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iThemes Review: Enormous Control, Easy to Use, Average Design

iThemes

Cory Miller, founder of iThemes
Cory Miller, founder of iThemes

Headquarted in the Oklahoma City, Oklahoma area, iThemes was started in January of 2008 by Cory Miller, a former journalist. The company currently employs over twenty people.

In addition to iThemes, Miller has also founded WebDesign.com (a training site) and co-founded TheDiv.org – “a nonprofit tech foundation aimed at inspiring and training the next generation of web developers through its kid’s program, Div Jr.”

Miller has authored or co-authored a number of books, including WordPress All-in-One for Dummies (2011).

iThemes is also well-known for its Backup Buddy plugin. They also sell a number of other plugins, some of which are included with the themes you buy, depending on which package you purchase.

Cost

OK, this gets a little complicated, but hopefully we can simplify it in the end.

There are three basic groups of themes, plus a special type of theme called Flexx. You have the “Builder” themes, the “Classic” themes, the “Allure” themes, and then the “Flexx” theme (with 18 different colors). You can also buy all the themes together in one “All Access” pack.

Builder Themes

The Book Nook theme is part of the Builder Themes package.
The Book Nook theme is part of the Builder Themes package.

Builder themes are $80 individually or $150 for all 60 themes in the Builder pack. You also get the Builder framework whenever you buy a theme. The Builder framework is responsive.

There is also a package called “Foundation Pack” which consists of 5 very basic themes + a theme called Air Starter. All these themes are really VERY basic when it comes to design. Of course you get the Builder framework as well with this option. This runs $80.

If buying the “All Access” package, you get all the Builder themes, all the Allure themes, all the Classic themes, and the Flexx theme for $197.

*Builder is what you’re going to want to get if you want all the advantages of design control mentioned in this review.

Allure Themes

The Allure Themes were designed by Lisa Sabin-Wilson (author of WordPress for Dummies). They run on her “Foundation” framework. Individually, these themes run $70/each. Or you can buy all 17 Allure themes for $197. But you also have the option of buying ALL 180 iThemes themes (including the Allure themes) for the same $197.

Sound a little funny? … It’s not. It’s just a pricing trick that studies have shown increases sales.

None of the Allure themes appear to be responsive.


Classic Themes

Another category is the Classic Themes. These are $70/each. There is no option to buy all as a pack. None of these appear to be responsive.

Flexx Theme

The Flexx Theme is $97. It is also included in the All Access package, which runs $197.

This theme doesn’t appear to be responsive.

All Access Theme Pass

The All Access Theme Pass is a package of all the themes (updates and support for a year) — $197.

Web Designer’s Toolkit

And finally, there’s an option to buy the Web Designer’s Toolkit. That’s everything iThemes makes – that’s all their themes, all their plugins, and 500 hours of training at WebDesign.com for $590.  This includes updates and support for a year.

web-designers-toolkit

Quick Price Rundown

We’ll run down all the prices again quickly.

Builder Themes

  • One theme (+ the Builder framework) — $80
  • 5 Foundation themes + Air Starter theme (+ Builder framework) — $80
  • Builder Developer Pack (60 themes + Builder Style Manager Plugin + other plugins) — $150

Here’s a list of the responsive themes. They are working on making more responsive.

Allure Themes (not responsive)

  • One theme (+ the Foundation framework) — $70
  • All 17 Allure themes (+ the Foundation framework) — $197

Classic Themes (not responsive)

  • One theme — $70

Flexx Theme (not responsive)

  • One theme (18 color options) — $97

All Access Theme Pass

  • All the themes (updates and support for a year) — $197

Web Designer’s Toolkit

  • All themes, all plugins, and 500 hours of training at WebDesign.com (updates, support, and access for a year)  — $590.

Features

As you can see from the Cost section, there are a number of different options here in terms of what kind of themes you can buy. As the themes based on the Builder framework seemed to be the only ones that were responsive, I took this to mean these were the most up-to-date, and so I only tested the Builder and some child themes.

The Builder framework offers you loads of control.
The Builder framework offers you loads of control.

The first thing to say is that you get a LOT of control with the Builder framework in terms of moving things around, creating different layouts, controlling things such as font type, colors, etc. In fact, it’s in this area that iThemes seems to shine above all others.

There are two main parts to the Builder where you will control your design – the Layouts and Views tool and the Style Manager.

Layouts and Views

The Layouts and Views section is where you insert and order the different building blocks of your site’s design – for example, structuring a page to have a header, then a navigation bar, then maybe a widget area, then an area where you can insert HTML or PHP, then a content area with a sidebar, then a footer. All that is “Layouts.”

In the “Views” area, you then apply that layout you just made to whichever pages you like. You could, for example, apply it to all the pages on your site. Or you might just want that particular layout to apply to your homepage.

As you might be imagining already, this gives you TONS of flexibility to set up your site the way you’d like.

The following video should give you a nice quick overview of what you can do.

And here’s a screenshot of the Layout section in action.

layout-engine

The Style Manager

The Style Manager is where you control aspects such as color, font, borders, etc. As mentioned, the Layout section lets you set up the structure of your site. It lets you put the blocks in place. The Style Manager is where you decorate those blocks.

Here’s a small look at the Style Manager in action.

style-manager2

With the Style Manager, you have control over 16 different modules:

  • Site Background
  • Site Font
  • Links
  • Headings
  • Container
  • Post/Page Content Styling
  • Comments Styling
  • Basic Module Styling
  • Module Sidebars
  • Header Module
  • Content Module
  • Navigation Module
  • Image Module
  • Widget Bar Module
  • HTML Module
  • Footer Module


Aesthetics

iThemes is not a theme shop that is going to wow you with its designs. That’s not to say they don’t have some nice themes, but their main strength seems to lie mostly in their Builder tool.

(Note: Because of the importance of mobile these days, I must confess that I rarely even look at themes that aren’t responsive. And so while iThemes has some nice-looking themes that aren’t responsive, those carried almost no weight in my final judgement. You may feel differently about the importance of having a responsive theme, so you might want to take that into consideration.)

The iThemes collection.
The iThemes collection.

Unfortunately, there are also a number of themes in their collection that look as if they haven’t received much attention in a while. And  here are also a few that look as if they never received the attention they should have gotten in the first place.

The Entrée:Pub theme, for example, bills itself as a restaurant theme. When clicking on the “Menu” section, however, you’re presented with menu items that contain post dates (as if they were blog posts). That’s the type of thing that makes customers think the site was put together by the owner’s nephew. (This was also the case with another restaurant theme.)

On the Entrée:Pub theme, there were also a number of images that ran over their borders. Now, of course images running over their borders is something that might happen over time. Maybe core files were changed and some things may have gone askew, etc. That’s not really a biggie. That kind of thing happens. But when you couple that with the post dates on the menu items (something that should have never been in the first place), it makes you a little more skeptical about the overall attention to detail.

bad-design-restaurant

But, OK, that’s one theme. Still, overall, there are a number of themes that just look a little dated or very plain and blocky.

Where iThemes seems to be strongest aesthetically is in the area of corporate/business designs. And so if you’re a developer that targets these niches, iThemes might be a good option for you.

Here are a few examples of nice, clean-looking themes from their collection.

Hudson Theme – Demo

hudson-theme

Everett Theme – Demo

everett-theme

Attent Theme – Demo

attent-theme

Resume Blue Theme – Demo

resume-blue-theme

Usability

While the “Builder” framework certainly gives you a lot of control, and while it’s certainly easier than digging into code, the average user may find himself/herself challenged a little in the beginning.

That, however, would appear to be something of a necessary evil. When you give someone this much control, by definition you will need to provide them with a number of “controls” that they’ll have to learn.

Overall, however, I have to say that the system was very easy to work with.

At first you may find yourself wondering how to get something you’ve created to apply to the page you want it applied to, but that’s not the fault of the Builder. It’s just something you’ll have to learn over time. And once you do, you’ll find that you can make major changes and build completely new layouts in a flash.

There are also video tutorials that certainly help.

Customer Service

iThemes Support Community
iThemes Support Community

Support is available through the iThemes forums, and I also used email for a billing-related question.

It seems that questions are answered mostly on a M-F schedule during U.S. workday hours. At least that was my experience.

I asked a question on the weekend, and I received an answer on the following Monday. I then asked other questions during the week.

Questions asked in the evening were answered the next day, always within 24 hours. When I asked a question during the middle of the day, I received a reply within minutes.

And so from my experience anyway, it appeared to follow the “no evening/no weekend” schedule. (Again, that’s U.S. time.)

When I emailed the billing department about an issue (during the daytime). I received a reply (and a solution, as well) within a few hours.

The support crew was always polite and helpful.

Speed

Using Google PageSpeed Insights, I tested a few of the iThemes themes. Google measures speed on a scale of 0-100. Anything over 85 is considered good in Google’s eyes.

That said, having tested a number of themes from a number of different theme developers, rarely did I see a score above 85.

Google.com itself scored a 92 (mobile) and a 98 (desktop). That’s pretty good. But when you consider that Google.com is almost a completely blank page, it would seem hard to have a page reach the 100 mark.

YouTube.com (a Google property) scored a 61 (mobile) and 76 (desktop).

So you’ll need to take all this with a grain of salt. Compared to other sites I tested, iThemes seemed fairly average.

Here are the suggested improvements for the “Air” theme I tested. These results don’t show the areas that “passed” the test.

speed-air-mobile
speed-air-desktop

Here are the suggested improvements for the “Everett” theme.

speed-everett-mobile
speed-everett-desktop

Conclusion

Control, control, control. If you get the iThemes Builder framework (or a theme that uses it), you will find you have a lot of control over your ability to create layouts and certain styling elements. In terms of out-of-the-box design, iThemes seems strongest in business/corporate sphere. And so if you do a lot of work in that area, iThemes might be an especially good choice for you.

The Good

  • Lots of control in terms of building the layout of your pages.
  • While somewhat necessarily complicated at first, there are clear videos to teach you what to do, and once you’re used to digging into the settings, it’s not so hard to easily change lots of aspects of your site.
  • While not cutting edge in the design department, there are still some nice designs, especially in the business/corporate theme area.

The Bad

  • While iThemes does have some nice designs, a number of the themes tend to be dated or plain-looking. Some lack attention to detail you might otherwise expect from a pro theme.
  • While there are increasing the number of responsive themes in their collection, there are still a relatively limited number compared to the overall number of themes.
  • Their advertised “180 themes” drops considerably if you take the non-responsive and graphically plain or dated designs out of the total. They also count different colored versions of the same theme as a separate theme.

Our Verdict

  • Price:
  • Features:
  • Aesthetics:
  • Usability:
  • Customer Service:
  • Speed:
  • Overall: