for building macOS and iOS apps, and it’s not easy to configure a C++ project to correctly build from scratch in this IDE.
Pitfalls of Using a C++ IDE
Perhaps the biggest danger in using any IDE is failing to understand the toolchain — the set of tools used in sequence to compile and run source code. Here’s a brief overview of the C++ toolchain, which you should keep in mind to avoid confusion when using an IDE.
When your C++ source code is ready to be compiled, it’s run through a compiler. The compiler turns the C++ code that’s relatively easy for humans to understand into machine code. Of course, machine code is much harder to read and write for developers, but it’s the only type of code that your computer’s central processing unit (CPU) knows how to execute.
Once the file is compiled, or translated into machine code, the program needs to be linked. During the linking process, all references to libraries and frameworks are replaced by the locations of those referenced files on the filesystem.
At that point, our program is ready to be run.
Complicated, isn’t it? Since IDEs are fully outfitted to assist you in developing and running your entire program, they hide certain steps from you, the developer. This abstraction saves developers a lot of time, but using an IDE without knowing what’s going on inside can increase your chances of running into errors while programming.
IDE Alternatives: Text Editor and Command Line
If you prefer something lighter than a C++ IDE, text editors and command-line interfaces offer an alternative for developing in C++. These tools are often oriented around files and don’t provide the functionality to support across-the-board management of a project. Instead, they’re used primarily for simply editing code. Let’s go over some of the most popular IDE alternatives.
Both Linux and macOS come equipped with the Vim editor. Typically, Vim runs inside your terminal window. But if you’d like to run it as a standalone program, you can download MacVim for Mac, or gVim for Linux. With the right extensions, Vim can become a full-fledged IDE, so it’s a great option for beginners who want to stick with one editor on their journey toward expert status.
Like an IDE, Vim has tabs that let you work with several files simultaneously. One of Vim’s best features is an interactive command-line tutorial called vimtutor. To run it, simply type “vimtutor” in your terminal. Admittedly, learning Vim shortcuts can take a while, but in the long run, the efficiency you gain in editing code is worth it.
Sublime Text is a commercial cross-platform source code editor best known for its speed and efficiency. Besides its incredible performance on even very large files and its convenient editing, its customization is right up there with VS Code. Sublime Text can also auto-generate a project-wide index of every function, method and class within your source code. Its downside is that while you can use it for free in evaluation mode, you do need to buy a license to use Sublime Text’s development versions.
The Emacs editor is available for Linux, Windows and Mac. Like Vim, Emacs offers numerous extensions that can turn the editor into a complete C++ IDE. Emacs has more features compared to Vim, but more functionality means that Emacs can be harder to use for beginners. Vim has more straightforward key bindings than Emacs.
Learn C++ Online
In this article, we looked at some of the popular IDEs for C++. Most of them have features like code completion, syntax highlighting, debugging, and refactoring. Programmers looking to develop an application on a certain platform will prefer one over the others. We also discussed the danger in not understanding toolchains, and went over some highly customizable text editors as alternatives to full-fledged IDEs.
Getting started with any of our listed IDEs or text editors is a great strategy if you want to develop your C++ skills. As you get your feet wet with C++ IDEs, we recommend simultaneously learning the language itself from a reputable source so you can make the most of your project development. If you’re interested in becoming a C++ developer, enroll in Udacity’s C++ Nanodegree program.