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Review: WordPress 3.0 Adds Better Customization and Multisite Networks

Theme upgrades are tricky, since power users have often edited their templates to add, remove or modify features; a single upgrade can wipe out all those customizations. That's why WordPress 3.0 also introduces improved support for child themes, which are a way to override a theme's default files without overwriting them. When the default files are upgraded, the child theme's modifications are preserved.

Historically, WordPress came with a boring default theme, and many users never customized their blog with a different look. The new default theme, "Twenty Ten," is similarly Spartan but includes the ability to easily add a new banner image and border color. These simple options should let even unimaginative webmasters imbue their sites with more personality without the trouble of finding or designing a new theme.

Custom menus let admins choose from a list of WordPress content to be inserted into a widget.
WordPress themes can be further customized with a robust and dynamic widget system, through which sidebars and navigational menus can be displayed. The latest addition to this feature set is the ability to create custom menus. Essentially, the site administrator chooses pages, post categories or external URLs to link to, and a widget is created that compiles these links. When defining the contents of several such menus, a series of horizontal tabs lets the administrator choose which menu to expand and work with. Unlike Web browser tabs, these tabs have a fixed width; if you have more menus than can fit on your screen, arrows appear that allow you to scroll left and right to find the one you want.

The new custom menus are a user-friendly feature, but not a particularly innovative one; such listings have always been possible in WordPress by creating a blank "arbitrary text or HTML" widget and then hand-coding an HTML list. However, users who don't know HTML or prefer a more elegant interface will appreciate this feature.

Blogging

The basic act of writing a blog post has seen no overt overhaul. There are some renamed buttons and other minor tweaks, such as a sleeker interface for comparing changes between revisions of a blog post. Otherwise, the look and feel of the writing process is identical with the previous release, WordPress 2.9.2.

Custom post types let WordPress serve as not only a blog platform, but as a movie database.
Hidden from the standard user is the ability to create custom post types and tags. A typical WordPress post is an entry in a chronological blog, with tags that serve as keywords. With WordPress 3.0, it's possible to create a database entry that represents not a blog post, but, for example, a film, with metadata that specifies the actors, director, film studio and release date.

The potential applications for this feature are vast, such as creating a cross-referenced and searchable film database, or a calendar that tracks event venues and costs, without a specific plug-in required for each purpose. But such applications are not obvious, which is likely why custom post types are not available out of the box, requiring either a plug-in or familiarity with editing WordPress's functions.php file.

Conclusion

WordPress 3.0 adds powerful features and additional complexity for those who go looking for them. Almost all the major changes are under the hood, while other changes are so minor that a casual blogger might not even notice the difference. Custom post types and multisite blog networks are versatile tools that are hidden from the average user but can give experienced administrators the tools they need to realize their visions.

However, these new features shouldn't get in the way of users who prefer the standard suite of tools. The basic package is no more difficult to use than before, and is in fact cleaner and more logical in many places. Power users will appreciate the additional features and tweaks, while others may consider this upgrade to be more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Although I run multiple and separate installations of WordPress, migrating them into a WordPress 3.0 network of blogs would prove difficult, if not impossible. That doesn't change the fact that WordPress 3.0 is a significantly more capable program than its predecessor. I'll upgrade my sites because each version of WordPress is more versatile than the last.

As with most software, official support for older versions of WordPress will eventually cease. If you're not already running 2.9.2, you'll want to upgrade to at least that to ensure a stable environment. Administrators with elaborate or esoteric needs should update to WordPress 3.0 immediately. Others without an immediate need could wait for the inevitable 3.0.1 bug fix, which will most likely come a month or two after the release.

Ken Gagne covers Macs, retrocomputing and electronic entertainment. Follow Ken on Twitter at @IDGagne, read his Computerworld blog, or subscribe to his news and features RSS feed.

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