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WordPress Theme Builder Shootout: Ultimatum

WordPress Theme Builder Shootout: Ultimatum

The first contender in our WordPress Theme Builder Shootout and it seems appropriate to start with an Ultimatum.

This builder, delivered as a theme and a couple of plugins is simple to use, easy to understand and will let you get a rough site up and running in no time at all.

But is rough good enough?

Ultimatum

Ultimatum is from Wonder Foundry and has been around for a few years now.

Operating completely in the admin interface, the first impression it gives is being a little like widgets on steroids. This might sound unflattering but actually means that the approach to creating layouts is one that is already familiar to any WordPress user who has updated a sidebar.

What Does It Cost?

Wonder Foundry use a “lifetime” membership model which costs $65 for the Starter Licence and $125 for the Pro Licence. The Pro Licence provides the ability to export templates, supports WooCommerce and includes the WebApps Builder.

What Do You Get?

The Ultimatum theme and two plugins: library which handles fonts and icons; and mobility which handles browsing by mobile devices.

How Does It Work?

Ultimatum does all its work in the Admin interface and is based around the simple concept of a Template containing Layouts which are assigned to various WordPress templates such as Home, archives and search.

screenshot of Ultimatum Layout page
Ultimatum’s model is very simple – Templates consist of Layouts assigned to WordPress templates

Whilst it is possible to be quite granular in the assignments, it’s possible to let WordPress still do the heavy lifting by using a Layout that just uses the Default WordPress Loop component and make this the default Layout. In fact, I’d recommend doing this as it will potentially cut down dramatically on the number of Layouts you’ll need to create.

Layouts are designed on a grid basis, using rows that are divided into columns. Components (widgets) are dragged into the columns to flesh out the contents. Layouts can be full or part: part layouts are designed for including in full layouts, with obvious examples being a header and a footer.

Screenshot of the Layout body editor
Layouts are grid based – components are placed in columns within rows

Obviously, the components are key to a full-featured site and Layouts have access to any widget plus a host of widgets provided by Ultimatum. This allows for easy extending of functionality by simply adding more widgets.

You can add as many Templates to a theme as you want but I’m not clear as to what the immediate benefit to doing this is, other than you can change the template your site uses simply be setting a new default template.

What Features Does It Come With?

  • Sliders – lots of them, not sure why it needs more than a couple (one content based, one image based) but there’s no less than eight different slider scripts!
  • Forms – a nicely featured component for the creation and handling of forms.
  • Custom Content Types – Ultimatum provides its own interface for the creation of custom post types and taxonomies. Again, all the features you’d expect although taxonomies have to be attached to custom post type created with Ultimatum.
  • Menus – Ultimatum provides seven different styles of menus, complete with settings for a fallback dropdown option for mobile devices
  • WordPress Default Loop – This useful component provides some control over the output from The Loop, be it a single post or an archive
  • WordPress Custom Loop – Similar to the Default Loop, this component allows you to create your own listings with plenty of options but no pagination, it seems.
  • Search – The ubiquitous search box.
  • Sidebars – Easy creation of custom sidebars
  • Visual Composer / Shortcodes – Allow for layout building on a single page or post.
  • Importing / Exporting templates – Allows templates to be exported and imported which could be useful for creating child themes
  • Child Themes – Speaking of child themes, Ultimatum enables the quick and easy creation of a child theme from the current theme. Either create an empty theme or select the templates that you wish to have copied across.
  • CSS Editing – As well as being able to set properties such as margins and background colors on individual rows, custom CSS can be easily added to the template through direct editing of a stylesheet. This is useful, for example, for creating generic classes such as “centre-text” which can then be applied in row properties.
  • Fonts / Icons – The library plugin allows fonts and icons to be made available to the templates. Cufon, Font-face and Google fonts are all catered for, although I found that with no search function, lazy scrolling through pages of font previews quickly became tedious.
  • WooCommerce Support – I didn’t test this but it could important to those of you who run WooCommerce stores.
  • Responsive and Fixed Width – select either to create a responsive design or a fixed-width design. You can also base your template on Twitter Bootstrap.

How Did Building The Test Site Go?

Despite the fact that I was building the theme from scratch – there’s no pre-existing theme to tweak here – building the test site went surprisingly well. To a point.

Ultimatum’s approach is really very simple and its model of Templates > Layouts > Rows > Columns > Content is easy to get to grips with. You need to do a little bit of planning up front in terms of which Layouts need to be “parts” (header and footer) and how your grid will be laid out but nothing too arduous.

I ran into a couple of “gotchas” which brought me temporarily to a halt. The first was that I didn’t set my template to be the default template and then all of sudden my site came up as a blank screen; the second was the need to customize the theme to set the home page to a static page to stop the post layout being shown instead (this happened even though I had assigned a specific Layout to the home page).

Whilst this was annoying at the time, the delay caused was fairly minimal and this is likely to only happen in your first project.

I was able to the structure of the test site up in about three hours, including a form, and undoubtedly this would be a lot quicker second time around with more planning and less of a need to refactor.

Having built a “responsive” template, I was pleased to see that it did respond well to smaller devices and setting menus to become dropdowns was very straight-forward. I spent a little time with the options for targeting rows at certain platforms and this worked really well and is potentially a really powerful feature.

I did some minimal CSS tweaks but as you can see there is still some way to go on the styling to bring it up to an acceptable level. (You can also see that the social icons are missing – top right, above Search).

Screenshot of the test site
Quick to get to the barebones stage but plenty of CSS work still required

Whilst the build was quick there was some functionality that I couldn’t replicate, couldn’t get to work correctly or requires further attention:

  • slider only works with posts so I couldn’t include any of the custom post types
  • icons for the social media links just wouldn’t show correctly
  • cannot switch off titles when embedding a form in a page, effectively doubles up with page title
  • access to post or custom post type fields when building single layouts
  • customizing the taxonomy display

Ultimatum got me 80% of my desired layout for 20% of the normal effort, a situation I suspect might be common amongst the theme builders.

Whilst this is some achievement considering I knew nothing about the product before starting, I think that it is unlikely I would be able to fully replicate the test site and to bring what I have to an acceptable level would require a fair amount of tweaking and would certainly need the services of a design / css expert.

The Good

  • Simple to understand
  • Quick and easy to get to a basic design
  • Build responsive or fixed themes
  • Assign mobile devices a separate theme
  • Target components to specific device types
  • Automatic creation of Child Themes
  • A great prototyping tool
  • Share layouts through importing and exporting

The Bad

  • Sliders don't support custom post types
  • Many operations lack feedback
  • No access to individual fields for custom post types
  • Form embedding too basic
  • Easy to get caught out
  • Custom WordPress Loop component doesn't paginate
  • Layouts need a lot of additional CSS work
  • Documentation is fairly light
  • No granular control on post, page and custom post type layout

Verdict

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

A Word On “Back-End” Editing

Many of the theme builders, including some of our contenders, tout “front-end” development as a benefit.

I’m somewhat agnostic about where the development takes place. I didn’t find Ultimatum’s “back-end” development to be a drawback at all. Having two browsers operating side-by-side, one for editing and one for previewing was fine.

In the end, I think it’s all about how the development is implemented, not where it is taking place.

Final Thoughts

I like Ultimatum. Being close to the sidebar experience makes it easy to get the hang off and you soon find that you’re thinking more about how to layout your site rather than how to use the product.

Its ease of use, though, seems to come at the expense of some flexibility and capability. I really came unstuck when it came to trying to build layouts for posts and the custom post types.

Of course, there is the caveat that I put a time-limit on myself and the answer may well be there if I looked harder (if it is just let me know in the comments and I’ll update the review). The documentation for Ultimatum certainly isn’t as comprehensive as it could be.

So, is it theme development without coding? Yes, but only if you don’t count CSS as code and the site you are building is relatively simple.

The idea of these reviews is to start a conversation, so if you’ve used Ultimatum please add a comment about your experiences.