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WordPress Theme Builder Shootout: The Dust Settles

The smoke has cleared from WordPress Theme Builder Shootout and we are left with a winner, as there has to be, but it was a close run thing.

Four different products and four different approaches each with their pros and cons.

But are they competing with each other or is the biggest threat coming from a swag of highly flexible premium themes?

Title image showing the logos of Headway, Nexus, Pagelines and Ultimatum
There’s a winner but is competition from flexible themes on the horizon?

Theme builders are a fascinating category with their promises of designing sites without needing to code.

In a bid to discover whether there’s a clear category leader, I’ve reviewed the following contenders:

  1. Ultimatum – read the review
  2. NexusThemes – read the review
  3. Headway – read the review
  4. PageLines DMS – read the review

With no prior exposure to any of the products, it’s been an interesting and, at times, headache-enducing experience.

Here’s my thoughts on the four and theme builders in general and the all-important results of the Shootout.

The Neglected Nominees

Before we dive in, let me quickly step through some of those products that were nominated but that ultimately weren’t fully reviewed.

Divi from Elegant Themes

Released only last week, Divi is Elegant Themes “most flexible theme” and I’d agree. It’s a great theme, the page layout interface is clean, simple and easy to understand and the range of modules is pretty good, but it’s not a theme builder.

Yes, it has an impressive set of theme options and some really nice touches like being able to specify the metadata displayed on a post. But layouts can only be applied to pages, other views, such as category and archives, have limited configuration options. And, if you want to change the layout of the header or footer then you need to dive into the template code.

To be fair to Elegant Themes, they do not promote Divi as a theme builder but that blurry line for what is a theme builder has seen it suggested suitable for review by several commentors.

Builder from iThemes

The layout engine, with its ability to assign layouts to views certainly has the elements of a theme builder, it even fits my definition, but the actual building of layouts appears to be rudimentary at best.

Builder provides seven modules (effectively row types) to choose from and provides very limited options for configuring those modules. For example, the only options for configuring the content module are for the number of sidebars: I couldn’t find where to modify the layout of a category listing, for example.

Builder seems to rely heavily on widgets (either via the widget module or sidebars) and yet, as far as I can tell, does not add any additional widgets of its own.

All of which left me a little confused and concluding that Builder is of fairly limited scope.

Themify Builder

Another Builder but an altogether more satisfying experience. This functionality is available as a standalone plugin (which I didn’t test) or comes as standard in every Themify Theme (which I did test, courtesy of the Air theme).

Pages are built using the Themify Builder icon on the WYSIWYG to add shortcode-based functionality to a page or post. Extensive theme options allow the selecting of a pre-built layout for listing pages (including side-by-side listing) as well as configuring a swag of styling options.

It’s not a visual page builder in the mould of say Divi, nor is it a true theme builder (no concept of layouts and views). What Themify Builder does is turn a theme into a very flexible theme.

Dynamik from Cobalt Apps

Dynamik was suggested by several commenters on the introduction post. I have to confess that I haven’t played with the product but based my decision on the documentation, including the videos, the cost (Genesis plus Dynamik) and my uncertainty about using a triple stack.

From the video, Dynamik looked fairly complicated and, although one commenter assured me that prior knowledge of Genesis was not required, I wasn’t convinced and the thought remained with me that why use Dynamik and not just Genesis?

General Thoughts and Observations

Definition of Theme Builder Gets Blurry

One thing that has become very apparent over the course of these reviews is that the definition of “theme builder” is fluid.

My original definition was:

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.

This makes no distinction as to whether the solution needs to start with a base theme or not and whilst I still hold that view clearly there is a big difference between completely starting from scratch as in Headway and Ultimatum and starting with a base theme as in PageLines DMS and NexusThemes where the process can be more customization than building.

Holding to that definition also meant that many of the suggestions outside of the original four didn’t fit and fell into the page builder category. Yes, you can build sites with many of them but that’s not their primary purpose.

Different Approaches Means Different Target Users

When I started reviewing these products, I incorrectly assumed that they were competing head-to-head. However, having now spent a great deal of time with them I’ve realised that each has its own approach and is targeting a different audience.

What you think of a particular product will depend on whether you are in that target audience, what your preferred methodology is for building a site, what your skillset is and what third-party skills you have access to.

No Substitute For Design Skills

If we are talking true theme building, rather than theme customization, than I firmly believe that to get the best out of any of these products requires good design (layout as well as CSS) skills.

If you don’t have these skills yourself or access to them, then you’ll be relying on the base style of the product which will likely not produce the desired quality in the final product and may also influence your choice of product.

Included Features Should Be Useful

If a feature is included then I believe it’s got to have more than just basic functionality, otherwise don’t include it.

Sliders are the best example. There seems, to me, little point in having a slider that only handles images especially if updates to the images have to be performed in the builder interface.

At the very least, that sort of functionality needs to be extracted out to the Admin interface to allow easy access for content managers / clients without the inherent dangers of allowing them into the theme builder.

Need Better Custom Post Type Support

Custom post type support ranged from good to non-existent across the products – and is usually missing from page builders also.

Given that most use cases for a theme builder will involve more complicated sites, and that complicated sites tend to use custom post types then such support would seem to be essential.

As a minimum (and no product achieved this), custom post type support should cover:

  • inclusion in sliders
  • inclusion in post listings
  • being able to layout the custom fields on a single post view
  • displaying custom taxonomies in the post meta

Documentation Is Vital

Documentation also varied between the products with PageLines the clear winner, especially when the third-party sources are included.

Help in the form of text and video is critical to helping new users through the learning curve and it should be clear, concise and up-to-date.

Don’t Treat Widgets Separately

My favorite feature across all the products was Ultimatum’s integration of WordPress widgets into its own list of features, thus negating the need to think about sidebars and other widgetized areas.

This is a true drag and drop experience: all the widgets (for the sake of a common name) available in one spot to be dragged and dropped on the page. Having to jump into the Admin interface to assign widgets to a sidebar, or in the case of PageLines DMS actually create the sidebar, is double-dipping and tedious.

Finding The Sweet Spot For Out-of-the-box Styling

This is perhaps the most difficult trick that a theme builder has to pull off. Style too little and the end result can be a little underwhelming; style too much (DMS navigation for example) and it means wasted time deactivating styling.

DMS and NexusThemes overcome this, to some extent, by providing themes as a kickstart. For Headway and Ultimatum perhaps being able to choose from a selection of schemes, from minimal to advanced would help developers.

The Shootout

So, how did our four contenders go in the five comparisons?

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?

Learning curve / eas of use

  • Ultimatum:
  • NexusThemes:
  • Headway:
  • Pagelines DMS:

Features

One of the key areas of a Theme Builder is the components list. How extensive is the components list?

Features

  • Ultimatum:
  • NexusThemes:
  • Headway:
  • Pagelines DMS:

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?

Flexibility

  • Ultimatum:
  • NexusThemes:
  • Headway:
  • Pagelines DMS:

Out-Of-The-Box

How close did I get to the final site using just the solution?

Out-of-the-box

  • Ultimatum:
  • NexusThemes:
  • Headway:
  • Pagelines DMS:

Value For Money

How does the solution compare to an off-the-shelf theme? How much time does it save in the development process?

Value for money

  • Ultimatum:
  • NexusThemes:
  • Headway:
  • Pagelines DMS:

Overall

Overall

  • Ultimatum:
  • NexusThemes:
  • Headway:
  • Pagelines DMS:

Final Thoughts

Four products, four different approaches and, I suspect, four target audiences.

NexusThemes is squarely aimed site owners and it was therefore at an immediate unfair disadvantage. Ultimatum and Headway are aimed more at developers and designers whilst PageLines DMS probably sits somewhere in the middle.

Surprisingly, perhaps, for what seemed a quite well defined genre there was very little cross-over in how each product implements its solution. Perhaps not so surprising, is that no product enabled me to completely replicate my test site without needing to resort to third-party plugins.

What that means is that which product you go with will ultimately depend more on which product best fits your methodology for building a site, your own skillset and how close to scratch you want to start.

For me, Headway and Ultimatum most closely matched my preference for building via wireframing and protoyping and so it’s no surprise that Headway beat Ultimatum by a nose.

The Headway interface is very impressive and its Design function provides by far the best interface for adding style to a theme. I enjoyed “drawing” my site and my Headway-based test site was the closest to the real thing.

Ultimatum, though, was not far behind. It was the only product of the four that made no distinction between its own functions and WordPress widgets, a huge boost to productivity and the overall user experience. It also was unique in providing form handling and an interface to create custom post types.

Really, what separated Ultimatum and Headway was the bigger requirement for CSS and styling on Ultimatum but again that is down to my personal skillset.

PageLines DMS and NexusThemes both take a front-end editing approach and therefore seem to have more of a reliance on the base theme. Nexus, in particular, really requires the starting theme to close to the desired solution (it is perhaps more of a theme customizer than a builder). It is the only product to offer front-end editing of content.

DMS is fairly flexible, though, and has by far the best documentation and community support which is a serious consideration. Again, it depends on your personal preferences as to what weight you place on such advantages.

It’s also worth noting that both PageLines DMS and NexusThemes have free versions to play with, allowing you to try before you buy.

The Competition Is A Premium Theme

When all is said and done, the biggest competition for these products is not each other but a premium theme, especially the new breed of highly flexible themes such as Divi and Themify Builder.

These flexible themes offer extensive options and if the underlying theme is anywhere new close enough to the site owner’s requirements then even a professional developer is going to find it quicker, easier and cheaper to use the premium theme.

Which means that just as the premium theme developers are upping the ante and adding features to their themes, so must the theme builder developers. They must add new tools and capabilities to ensure that their offering remains ahead of the flexible themes.

As always, it’s a matter of choosing the right tool for the right situation.

What’s your favorite tool for building a WordPress theme? Remember to say why, don’t just include a name and a link!