Magento Review From the Perspective of a Store Owner

magento-reviewI’ve been using Magento for a few years now and built a number of sites with it, so feel have the knowledge to write an informed Magento review about the community version from the point of view of an ecommerce store owner.  You may get plenty of Magento reviews from SEO’s or web developers, here I will try to review it as a reasonably knowledgeable techy, but not a professional developer, and more importantly as an ecommerce store owner.

Magento Review

Magento is now probably the best (free) ecommerce software available. That’s an opinion, not a fact.  I say this after having researched and researched for days and days in 2010 to decide which platform to switch too.  My websites used to use osCommerce, and while I don’t want to go into a long talk about that platform, there were 3 main reasons to switch:

  • The necessity for PCI compliance
  • The need for multiple stores with one stock system
  • The slowness of the release cycle of osCommerce

Magento turned out to be the best free option to give me all that my previous shopping cart had, plus meet these criteria.

Hopefully this Magento review will be useful for those trying to make a decision about which shopping cart software to use.

Magento is Open Source

The Magento Community version is open source so you can download, install and modify it to your hearts content.  But let me say right now, it may be the best, most powerful and most versatile free system out there, it’s also fiendishly complicated for a novice.

Do not, whatever you do, expect to install it and have a shopping cart up and running with a custom theme within a few hours. You could say that about any ecommerce system, but Magento really is a steep learning curve and takes a while to get close to being a working site, unless you have very few products and simple design requirements.

The Open Source nature is also somewhat debatable.  The community version, whilst powerful is a pared down version of the Enterprise version, and that’s (I guess) where Varien, Magento’s original parent company (it’s now owned by ebay), made their money.

So whilst it’s open source and powerful, it’s not always free (or even cheap) to unleash that power.  More on that later on in this Magento review.

Note that the third option in the Magento ecosystem is “Magento Go”.  I haven’t tried this myself, and I would have liked to have done so for this Magento review, but I understand it’s a hosted version that’s somewhere between the community edition and the Enterprise edition in terms of functionality.

There’s a massive range of modules and themes

magento-connectThe Magento system is built on a framework that allows modules to be downloaded directly from Magento Connect, or uploaded from you own computer. Sounds a bit like WordPress, and it is in general, but in most cases far more complicated.

Magento Connect has a wide range of modules from third parties, ranging from people who just want to share a cool feature, to companies that (I guess) make a large portion of their income from Magento modules, upgrades and customization.

To that end it pays to have a test system up and running so that you don’t have to test things on your live site.

The modules themselves are not always compatible. and you should read all the reviews to check issues other people have had with them.  You may have to download and install a few different modules to find the one that does what you want.  To that end it pays to have a test system up and running so that you don’t have to test things on your live site.

And be warned, although there are a lot of free modules, the ones with serious functionality come at a price.  Usually they range from $19 – $99 but some are several hundred dollars.  Before deciding on Magento as you platform of choice it’s probably worth investigating what extra functionality you need and how much it’s likely to cost to achieve it.

I have recently started to make my own simple modules, but it can be incredibly hard to track down what changes are needed for even the most simple of modules.  So for the novice like me, it can also be an expensive prospect if you need some custom functionality.  Note that I was fairly competent and capable of adding “modules” to osCommerce, but Magento takes a lot longer to become familiar with.

Custom themes, free or professional?

hellothemesIt goes without saying that you will need a custom theme for your online store.  The default Magento theme is hideous and you’d be a fool to use it for your store.

There are a number of free themes available to download, but in my experience they’re all a bit naff.  Apologies to any of the creators of these themes.  While we all appreciate free stuff, that doesn’t always make it good. Just like WordPress, a lot of the free themes are created as a hook to get you to purchase a premium one.

What I’m saying is that you will almost certainly need to invest in a professional theme.  This doesn’t have to be particularly expensive as many themes are available for well under $100.  But you need to factor this into your equations.

And after installing a pro theme, if you’re used to WordPress themes you’re in for a shock. Magento themes don’t have the same admin functionality that lets you update logos and colours.  No, no, no.  With Magento, each of those can be several hours work, with changes made to the images and css files themselves.  And changing layouts can often require some deep research and reading.

Upgrading is a scary prospect

In theory the system is built to allow easy upgrading within a short timescale.  Because the modules and themes don’t overwrite any core files, the core of Magento can be upgraded without much disruption to the functioning of the store.

But in reality, if you have installed a few modules and added a custom theme, the prospect of updating your core files to the next version is frankly terrifying.  The last time I needed to do a major upgrade (from version 1.4.2 to to 1.6) I had to hire an external company to do the upgrade.  And even with their help I couldn’t get the existing theme to work so had to purchase and modify a new custom theme.

Security and PCI compliance

The security of the system seems very good.  I’m no expert on this front, but all PCI scans I’ve run on Magento stores have passed first time.  And I haven’t experienced any security breaches on any of the stores I’ve built.

It’s all about Speed

Site speed using the Community edition is one of the major disadvantages.  Magento sites seem to need a certain level of resources that you won’t find on cheap shared hosting packages.  It’s a more serious bit of software and needs more serious hardware.

The page load will be affected by:

  • your hosting package (dedicated RAM)
  • how many modules you have installed
  • the size of your catalogue (although in my experience this only really makes a great difference for large catalogues)
  • Whether you install page caching modules and how well you configure them
  • All the normal things that affect page load times

I may be wrong and I haven’t done specific tests for this, but I think a Magento store will be noticeably slower than an “identical” store run on other popular free ecommerce platforms.  You need to invest in the hardware to bridge the gap.

The Magento community is not the greatest

Prior to starting with Magento I was used to the osCommerce (OSC) community forums.  With OSC there was a feeling that everyone was in it together. People would offer answers to most questions pretty quickly and with good grace.  With Magento it can take weeks for a reply to any query; that’s if you get a reply at all. You just get used to it.  There are often answers to your question available if you search for them on Google.

So is Magento worth the trouble?

Reading back over this Magento review it must seem like I hate Magento.  Well yes, I do.  With a passion.  But I suppose that’s the essence of a great relationship, because I love it too.  It’s a ball breaker.  It tantalizes with it’s power and versatility, and then it knocks you back with its complexity and speed problems.  And then kicks you while you’re down with its complexity (again) and the added costs you weren’t expecting.

Maybe I’m deluded, but I still believe it’s the best open source ecommerce software available right now, but it certainly makes you work for the rewards.


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