ForumEngine is a premium WordPress theme from Engine Themes. It’s the second release from the Vietnamese studio after their well-received Job Engine job board theme for WordPress. This time they have created a WordPress discussion forum theme that brings forum functionality to WordPress.
The ForumEngine theme is installed like a regular theme, either by uploading the zip file through the WordPress admin dashboard or by transferring the files using FTP software. Once installed and activated, a new menu item is added to the WordPress admin area entitled ‘Engine Settings’.
Configuring the Theme
The theme management area, located under the ‘Engine Settings’ menu item, allows you to setup the theme and customise its functionality. The menu is divided into three sections which include Overview, Settings and Members.
The first section, Overview, gives you access to usage stats for the forum on your site, showing registrations and thread statistics. This data can be viewed for a number of predetermined date ranges, from seven days to one year.
Under the settings menu item, the main features and options for the ForumEngine theme can be managed. These settings include the logo for your site, the title and description and your social links. While the admin area for the theme had a well-designed appearance, the fact that many of the fields, such as those for social profiles and Google Analytics are mandatory, means that until they are filled in the other settings could not be accessed. I know most people do have Facebook, Twitter and Google Analytics accounts these days but this did seem a little draconian.
From the theme management pages, site members can also be managed. This includes regular members of your site that existed before installing the theme and those created via the forum sign up process.
The theme settings also used well-designed icons next to the features such as warning signs and red padlocks but there was no hover tooltip information for them so it wasn’t possible to determine what they were trying to indicate.
As well as the theme management options in the dashboard, the theme also creates two new custom posts types entitled ‘Threads’ and ‘Replies’. These post types are how the forum content is managed by admin users, and this content can be viewed and edited via the WordPress admin area. As the theme uses custom post types, creating a new thread or reply via the WP backend takes place using the familiar WordPress post editor. Threads can also have their own categories and tags, which are separate from the regular post categories and tags in WordPress.
Front End Experience
With ForumEngine installed on your site, the site now functions as a forum, which the threads accessed directly from the homepage. Any existing posts that might’ve been on the site or those you create afterward activating the theme will now no longer be accessible, essentially removing the main functionality of WordPress: creating posts so bare that in mind if you wish to use this alongside a regular blog - you would need a separate installation.
However, if you click on a link to a post and try to view it, you can see the post title displayed in the same style as a forum thread. Although unlike clicking on a forum thread title, you cannot see the post content.
All forum threads are displayed on the homepage, no matter what category they have been posted under. However, threads can filtered by category or sub-category. Clicking on a thread title displays the content of the post and any replies that have been left.
From the homepage of your site, your readers can begin posting new threads or replying to existing ones. The login process is very simple and just requires the user to enter a name, email address and password. The new topic creation functionality is pretty nice as it allows non-registered users to enter their response before promoting them to login or join the site.
This should hopefully encourage users to make the effort to sign up since they have already crafted their post. New users are simply created as regular WordPress users, who can be managed from the user area in the admin dashboard area or through the theme management options covered earlier. New users are given the WordPress role of subscriber.
While creating a new topic of leaving a reply, it is possible to preview your entry inline simply by selecting a checkbox. This is a good feature as you can see how your post will be displayed to other reading the forum.
When it comes to accommodating users on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, ForumEngine eschews the on-going responsive design explosion and offers a dedicated mobile version built from scratch. In fact Engine Themes build the mobile version first, and the desktop second, with their themes designed to work like native mobile apps. While this sounds like a sensible approach, it’s a shame that the admin areas of the theme don’t resize when the browser window resizes to allow them to be viewed on smaller screens that are not mobile devices.
Support & Documentation
Engine Themes claims their products are never finished, with their themes taking life as living projects. This means ForumEngine is likely to receive many tweaks and improvements during its lifetime. Thankfully the theme dashboard allows you to apply these regular updates at the touch of a button rather than through downloading and uploading new files.
When it comes to online support and documentation, there isn’t much available on the Theme Engines website. Most of the support materials are for their other theme Job Engine. While the theme is relatively straightforward to setup, some documentation would’ve been appreciated, especially explaining the new functionality that is added to the site, as well as what is removed.
Customers of Engine Themes can post questions on the Ask the Community section of their site or contact the team via email. However it is not possible for those without login credentials (i.e. customers) to contact support, although there is a contact form for getting in touch.
ForumEngine is available for $49. You are getting much more than just a regular theme here. Like their other offering Job Engine, a theme that turns WordPress into a job site, this theme turns your site into a discussion forum.
The price also includes layered PSD files, weekly updates, lifetime support and use on an unlimited amount of sites.
ForumEngine does turn your site into a discussion forum, replacing the traditional WordPress homepage and removing the post functionality. If that is what you want then this could be a good option. However, other options for adding discussion forums to WordPress sites, such as plugins that allow integration with other forum services, offer more features and flexibility in terms of where the forum is displayed (i.e. not on the homepage) while still allowing your site to function as a WordPress blog.
From a design perspective, the theme looks good and has a professional appearance. It uses muted colours, a flat and minimal design that is up to date and follows current WordPress design trends.
One specific issue I noticed concerns the handling of user accounts. When a user registers via the forum interface, they can then login to the WordPress admin dashboard as an account is created for them as a WordPress user. Although it’s only in the role of subscriber, I found they could still access potentially sensitive information with one plugin I had installed on the site I was testing the theme on. While this isn’t the fault of Theme Engine, it’s something to be aware of if you’ve not previously allowed users to create their own accounts on your WordPress site. ( This can be prevented pretty easily with use of an extra plugin ).
Another issue that arose was when selecting a logo for the site using the Engine Settings area. Once a logo has been chosen, there is no way to remove it unless you upload a different one. If you want to revert to having no logo then there isn’t anything you can do about that through the admin interface. Also, when hovering over the avatar of a contributor to the forum, the image was resized strangely.
The ForumEngine theme doesn’t quite feel like a finished product. While Engine Themes are happy to admit that their themes are never finished and are constantly updated, this feels like it wasn’t ready for release. The version we reviewed was version 1.0 so I'm sure these small issues will be ironed out in the next update.