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WordPress Theme Builder Shootout: The Contenders

Until recently, when adding a theme to your WordPress site, the choice was either buy a theme and live with any shortcomings or enter the expensive, painful and time-consuming worlds of theme modification and bespoke development.

Theme builders, relatively new kids on the WordPress block, aim to provide an alternative. They come with bold and enticing claims of being able to completely customize a site with no coding.

In this series, I’m going to review the main contenders and find out whether they back up their claims. So, take your seat for the WordPress Theme Builder Shootout.

Title image showing the logos of Headway, Nexus, Pagelines and Ultimatum
The stakes are high in the theme builder shootout. Is WordPress big enough for all of ’em?

create 100% pro, mobile-ready sites without coding

totally in control of any aspect of your site with no coding skills required

Build any layout you can think of, customize any page, add colors, fonts, and more

These are the bold and enticing claims made by the developers of various WordPress theme builder solutions. Bold because even if you’ve only tinkered with WordPress then you’ll have some understanding of just how big an undertaking “sites with no coding” is. Enticing because, if true, theme builders can offer a realistic alternative option to either buying a theme (and living with it or modifying it) or developing a bespoke theme.

What Are Theme Builders?

Theme builders provide the interface and the functionality to either build a complete WordPress theme from scratch, or to completely customize a base theme.

Their approaches differ, sometimes dramatically.

Some provide their functionality only in the admin interface; others are front-end. Even the same technique, such as drag and drop, can differ enormously between solutions. Designing layout using grids of rows and columns that are arranged via “drag and drop” is popular although one solution actually allows you to “draw” your layout.

Regardless of the approach, the aim is the same: complete customization of every aspect of a theme without having to resort to editing code.

Page Builders Are Not Theme Builders

I’ve been really strict with the criteria for constitutes a theme builder: it must provide the functionality to build layouts and themes for all WordPress templates (archives, posts, custom post types) – not just individual instances of posts and pages.

Page builders are focussed on pages and posts and generally individual instances. Whilst it’s absolutely possible to build a great looking site with page builders, it does generally require that every page in your site is literally that: a page. Page builders also generally work on an existing theme.

So, by all means let me know if you think I’ve missed an obvious product to review (I can add obvious misses to the list of reviews) but make sure the product is a true theme builder and not just a page builder.

Note: I’ll be following up this series by looking at page builders in the New Year.

The Contenders

I looked at a number of solutions before whittling down the list to the following four:

  1. Ultimatum (http://ultimatumtheme.com/)
  2. NexusThemes (http://nexusthemes.com/)
  3. PageLines (http://www.pagelines.com)
  4. Headway (http://headwaythemes.com/)

Undoubtedly, there will be comments go along the lines of “I can’t believe you didn’t include [insert product name here]”. If you think I’ve missed a product, and it is a true theme builder, then let me know in the comments and look into adding it to the list.

The Task

Screenshot of the home page for http://www.sanctuarymagazine.org.au
The test site for each theme builder

To make the comparison as simple as possible, I’m going to try and build the exact same site using each product.

I’ve selected a site I was recently involved with. It’s a magazine site with a general layout featuring header and footer adverts, a right-hand sidebar and a footer:

  • Home page has a content slider and arranges posts by custom post type in a grid layout.
  • Archives use a grid layout and have a tag cloud for a custom taxonomy
  • Posts are the generic template
  • Pages are the generic template
  • The profile custom post-type has its own sidebar with a tag clouds for the two custom taxonomies

I’m going to limit myself to four hours. It’s highly unlikley I’ll be able to finish the task in that time but what I will have is a good idea of how the product works, how long building a theme is likely to take and what additional skills might be needed to finish the project.

Rating the Products

To keep the reviews consistent, I’m going to rate each product on the following five criteria:

  1. Learning curve / ease of use – how easy is it to get started? Do the concepts and approach make logical sense? How intuitive is the solution? Is the help / documentation helpful?
  2. Features – one of the key areas of a Theme Builder is the components list. How extensive is the components list?
  3. Flexibility – can you build any layout? How easy is to apply the one layout to multiple templates? Can you reuse template parts? Does the solution work with other themes? Are the themes responsive? Does the resultant theme work across all browsers?
  4. Out-of-the-box rating – how close can I get to the final site using just the solution
  5. Value for money – how does the solution compare to an off-the-shelf theme? How much time does it save in the development process?

It’s important to note that I’m not looking at these products as a developer, so I’m not interested in rating the quality of the generated HTML and associated code. Most WordPress site owners are going to be more than happy so long as the theme works, with no obvious bugs or incredibly long load times.

Be Sure To Have Your Say

Theme builders are the relatively new kids on the WordPress blocks but they are growing in number. That’s not really surprising when you consider the enormous benefits they potentially bring to a WordPress project.

Each product will have its own post, to allow for individual discussion. I’ll wrap-up the reviews and pick my favourite in a concluding post after the reviews.

Please join in, especially if you have used any of the solutions. The more voices, the more comprehensive the coverage and the more useful the articles will be to those readers who have yet to use a theme builder.

Tomorrow, we’ll start with Ultimatum.

Do you use a true theme builder that’s not the contender’s list that’s worthy of a review? Let us know in the comments.