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iThemes Builder Reviewed by Technosailor

I love it when people critique my work as it gives me a great sense of accomplishment when I improve on my weak areas. So, when I heard that Technosailor (Aaron Brazell) wanted to do a review of WordPress theme frameworks and that Builder would be included, I got really excited.

Aaron just published the review with the epic title of Battle of the Titans: Premium Theme Framework Smackdown. If you haven’t read it yet, please do.

The final score for Builder is as follows:

  • Price: B
  • File Size: C
  • Database Calls: A+
  • Page Load: A-
  • Hooks: A
  • Internationalization: F
  • Security: A
  • BuddyPress: F
  • SEO Support: C
  • WordPress 2.9 Post Thumbnail Support: A+
  • WordPress: 3.0 Navigation Support: F
  • Raw SQL: A+

The overall score: 74%.

While I’d love to think that Builder would get all A’s, I knew that would probably not be the case, so I was not disappointed at all with the final score. In fact, I’m very, very excited by Builder’s score. Let me explain why.

My major focus when developing is to make a solid foundation that is well-designed, fast, reliable, and secure. Once this solid foundation is built, it can then be extended with new features. Since the foundation grading criteria — database calls, page load, hooks, and security — all received high scores, I feel that I did a good job of coding the theme. The remaining areas where Builder didn’t do so well are the features that I love to build on top of that foundation.

The good news is that we’re already focused on most of the areas that are low points for the theme:

Internationalization

This week, Ronald, our head of support, flew in from the Netherlands to talk shop and to get a lot of ideas for future development and support on our todo lists. One of the key points we talked about yesterday was getting fully internationalization and localization support into Builder first, Flexx next, and then going through our themes one by one to get support throughout our theme catalog. While I’m not sure if we can have this new support ready before he leaves by the end of the week, it should be pushed out for Builder in the next week or two.

SEO Support

If you tuned into our iThemes.tv broadcast yesterday, you got a sneak peak of a new SEO feature I’ve been working on for Builder. I hoped to have it launched on yesterday’s broadcast, but alas, I’m too focused on details and haven’t shipped it out yet.

I sent out a link to the SEO feature screenshot, and everyone got really excited. The focus is not just giving the end user control, but to give them guidance and reliable information as well.

This will be shipped out as a beta plugin available to all Builder users hopefully by the end of the day. Once it has been thoroughly tested, it will be rolled into Builder as a built-in theme feature.

WordPress: 3.0 Navigation Support

The cool news here is that Builder has had 3.0 menu support since March 3. You can check out the details and get a preview of the new menu feature on my announcement post: WordPress 3.0 Menus Demo Video on iThemes Builder.

That said, I added the support off of a month old build of WordPress, so maybe something has changed since then (the WordPress 3.0 code is pre-release after all). So, I will get the latest nightly build and test again. If any changes have broken menu support, I’ll put in a fix.

BuddyPress Support

This is one we haven’t had a look into yet for one simple reason: we never get support requests about it. We’re very serious about supporting our users’ needs, so if it is a legitimate request and is a quick fix or if it is a big enough need, we make it a priority. So far, we haven’t heard anything specifically related to BuddyPress and Builder, so we haven’t focused on it.

Our team recently met John James Jacoby, one of the BuddyPress core devs, at SXSW and we’re all excited about the opportunity to talk with him more about BuddyPress and how we can improve compatibility. So, while I don’t have anything specific on the todo list yet, we definitely want to get full BuddyPress support into Builder now that we know that there are issues.

File Size

There is a lot of code behind Builder, thus a lot of files and a large amount of data. I believe Aaron equates file size to code bloat, for which I cannot blame him. I’ve been very careful to keep the code stack depth as light as possible while still keeping the code feature rich. The Page Load score seems to support that. Just the same, I’ll do my best to see if there are areas that I can trim back.

Price

Compared to Headway’s and Thesis’ $164 each for the Developer Option and StudioPress’ All-Theme Package $249.95, our All Access Pass is definitely the heavy hitter at $499.95. However, the comparisons being offered aren’t really the same. For $127, our customers get everything Builder. Only our customers that want access to Builder and more than 30 other themes have to pay more than $127.

Headway and Thesis limit you to one or two sites and prohibit removal of footer attribution for $87. To remove those restrictions on either theme requires the Developer Option purchase at $164.

While Genesis as a core framework costs $59.95, gaining access to child themes requires an additional purchase of $24.95 each (or $79.95 when a child theme is purchased together with Genesis). To have access to Genesis and all of its child themes requires the $249.95 price of the All-Theme Package. The All-Theme Package does include other themes, but only that purchase option includes all of the Genesis child themes.

So, the min/max price comparisons work for the other theme comparisons (min feature set price versus max feature set price) but aren’t quite the same comparison when applied to Builder (max feature set price versus all our themes price). Maybe it would be more accurate to say that the price comparison is flawed overall as only Headway and Thesis have the most directly-comparable pricing models.

Final Thoughts

I’m extremely-pleased with Builder’s final score, but I’m not satisfied. My desire is to change each on of Builder’s scores into A’s. I also believe that Aaron did this review to challenge theme devs to strive for higher standards. That is a challenge I gladly accept.

I make this promise to all our customers: I will improve on all of the weak areas that Aaron has pointed out by the end of the month. That means great SEO options, full internationalization, full compatibility with BuddyPress, and verified 3.0 menu support. I’ll also see if I can reduce the overall size of Builder. As for the performance, while the current version earned Builder an A on Page Load, I want to see if I can meet Aaron’s challenge of a sub-500ms with some further performance improvements. I already have some ideas on how I can do this, so now it’s just a deadline issue.

It would be great if Aaron would do a followup review one month from now to see if his critiques have been met with action by us theme developers. Hopefully the net result will be better themes for all of the reviewed themes’ customers.

Now it’s time to hit the code and work on improving that score.

Comments

  1. Chris,

    It’s outstanding that Builder does as well in these comparisons as it does given that its greatest strength is its intuitive use — something that’s key to people who buy premium themes and something the review didn’t really look at.

    I agree with the reviewer that BuddyPress support is going to be essential very shortly, but given that BuddyPress has only recently become compatible with WordPress as opposed to WordPressMu, it seems odd to include it in a review of premium WordPress themes. If he had compared WPMU premium themes, he’d have found BuddyPress support.

    From a geek, but not user standpoint, I think all the hooks in Genesis sound cool, but I don’t use that stuff anyway. I bet less than 5% of premium theme users use all the cool hook functionality you built into Builder. Thesis users take advantage of such things more often just because they have to learn how in order to really use the theme they bought. I see more questions on forum from people wondering how to use Thesis after they bought it than any other theme.

    In fact, none of the other premium themes reviewed tempt me much. The one that I think is worth looking at is the elemental theme framework from Prothemedesign.com because, while it is fundamentally less sophisticated than Builder, it has a couple of features that you might want to add to Builder through plugins… because I think they’d actually be used by real end users. These include built in print-friendly support, ability to change the backend masthead to custom rebrand wordpress without a plugin, and a customizable admin shortcut bar. I’m not going to buy elemental just to find out if the execution is great on these ideas, but they seem useful if not cool from a tech point of view.

    Very much looking forward to Builder SEO plugin!

    • Thanks, Brandon … excellent input and insight … we’re always open to making Builder even better for our community. It’s good to know we’re on the right track too!

  2. It should be noted that we welcomed and even, encouraged, this kind of objective, opinionated review from a noted WP expert.

    Although we collect and regularly implement input from our community first and foremost, reading Aaron’s comments and tests were extremely enlightening as you can see from Chris’ post.

    We know we can always improve …. and we wrote this post in an effort to be transparent about this great review and to communicate what we’re doing to address any items that were lacking.

    I hope our iThemes Builder Community is encouraged by the review and this post …. the future is even brighter for Builder.

  3. @Chris Jean

    We appreciate your efforts. The self-imposed deadline is a great productivity strategy :-)

    Great news on the coming SEO and Meta Options beta!

    Leon McKee

  4. I am creating a site that requires Buddypress, however I am realizing that I can’t make the required changes to Builder that is required to make it compatible… and I NEED Builder […stamps feet, fists clenched, lower lip out…].

    I am sure that you guys are going to get working on that compatibility (yesterday, right?). :-)

  5. I came by to see about Buddy Press Support as well! I installed it and it was a disaster. I have done it on other themes w/ no troubles and I really do NOT want to switch from builder. I absolutely love the flexibility of it customizing each page. But I own a community site and thus far have been using several platforms to create one and I know that BuddyPress is a simple solution for me.

    Would apprieciate some work on this program, as I know others will too, to make it easily compatible.

    Other than that, you get all A’s from me!

    • Thanks Catherine. I’m currently finishing up the front-end internationalization of Builder. Next up after that is BuddyPress. I hope to have some good news on that front next week.

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