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WordPress Theme Builder Shootout: PageLines DMS

The fourth and final contender in our WordPress Theme Builder Shootout is DMS from PageLines.

A true front-end theme building experience backed-up with good documentation, a substantial community and a free trial version.

Creating “100% pro, mobile-ready sites without coding” is definitely possible but you’ll need to pick your project carefully and have a kitbag of trusty plugins handy.

Pagelines DMS

DMS from PageLines is a front-end WordPress theme builder with a substantial community behind it, plenty of third-party support, help and extensions and a download count of well over 1 million.

Note: This review is based on the free version of DMS (1.1.4)

What Does It Cost?

If you register with Pagelines then you can download DMS Free, their free trial version of DMS.

To get the Pro version, which adds “tons more features and support” you’ll need a PageLines subscription based on the number of sites you wish to run DMS on:

  1. Single site, $96/yr (or $10/mth)
  2. Up to 6 sites, $192/yr (or $20/mth)
  3. Unlimited sites, $288/yr (or $30/mth)

More details on pricing here.

What Do You Get?

All DMS functionality is provided by installing and activating the theme. There is an additional plugin, DMS Pro Tools plugin (also free) that provides extra functionality such as CDN set-up and lazy loading images.

How Does It Work?

PageLines DMS operates almost exclusively as a front-end editor using a simple model of templates > rows > columns > sections. Sections are DMS’s equivalent of widgets.

Screenshot of the DMS front-end theme editor operating
DMS overlays the page layout on the site allowing instant feedback on changes

The DMS (editor) is overlaid onto your site as you browse it, revealing the rows (a little confusingly referred to as templates), columns and sections. Existing elements can be deleted, moved, cloned (Pro only) and edited / configured simply by rolling over the element and then clicking the relevant icon on the revealed toolbar.

New sections are added to the layout by clicking on Add To Page, finding the section you want to add and dragging it onto the layout. Available areas for the drop are highlighted making it easy to see where the section will be located, even if the actual section icon is often not that close to the actual cursor.

Changes are only saved “locally” and need to be published to actually take affect on the public view of the site. DMS also provides a roll-back to the last published configuration (effectively bringing the public and local view back into line with each other) which is useful.

Screenshot showing a split DMS screen with a the template panel
Split screen offers good access to well-designed configuration panels

There’s also access to manage templates (these are complete layouts), global site settings, themes (if you wish to change the child theme being edited), custom CSS and links to the DMS documentation and forums.

What Features Does It Come With?

PageLines DMS’s unit of functionality, its widgets as it were, are called sections and these can be added to a page by dragging to an appropriate area.

These are a mix of content functions and structural sections:

Screenshot of the available sections that come with DMS
A range of sections that can be dragged into the layout – not all names self-explanatory!

How Did Building The Test Site Go?

DMS allowed me to get relatively close to the target layout but had some crucial omissions and left me with a lot of work to do with the styling, especially sections such as the NavBar which are heavily styled out-of-the-box.

I did get a little confused sometimes with the refresh and publish functions. Some changes, such as editing the text in a (DMS) Textbox are reflected immediately in the DMS view, requiring just a publish to push them to the “live” view, whilst others, such as changing the layout mode on the Content/PostLoop section require a refresh to update the DMS view.

No doubt there are technical reasons why this needs to be the case but it does make for an inconsistent user experience especially when refreshing reloads the entire DMS editor each time.

I tended, then, to have the page I was working on open in a different browser so that I could check the changes on the “live” site rather than relying on the DMS view.

That said, designing in the front-end was easy to get the hang of as was configuring the sections. I was able to apply the desired layout to the various parts of the test site fairly rapidly, especially once I got to grips with templates and was careful about when to use local and global options.

One gripe, though, would be how DMS handles new widgetized areas. Having to use a third-party plugin to create new sidebars seems strange for an otherwise polished product; equally having to perform a full DMS Editor refresh just to update a sidebar select list seems out-of-step.

Screenshot of the test site built with DMS
Looks okay but unable to list custom post types, control the number of posts listed, or have thumbnails of the same size.

In my allotted time, I managed to create all the basic layouts and have them applied to all posts and pages. As you can see, though, the styling needs a lot of work to bring the site up to scratch and this is potentially DMS’s biggest problem.

Functionality to style a site using DMS appears to be very rudimentary. You can assign classes to sections but then you’ve got to jump into the Custom tab and input your CSS. To me, this is coding and pulls the rug just little from under the claim that DMS allows the creation of  “100% pro, mobile-ready sites without coding”.

I couldn’t replicate the test site exactly, with the main stumbling blocks being:

  • Slider is image-based – unable to provide content-based slider on home page
  • No custom post support in Post Loop outside of default WordPress behaviour – unable to list two house profiles under the slider on the home page.
  • Limited configuration options on Post Loop – unable to control the number of posts listed
  • Thumbnails not resized to same height when top option used in magazine layout
  • Not enough control over displayed post meta – unable to switch it off completely or define what post meta to display
  • The NavBar section does not allow a menu item with sub-items to be clickable itself despite having URL attached in WordPress menu option
  • No form-handling, not even a contact us form

Ratings

Learning curve / ease of use

Practically everything with DMS takes place in the well-designed Editor. Making layout changes and adding sections to a template is intuitive and the options panels are easy to get the hang of.

The model itself is simple to understand and the documentation provided by PageLines is comprehensive. In fact, it’s only when you go through the documentation that you realise that DMS comes with features such as shortcodes (listed under Tutorials).

PageLines also has a dedicated community with plenty of third-party sites dedicated to helping newbies learn the product.

Features

The feature list seems to be fairly standard, although it should be noted that, not surprisingly, the Pro version is more feature rich than free version.

I’m assuming also that access to the sections marked “PRO ONLY” is the major benefit of upgrading from the free version, Unfortunately, the “Learn More About Pro” button in the section editor just links to the DMS description page and I couldn’t find out what the differences between the free and pro versions of the product are. A simple table would be useful.

Some of the best features are hidden away in the shortcodes: maps, responsive videos and charts. Why these are not sections, I’m not sure, but to the casual reviewer these would all but go unnoticed.

Additional sections and DMS child themes can be purchased from the PageLines shop. There are currently forty-four extensions from sliders to parallax animation to custom post types such as portfolios and testimonials with prices ranging from $2.99 to $39.99.

Getting a decent post slider will require a trip to the PageLines shop ($19.99 for Post Slider) and there is no form handling either in the product itself or in the paid extensions. Even implementing a “contact us” form will require a plugin and shortcodes.

Flexibility

There are no issues with flexibility with regards to site layout and design as PageLines own gallery of users sites will attest to and the support of child themes provides a simple upgrade path as well as a mechanism for sharing and selling themes.

Flexibility is compromised a little, though, by some sections, particularly the all-important Post Loop. It is limited in how it can display posts, especially lists and its lack of support for custom post types outside of the relevant archive or post display is restrictive.

Of course, anything can be added to a DMS site so long as you can find a third-party plugin that provides shortcodes (or a PHP template function) but my preference is always for integrated flexibility as it means less chance of a plugin conflict and cuts down on the to-ing and fro-ing to the WordPress Admin interface.

The underlying theme can also be a limiting factor on flexibility. Not because it prevents a path being taken but because it can mean having to undo styling before taking that path. For DMS, getting the right theme to develop on may not be the defining factor in the ability to create a custom theme but would certainly seem to be significant.

Out-of-the-box

DMS didn’t quite allow me to build my test site from the features that come with the basic package but it even the free version would be enough to provide the framework for those sites that were not custom post type heavy and followed traditional design patterns.

What you can do with DMS out-of-the-box is going to depend quite heavily on your CSS skills. Clearly with above-average design skills it is possible to achieve impressive results but if, like me, you are design-challenged then you will either have to compromise and fit the provided design pattern or find a child theme that more closely matches requirements.

Value for money

Free does not guarantee that a product is value for money but in the case of DMS it clearly does. As mentioned above, even with the free version, the vast majority of sites could be built especially if you have decent design skills.

Even the Pro version at $30 / month ($288 if paid annually) represents great value for web professionals with an ongoing need to create websites and, perhaps, the opportunity to build and reuse their own library of child themes.

Where DMS may not provide such a great return is on highly specialised sites whose requirements are not adequately met by the out-of-the-box features or on a single site scenario.

For the latter, it is highly likely that a premium theme would provide just as good a solution at an equivalent or indeed lesser cost than an annual PageLines subscription.

The Good

  • Free trial version to explore
  • Substantial community and third-party support
  • Front-end editing easy to get the hang of
  • Growing range of professional child themes
  • Good documentation

The Bad

  • Post listing configuration options limited
  • Sidebar and widget handinglin cumbersome
  • No support for listing custom post types outside of archives
  • No form support (even with extensions)
  • Styling support is rudimentary

PageLines DMS

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

Final Thoughts

There’s no doubting that PageLines DMS is a good product that gets close to doing what it says on the tin.

The front-end editing with its drag and drop approach works and the interfaces are well-designed. The product is really only let down by the lack of configuration options in some of the sections, the cumbersome handling of sidebars and widgets and, perhaps, a requirement for above-average design and CSS skills to achieve a truly professional result.

In this case, and given the right sort of project, DMS is a solid value-for-money theme builder.

However, if you don’t have the design skills then you might find you need to start with one of the growing number of DMS compatible child themes to get that impressive result and that line between theme builder and theme customizer gets a little blurry.

Are you a PageLines DMS user? Share your experiences in the comments and let us know, in particular, if you build from scratch or customize child themes.

Please, keep comments to the PageLines DMS on this post. A wrap-up post will be published later this week in which I’ll discuss other alternatives (and why they weren’t reviewed) and give you the opportunity to share your thoughts on other solutions.