Expression Engine vs Textpattern

Once people got wind that I’d been trying out Expression Engine, I’ve been badgered with the question “Which one should I use: Textpattern or Expression Engine?”. This post is to try and answer that, but be warned it’s going to be a long one!

When choosing a CMS for a site, I would say that there are 2 main factors in the choice:

  • What you want to use it for
  • Personal feel

The latter can’t be argued. It’s a tool, and what feels right to me, won’t necessarily feel right for someone else, and this a very important point. The former is a bit more tangible however.

Just as I like to try out every browser to make sure I’m not missing anything, I feel the need to dabble in as many CMS’s as I can. I’ve flirted with Wordpress (loved the theme system, hated the template tags use of raw PHP), Pivot, MovableType (used on the first version of Hicksdesign), Sympony (burnt my fingers on the paid pre 1.0 beta), Tumblr and EE. I feel I should mention Chyrp here too, as I recently tried and loved it – logical layout, nimble and simple without being too simple.

However, each time, I come back to Textpattern.

My last date with EE was 2 years ago. I spent a few days getting used to it, and got into the idea of template groups and found it a really flexible CMS. However it didn’t offer me enough over Textpattern to make it feel worth the effort of converting my site over. Without a real life project to use it on, that EE knowledge faded away. In the meantime, every other designer on the planet has raved about EE. So much so that it was a bit of a turn off ;o)

Recently, I decided I needed to try EE again, so instead of replicating my site, where I couldn’t see any advantages, I picked on my wife Leigh’s site Hicksmade. So, after a week of re-acquainting myself with it, I can now see why EE is raved about so much, and where it would be useful. I was helped along by Ryan Irelan’s excellent EE Screencasts (very highly recommended!) and EE buddies Simon Clayson and Brian Warren.

Excuse the bullet list, but here is where EE shines:

  • The key thing about EE to me is more fine grain control over everything (with some exceptions!), right down to whether a page is cached or what fields are available when posting to certain weblogs. Everything can be tweaked to your personal preference. This level of control isn’t necessary all the time however, so that would be the first deciding factor in EE over TXP.
  • Members and member management is other main feature that would make me decide to use EE over TXP. I can think of 2 sites I’d created in TXP that would’ve benefited from this.
  • Custom Fields madness! Textpattern has a great plugin to provide similar functionality, but the level of control and ability to associate the fields with a certain section is great, and of course, built in.
  • It’s the same with categories. The rss_unlimited_categories plugin for TXP provides a lot of what EE does by default but not all. Categories are a weak area in TXP, only allowing a maximum of 2, without clean URLs.
  • The Multiple Site Manager is genius. Again, something that can kind of be replicated with a TXP plugin, but it feels like a hack in comparison.
  • You can edit the templates in a text editor, rather than via control panel. Lovely! (You still have to create the template in EE first, but hey.)

All good so far! But wait! Here come the rants!

  • My biggest beef with EE is the admin panel. I find it needlessly complicated, with options hidden behind many overly-wordy, illogical links and dropdowns. While a certain amount of this is inevitable with the level of control that it offers, it’s certainly more painful than it needs to be. The longer I have to look at it, the angrier I get!
  • EE promotes itself as a CMS, rather than blogging tool, yet out of the box it insists on referring to ‘weblogs’. This can be changed through one of many preferences to something more logical like ‘section’, but the template tags will still refer to weblogs. Harumph.
  • /index.php/ shouldn’t be in URLs by default, and it’s right pain to get rid of (but you can do it). Likewise, getting simple /section/title/ urls requires a lot of work. For something so flexible, getting the URLs I want is painful. With a new site this isn’t so bad, you can put up with the extra URL segment, but when converting a site from TXP, and not wanting to write large .htaccess redirections, it’s vital.
  • EE seems obsessed with statistics, time taken to render page etc. It’s all superflous fluff. Generally, I’m left with the feeling of “I wish I could just get rid of this bit hereā€¦”
  • A smaller rant, I’m none too keen on the tags: some require exp: at the start, some don’t.
  • File management is behind Textpattern, which has more control over uploaded images and files. This really surprised me! There is a good file manager plugin for EE, but this review is looking at built-in functionality.

The upshot is, that for a lot of client sites, EE is wonderful (if you can put up with the admin side) – especially sites that need members, forums and all that jazz. The thing is, if a site doesn’t need those things, it’s less pain and more pleasure to use TXP.

I keep coming back to TXP because:

  • I love the control panel. Clients love the control panel. When you first log in – it takes you to the write tab. It assumes the first thing you want to do is add content, not look at a dashboard with a load of statistics. It may not be the most aesthetically pleasing, but it’s clear and laid out logically – Content, Presentation and Admin. It’s clear where you need to go to add new content, change layout and edit preferences
  • I love Textpattern’s XML style tag system. For someone like me who writes in HTML, it clicks instantly, and has a consistent structure that aids recollection.
  • TXP’s file management and automagic thumbnail creation/relation with it’s parent image
  • In general, I feel I can do a lot with Textpattern, and quickly.

So, in summary, I like both, and which one I use will depend on the job in hand. EE v2 will bring with it a redesigned admin panel, and seeing as that is my biggest complaint, I’m keen to see if it improves the situation. The wee preview that was given at SXSW looked a bit ‘created last minute’, but even that looked hopeful.

The Hickensian is the journal of Jon Hicks, one half of the creative partnership Hicksdesign. Take a look at the work we do.

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