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WordPress Theme Builder Shootout: NexusThemes

WordPress Theme Builder Shootout: NexusThemes

The second contender in our WordPress Theme Builder Shootout and the first to use front-end editing.

Combine this with using a base theme and I was expecting that this would be a quick and easy path to a fully customized design.

But had I picked the wrong tool for the job?

NexusThemes

Composite image

NexusThemes is the work of NexusStudios based in The Netherlands and is predominantly a “front-end” editor.

What Does It Cost?

NexusStudios offers a range of themes all costing €67 (approximately $92). For this review, I used a demo of the Magazine Theme and downloaded and worked with the free Blogger theme.

What Do You Get?

A theme with all the builder functionality built-in.

How Does It Work?

At the top of the NexusThemes hierarchy is the Business Rule. Each Rule contains a Template with a pre-defined set of Template Parts (Header, Footer, Sidebar, Sub Header, Sub Footer, Decorator and Content) and is assigned to a particular view such as home, 404, search results and archive.

Screenshot of the Template settings for a business rule
Each Business Rule has a Template where the Template Parts are selected.

Instances of Template Parts are created with their own configuration of rows of content and the Business Rule defines which instance is assigned to the Template. This allows, for example, for different Sidebars to be used on the home page to the rest of the site. It is possible to suppress the display of a Template Part allowing, for example, for sidebars to be hidden to generate a full-width view.

Screenshot of Template Part creation screen
Multiple instances of a Template Part can be created

A Template Part consists of one or more rows of configurable columns with each column containing a single NexusTheme widget. There is a Stack widget which itself can contain other NexusThemes widgets which does provide a slightly clumsy solution to assigning multiple widgets to the one column.

The actual placement of each Template is baked into the installed theme and, as far as I can tell, can only be reconfigured by diving into the theme code itself. This means that for the example theme I used, the content was always 66% of the total width and the sidebar 33%.

Whilst editing of Template Parts can be done in the Admin interface, NexusThemes is a “front-end” editor meaning that the layout of the site can be altered whilst viewing it.

Editing of the layout on the front-end
Editing of the layout on the front-end

New rows can be added by selecting a row configuration and then dragging it to one of the “drop here” placeholders that appear in all visible Template Parts. Content areas have an “Add row” button which performs the same function.

Once a row has been created, widgets can be placed in each column and configured. Only NexusThemes own widgets are available for selection.

What Features Does It Come With?

NexusThemes primary feature is its front-end editing for both the layout and the content itself.

The built-in widgets provide for a wide-range of functionality:

Screenshot of the widget selection screen
A wide range but the purpose is not always obvious or can be obscure

There’s some solid and useful functions such as Google Map, Image Gallery, Social Sharing and CSV. Others are not so obvious: Squeezebox, for example, is a widget that allows the embedding of HTML form for a service such as MailChimp; Stack acts as a container for multiple widgets; Google Business Photo allows the embedding of a StreetView photo.

How Did Building The Test Site Go?

Trying to build the test site was a frustrating experience and I came to the conclusion that NexusThemes was not built for this purpose.
  • Home page – constrained by the embedded layout and so had to size the slider according to the width of the content area
  • Slider – image-based, rather than content based, so would require manually updating
  • Menus – have to be built manually rather than being able to use the built-in menus and despite the theme supporting a menu location
  • Custom post types – could not work out how to list on the home page
  • Side-by-side listing – had to mimic by creating two columns and skipping first 2 posts in the right-hand column
  • Need to be careful with image sizes as thumbnails were not scaled to a uniform size
  • Footer banner ad had to be placed in the actual footer
  • Custom post archive – could not do side-by-side listing as no “skip” option
  • Tag cloud – there is no tag cloud widget, so to add one requires using the Sidebar widget or using a shortcode
  • Custom taxonomy archive – not supported (could not list on projecttype taxonomy)
  • Featured images – did not display on post view, could not work out whyForms – no support for forms
Screenshot of the front page built with NexusThemes
This front page is a long short of the target layout.
Ultimately, I fell a long way short of replicating the test site and whilst not having form support can be overcome – especially with the HTML widget supporting shortcodes – the lack of support for custom taxonomies would make it close to impossible.
Just to make sure that this was not just because I was using the free Blogger Theme, I also tried the Magazine Theme in an online demo but still had no confidence that I could get any closer to the target layout.

Ratings

Learning curve / ease of use

Screenshot of the admin options that Nexus adds to the admin interface
An excess of menu options

I found NexusThemes difficult to get the hang off despite breaking my own rule and giving it more than four hours.

The front-end editor actually made it more difficult to get my head around the model (although there are plenty of occasions when editing is performed in a back-end environment) and the numerous new entries in the Admin interface, most of which don’t actually provide any functionality, added to the confusion.

The labels also don’t help. I had to install the Squeezebox widget to find out what it was and the unistyle and unicontent settings are still a little bewildering.

I did like that the documentation there is was linked in multiple places by an easy to recognize lifering icon. However, the documentation is not extensive and trial and error played a significant role in getting to grips with the product.

Features

Clearly a lot of time and effort has gone into the front-end editing and for simple operations it works well, including the front-end editing of the content itself.

The built-in widgets do provide a wide range of functionality but often lack some configuration options to make them fully useful whilst others, perhaps, border on a little obscure. The Radial widget will, for example, take an image and display it under a circular mask. Apart from wondering how often you might need such a widget, it’s not possible to easily configure the diameter of the mask (and therefore the size of the image).

Flexibility

The embedding of the structure into the theme creates a huge constraint on NexusThemes’ flexibility and makes it all but impossible to build any layout.

Whilst the range of widgets is quite good, not being able to access non-Nexus widgets is a serious drawback and means plenty of resorting to the Sidebar widget to enable the inclusion of relatively common functionality. The product does not also seem to support WordPress menus which is particularly frustrating especially as the menu creation interface provided is far less capable than the built-in WordPress menu creator.

Often I found I didn’t have enough control of the output or CSS styles. For example, excerpts on the blog listings stick regimentally to Text max length setting in the widget and wilfully ignore the Excerpt field and the More tag and height attributes get added to HTML elements at a lower level than a custom CSS class making it difficult to override.

Archives for custom taxonomies appear not be supported.

Out-of-the-box

Whilst there are plenty of widgets available, NexusThemes is constrained by the base theme and gives the impression of being fairly limited as to what it can accomplish.

It would seem that it is most suitable for making small-scale changes to the underlying theme on a fairly standard WordPress set-up, rather than building a set of custom layouts especially if custom post types are involved.

Value for money

NexusThemes is not a general-purpose, custom theme building tool. At best, it is a theme configuration tool and therefore its value is going to be wholely dependent on how close to the final solution the base theme is.

The Good

  • Front-editing, if you want clients to stay out of Admin
  • Starts as a working site

The Bad

  • Base themes not premium quality
  • Learning curve is steep
  • Not enough configuration on many widgets
  • Slider too simple, not content based
  • Cannot build any layout - constrained by base theme
  • Custom taxonomies not supported
  • No form capabilities

NexusThemes

  • Learning curve / ease of use:
  • Features:
  • Flexibility:
  • Out-of-the-box:
  • Value for money:
  • Overall:

Final Thoughts

It’s important to keep in mind that the ratings are heavily influenced by the experience of building the test site and NexusThemes was not up to the task.

It is not a custom theme builder but a tool to customize an existing base theme and the quality of the final site is always going to depend on the quality of that base theme.  As I mentioned previously, I don’t think that those base themes are necessarily of premium quality, especially for the price.

To be fair to NexusThemes, and judging by their list of themes, my scenario is probably not their target market. This tool is best suited for far simpler WordPress sites that don’t deviate too much from standard WordPress content types, although I think the lack of a form handler is a drawback.

Ultimately, this was a case of picking a tool to do a job that, perhaps, it was never intended to do.