Battle of the Titans: Premium Theme Framework Smackdown

I have provided updates for the problems reported with each theme on their pages in this report. We can provide one update per framework as long as something significant has changed (as in a new release of the theme).

For a few days now, I’ve been looking closely at the four major theme frameworks. There are many premium themes. I, in fact, for the time, am using one from Woo Themes that I’ve modified to fit here. However, there are only four that I see as worthy competitors among the elite theme frameworks.

I will be using affiliate links when referencing all of them just because, if you choose to use any of them based on this article, I don’t mind collecting a commission fee. This does not indicate my endorsement of any of them. In fact, quite the opposite. I expect you’ll find me to be a hard, but objective critic of all of them.

The four theme frameworks: Thesis 1.7, Headway 1.6.1, Genesis 1.1.1, and Builder 2.3.11.

Report Scope and Prism

When I went about gathering data on this post, I heard a lot of back and forth from those in the WordPress community about why they liked or disliked each of these themes. Some of the issues were restrictive licensing that flies in the face of the open society that is WordPress. Other things were lingering effects from the Great Premium Theme Pissing Matches™ of 2008. Still others were about how user-friendly the themes were for users. In this report, I put all of that aside and look strictly from the perspective of infrastructure, data, security and WordPress core feature support.

All metrics that have been taken were created equally via a local installation of WordPress (eliminating network latency), with no plugins installed, 10,000 blog posts and 10,000 pages. The data points were taken in the context of a stress test and may or may not reflect actual usage. However, large scale stress is something to be concerned with for any site that is large or plans to become large. How the server handles database transactions, and file load is an integral part of a long term strategy. Each theme was deployed with no configuration changes beyond default settings provided by the theme. The results are fascinating.

This is a seven page article so click through to each new page to read the analysis of each theme.

Photo by icantcu

46 Replies to “Battle of the Titans: Premium Theme Framework Smackdown”

      1. Hi Aaron,

        Seth Atwood here. I recently joined the Frugal Development Team and am responsible for a majority of the new features in our recent release of Frugal v.3.3.

        No offense taken, but I must say we’re a bit puzzled here at Frugal HQ. We know our theme is rock-solid, more feature-rich, more powerful, and easier to use than the majority of other ‘framework’ themes.

        I’m wondering if the reason you don’t consider Frugal to be one of the top frameworks is based on your experience with using Frugal, or simply based on the fact that Frugal is not surrounded with buzz and hype like the ‘big dogs’?

        We firmly believe that anyone who installs and experiments with Frugal would absolutely consider it a top framework, if not -the- top framework on the market today.

        We’d be happy to provide a free review copy of Frugal for you to play with, so that maybe we’ll be on the radar for your next review. Feel free to email me at seth at frugaltheme dot com if you’re interested.


        1. Seth, I’m sure Frugal is a great framework. It’s just not in widespread circulation so I can’t consider it one of the top frameworks. Keep on working on it. If enough people use it the next time I do something like that, I’ll include it.

  1. From an SEO standpoint I see major advantage with Thesis, from a UI standpoint I’m totally a believer in Woo, from a customization standpoint call me old school but I’d rather work with CSS. I’m impressed with the growth of Genesis. So there seems to be advantages to all of them.

  2. Thanks for the review of Builder Aaron.

    You’re right on the money with most points, but I’d like to point out that 3.0 menu support has been in Builder since March 3 (WordPress 3.0 Menus Demo Video on iThemes Builder). You make use of the menus by selecting one from the Navigation module options.

    I’m busily trying to push out a new beta plugin that will extend the SEO features. You can see a preview of these options here. Once the beta testing finishes, the features will be rolled into Builder in order to replace the current SEO feature set.

    As for the L10n, we have Ronald, our head of support, in from the Netherlands this week. He’s working with me to add full internationalization / localization support to Builder. So that should be out soon too.

    As for BuddyPress support and file size, I’ll get those added to my list of to-dos.

    Thanks again for doing the thorough review.

  3. You can’t beat Builder for ease of use and the support, I can ask them anything and get an answer quickly. The guys in the forum are the best I’ve seen.

  4. Aaron, great job with the review, and thanks for writing this up. It’s interesting to see the strengths and downfalls of each framework, and I appreciate the chance to take this information and make Genesis even better than it is now. I’d love to see the results of our database query if we disabled the automatic loading of pages/categories (which is something that even Twenty Ten does.) Nonetheless, we’re very happy with the results.

  5. Brilliant and thorough overview of them all Aaron and can see this post becoming THE resource for developers looking for some answer to where to stick their cash!

    We are still undecided in terms of making one of them our standard framework but have been experimenting with Headway the most.

  6. For those who may be new to WordPress, and the community, can you provide your definition of theme “framework” since there has been some discussion in the community recently as to what is and what isn’t a “framework”. Great article and good analysis of each of the frameworks. Would you consider the new Canvas theme from Woo to be a “framework”?

  7. I’m hoping a community-developed framework will become available with the same level of theme options as these premium frameworks. Perhaps built on a Thematic base?

    Surprised Woo wasn’t in here. Perhaps it doesn’t have enough hooks to qualify as a true framework yet.

  8. Outstanding comparison Aaron.

    FWIW – I’m a long time WP user but not a techie by any stretch of the imagination. Through the flexibility and usability of Thesis along with the incredible community support I have been able to begin actually “developing” blogs for customers. This is something I never dreamed I would be doing and I’m quite thankful.

  9. Great review, very detailed. Although I must admit i’m curious as to why BuddyPress capability is one of the criteria considering BuddyPress is still very much a niche market AND it’s a plugin and not part of the WordPress core itself.

  10. I’ve only got experience using Thesis and a bit of Headway, so I’m already biased. That, and I’ve always preferred to ‘roll my own’ for most sites. That being said, this looks pretty objective and straightforward to me. Good job keeping out the politics as well.

  11. Finally, a real review post about frameworks. My only criticism is that I think you should have also addressed multi-site support. Thesis and Headway are what I would consider single-site frameworks from the standpoint of deciding to not incorporate the WP parent/child theme approach and instead contain customizations within the actual theme folder.

    On the surface, that might not sound like a big deal, but it really is. With the launch of 3.0 (with the MU merge) far more people are going to be exploring running multiple sites from a single install. And those that do that, will ultimately find that going with a parent/child framework is far superior to the kind of core-file hacks ( required for themes like Thesis.

    1. True true. I think this is similar to the WP3.0 menu thing. A lot of theme developers don’t have much experience with WPMU (lets face it, it can be a PITA sometimes), and have found it easy to steer clear of it. Hopefully with the merge there won’t be much excuse not to investigate & support it. So, they might not support it now, but probably shouldn’t lose points for it (unless you’re actually trying to build on WPMU now) until multi-site is more widely used.

      1. Agreed, especially since there really should be not much difference (theme-wise) between WP and WPMU. They use the exact same theme functions.

  12. This does seem to be the first “real” theme review. Though, I’m not at all convinced that BuddyPress compatibility, WP3 menu compatibility, “raw” number of hooks + filters, WP thumbnail support and WP security API are all valid metrics that can lead to a definitive answer to “what is the best theme.”

    Also, there seems to be an underlying assumption that theme devs should “yield” to wordpress functionality. I don’t believe that is necessary whatsoever. What happens when a theme makes a better menu system than wordpress? Will they still be considered failing for not working with WP3 menu?

    I suppose I am of the opinion that file size, page load time, raw sql and database calls should consist of 99% of the score for each theme. Everything else seems comparatively frivolous. And, I’m sorry but 10 000 database calls is unacceptable for a theme to be placed at the top. I understand this was a “stress test”, but still…

    Note on security: I think it is important, but I’m not convinced that interfacing with WordPress’ security api matters. I’d like to see a more in-depth security assessment of each theme. That would be the only objective way to truly assess a theme’s security.

    1. I wasn’t trying to answer the question of which was the best theme. That’s your job. I look at measurable data metrics and present them equally. How you use that information is part of the user choice.

      1. In your Wrap Up you say “the best framework is Genesis with an 84%.” I think that statement speaks for itself.

    2. To address your criticism of database calls, the reason is simple. Genesis loads your pages and categories in the navbar by default. I suppose we can disable that and make every user create their own menu when they want to use a theme, but that’s not super practical either. When WP 3.0 drops, we will meet in the middle all of this will be a moot point.

  13. The term framework is so over used it isnt funny. How about you define the term first? Also, where is Thematic? Thematic is by far more of a true framework than any of these, which should be more aptly described as limited software packages built on WP.

    Also, 10k calls for genesis and you give it that grade?

    1. Just a follow up, on Monday we are dropping Genesis 1.1.1 which will reduce the database calls to 12. Like I said before, it was simply because of an option we had pushed in by default. Case closed.

      1. Thanks Brian. I’ll update this post with new grades and status updates ONE time per theme framework. So the theme framework folks can let me know if and when they address the issues here and I can update the post. This is evergreen content so I want to be fair for the long haul but I can’t commit to maintaining changelogs for everyone indefinitely. :)

        1. Isn’t evergreen content slightly too pretentious if you call stress test the equivalent of bloated database?
          I’m sorry but I fail too see where the stress test is in this review, other than that you could call out Genesis for their arguably wrong selection.

          If you already singled out database calls and file size, the ‘stress test’ results will obviously be influenced by these (without looking deeper / taking Joe Average approach here).

          But ‘file size’ of a theme doesn’t really matter, does it? What does matter instead is how large, or small, the downloaded theme files are on a new WordPress install, how large the included libraries are and how much of the ‘theme size’ is reserved for libraries in the theme options panel.
          Also does matter whether the libraries are called on every page load or only when required by a widget/slider/script (this is one you know better than anyone else, I bet you have worked hard at that when still at b5).

          So basically you need to set up at least three different blogs:
          1. Standard ‘blog’, one column, one sidebar. Mainly text;
          2. ‘Blog’ with double sidebar, widget overload and footer as high as the main content area itself;
          3. Magazine with ‘featured’ slider (and widget overload).

          Now start hammering that server and tell me at what load every theme failed. After all I want to have highly trafficked sites but might totally not be itnerested in having 12,984,312,385,723 pages.

          Including the complete Builder functionality within the ‘Theme file size’ seems rather unfair IMHO.

          Disclosure: I have decided to use Genesis for all my future products.

  14. Aaron

    Honestly, I think with these findings at hand, why don’t you build a framework?

    Let me be your first customer. Price doesn’t matter!

    I’m a pretty satisfied customer of Thesis, but your findings on security issues have bugged me to the core.

  15. That’s a great review Aaron.

    What would be interesting is to take another look at the same 4 frameworks and the same criteria in say 6 months or a year’s time, as an indicator of their growth and improvement in the meantime. Perhaps also do a separate report on them (and any new frameworks that emerge) using criteria that’s appropriate at the time of the review.

  16. I work with Grant & Clay on Headway, and I just wanted to thank you for the fair review for all the themes along reasonable criteria.

    We’re always looking to improve Headway and you’ve given some great feedback for that.

    1. Hi Michael,

      I forgot to hit reply to your comment yesterday but if you get this, look further down for another comment of mine where I was asking a couple questions about Headway before I decide to buy it. I sent an email to support as well but not reply yet. Same on Twitter this morning. Thanks!

  17. Aaron,

    This is one of the most comprehensive overview of WP theme frameworks. I really appreciate it that you took your time out and did this. I stick with my own framework that I created a while back (nothing public ;))

  18. A really good post, Aaron. Very thorough review that is causing me to do some rethinking.

    By the way, would you mind sharing why you have elected to go with WooThemes?

  19. I love it, great wrap up using a sound methodology that tells me more about the frameworks I don’t use (I’m a Thesis guy) than anything else I’ve read.

    Well done Aaron.

  20. Brian, I am having a horrible time working with the Genesis framework and your Executive theme, (our client) expects to reverse the wide format design, while including a gradient background, with texture, and a wider header. I am running out of div’s to style, I swear if I had just one more div I could make due…

    1. Jayson,
      Have you posted to the Genesis support forum? There’s a good chance that you’ll be able to everything you could want with the current markup provided, and the people on the forum will definitely help you figure out how to do it.

  21. Thanks very much for this review! I had already purchased and started using Thesis before reading it. It is definitely a solid theme but I must say it is a little more tedious and difficult to make it look like you want. And I’m not afraid of diving into code but, these days, I would really prefer to concentrate on design and getting the user experience right with a minimum of fuss.

    That is why I find the idea of Headway VERY appealing. But no support for internationalization makes it a non-starter for me. Come on guys, this is the *World Wide* Web and this is built into WordPress. The fact that it uses its own tables is a negative but not a deal breaker for me.

    @Michael Martine
    Micheal, I’m addressing this to you as you represent Headway here. I would really like to give it a whirl but I can’t justify spending the time learning it now if I cannot use it on my next client site which will be all French. Further, I would need to know how flexible and easy to tweak it is for people who also have good development skills. The marketing touts it as easy to use for designers but I would need to add some extra functionality that’s not built into in WP or any theme and to do so without modifying core files like Thesis. Can Headway do this? How friendly is it for devs (or more design inclined ppl that can code like me ;) Will you consider adding localization into a future update… in the not too distant future? Without that, Headway is basically useless for most of my client sites. Thanks!

  22. I purchased Headway after reading a lot of complimentary things about it, but then discovered what I feel is a huge flaw: it does not work properly if WordPress is installed in a subdirectory of your website’s document root.

    The site that I wish to use it on has much more going on it than just WordPress, so moving it [WP] is not an option. But can you imagine? It’s 2010 and software makers are still telling me *where* I have to install the s/w on my system?! It’s like Microsoft circa 2000.

    Anyway, no response from Headway support on getting a refund (yes I’m past the 30 day mark, but this is a huge issue IMO) or a workaround, and no one on the forums seems to have hacked it to work as such. BTW, I must give credit to a 3rd-party Headway developer (Corey Freeman) who tried to help me via e-mail.

    Ironically, I found this post in Headway’s forums. Great evaluation Aaron. I’d like to suggestion an additional metric for your next iteration – customer support. Sure, it’s tough to be truly objective here, but you can talk about things like # of members and posts in the forums, time to respond, # of support staff, etc.


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