CMS Made Simple review – Open Source CMS’s

CMS Made Simple ReviewThis is my CMS Made Simple review, the first of my content management system (CMS) reviews comparing alternatives to WordPress.

CMS Made Simple (CMSMS) is an open source PHP based CMS first released in 2004.  It was designed primarily for editable static-ish websites rather than blogs.  However CMSMS has plugins which enable other implementations such as blogs and ecommerce.

The system can be found here: http://www.cmsmadesimple.org/

Last time I made a website using CMSMS it was on version 1.6.  Now it is on version 1.11, so I’m interested to see whether there have been major changes to the usability of the system over the last few years.

So here is my CMS Made Simple review.

Download and Install

Download of CMSMS is in the form of a zip file just under 5Mb in size.

Installation is similar to WordPress.  In short you:

  • Create a MySQL database for your site
  • Upload the files to the server
  • Load up www.yoursite.com/install
  • Follow the instructions

It probably takes a few minutes longer than WordPress.  There are 7 steps in the installation process, but it’s no more technical and doesn’t require any more technical knowledge.

Default Theme

Once installed you can go to the front of the website to see the default theme:

cmsms default theme

The CMS can be set up with some default content.  It’s a good idea to do so on your first install for a couple of reasons.

  1. When you are testing themes you can see how they look with content in
  2. The content the instructions on how to use the CMS

The admin area

The admin side is also visible and the CMS Home area gives you an idea of the functions that are available.

cmsms admin

 

My initial reaction is that they have improved the admin area over how it appeared in older versions.  It seems intuitive and looks like menu items are easy to find.  Over the course of the course of my tests with CMSMS I found that this was correct.  Things remain where you expect them to be even after adding modules and themes, which is one gripe I have with WordPress (plugin makers seem to add menu items wherever the hell they want to in WordPress).

Prettify URLs in CMSMS

It’s important to get your URL structure correct from the start so this is the first thing I updated after the install.

CMSMS has a well documented way to give you a search engine friendly structure that you can find here:

http://docs.cmsmadesimple.org/configuration/pretty-url

It works easily and I ended up with a URL structure of the form http://www.mysite.com/post-name.html within about 5 minutes.

Change theme

If my memory serves me correctly the changing of themes in CMSMS is less intuitive than in WordPress.

The theme area on the CMSMS website is easy to use.  There are about 200 free themes available to download.  A brief scan through shows a wide range of styles so you should be able to find something suitable for your website.   None seem to have the sophistication of some of the themes available on WordPress.

freshmedia

A brief search on Google for some premium themes showed up a small range available for around $35 per theme.  However, this review is really designed to compare what you can do for free so I’m limited to the free themes.

I chose a theme called Freshmedia. It’s fairly clean looking and looks fresh (as per the title).

Initial install was easy.  CMSMS utilizes an XML installation method – you just upload the XML file and the system goes and grabs the required files for you.  In this way it’s early as easy as WordPress’s one click installation.

However, straight from install it was necessary to make some changes to the themes template files to even make it work.  This was not a major problem since the necessary changes are documented on the theme information page, but this doesn’t tend to happen with WordPress themes – at least those that are features by the CMS itself.

Changing the Sidebar and Footer Areas

Here is another difference between WP and CMSMS.  The text in the footer area is hard coded into the theme.  This strikes me as ludicrous since the CMS allows for “global content areas” that are roughly equivalent to WordPress Text widgets.

Themes would be better off including a call to a global content block in the template files and adding installation instructions to inform users to create those content blocks.

But this theme is free, and presumably the “payment” the theme maker gets for his work is the multitude of link he gets from people who install the theme but don’t remove the links.

In this case, a quick search showed me that this is very easy to implement by replacing the content in the template footer with a call to a global content block:

{global_content name=’footerLeft’ }

In every case that there was something hard coded into the template I created a global content block and referenced it in the template.

Whilst this is a criticism of the maker of the free theme (who quite frankly is free to make whatever theme he wants to) I would expect CMSMS to improve things to make their system more usable.  Anyone who is much less technical than I am would not have been able to fix the theme, and probably abandoned the whole CMS.

So Global Content Blocks do give you a good degree of flexibility, but the system is nowhere near as user friendly as WordPress’s widgets.

Adding / Manipulating Content

Pages text

Text content management is one place the CMSMS is good.  The pages are displayed in a hierarchical list with collapsible parent / child relationships. Pages can be easily moved around in this hierarchy and the display order on the front end reflects this.

Editing of a single page is also easy with a built in WYSIWYG editor.  Pages can also be given individual templates if necessary so you can slightly change the layout for specific areas of your site.

Images

Frustrating!  CMSMS employs a WYSIWYG editor by default, so why does it not have the ability to add an image?  It makes adding an image to your pages a nightmare.  There is an image tag available for inserting images of the form {image src=”image.jpg”} but this tag does not include the align=”” parameter.  Therefore if you want a right aligned image you need to enter the <img src=”http://fullimagepath/image.jpg” align=”right”/> code as plain html.

Really, for a “user friendly” CMS this is unacceptable.

Note that I I tried to install a module to provide a different WYSIWYG editor with image functions included, but although the install was successful, the WYSIWYG editor didn’t appear on the page editor.  I’m sure this can be fixed, but this process was supposed to see how good the system was, not to spend hours fixing bugs, so I gave up.

Plugins

CMSMS uses a module system that allows you to download, install and use modules without altering the core of the CMS. Modules are available on the CMSMS website developer’s forge.

Like WordPress, modules are available to be installed directly; This is done via an XML file that you download onto your computer and then install.  Alternatively you can download the code, upload it to your server and the module will be ready for install.  This one extra step in not too much of a chore but WordPress wins again in terms of simplicity and usability.

Contact Form

It was quite a surprise to me that the ability to add a contact form to your website is not available in the default version.

Form Builder is the module I used, and once installed it was simply a matter of adding the form code to the relevant page and was done.

All the forms in this module are customizable so you can modify them to your heart’s content.

Blog

You can use the pre-installed “News” module as a blog.  But if you had to choose, you never would choose this (you can probably tell I’m getting a bit down on CMSMS by now).

Google analytics

A simple module install makes Google Analytics work.  But there is again a usability problem compared with the most popular WordPress modules. With the CMSMS module, installation is made more complicated because you have to add a piece of code to your template to call the GA code.  Not a major problem, but if you change theme you must make sure you add it to the new theme as well.

Events

For this I installed the EventsListing module.  Installation was easy and adding events and event categories seems to be easy. Adding the events listing into the pages was fairly easy too, though some styling changes would definitely be necessary.

Updates

One of the other things that WordPress does so well is dealing with updates to core files, themes and plugins. I’m not running this test over a long enough time scale to see whether updates to the core CMS would be easy or not, so can’t really pass judgement on this.

CMS Made Simple Review Summary

In conclusion, it’s no surprise that CMSMS has nowhere near the number of installations that WordPress does.

  • Installation has a few quirks that make it less user friendly than WordPress.
  • The free themes that I tried are not particularly well put together and take some editing to make work how you want them to.
  • Content editing (images especially) is poor.
  • Modules are few and far between and don’t always work.

In short, WordPress is better.  About 4 or 5 years ago the different was less pronounced, but even then I switched to WordPress and never went back.  And WordPress has progressed in the interim, whereas CMSMS has largely stood still.

It’s understandable; Once something is better it gets used more; Once it gets used more, more development is done, more modules and themes are created and the difference accelerates.

WordPress now has the momentum and CMSMS doesn’t look like it can compete.

The CMS Reviews

CMS Made Simple

About Tim Elliott

Been working in the online world for well over a decade. Still learning.

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