Review – vBulletin 3.0

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vBulletin is commonly used to create interactive communities on a huge scale. This PHP-based bulletin board has been employed on some of the most well known Websites, including Linkin Park, SitePoint and Winamp, to name a few.

Known for its extensive feature set, vBulletin 2 is the choice for the professional Webmaster, but the soon-to-be-released version 3.0 promises to wipe the floor with any of its competitors. After interviewing the Lead Developer, I obtained a copy of vB3 RC3, which is the very latest copy and almost ready to go gold. The only additions that will be made to the gold release are the manual and some modified images (plus fixes for any bugs reported by users). As such, I’m able to review it here, to allow you to decide whether vBulletin is the right system for you.

Installation

Although there are many steps required to install vB3, the installation process couldn’t really be simpler! After you’ve downloaded the package from the members’ area and extracted it, you are presented with an Uploads Directory.

Before you upload, you’re asked to rename the includes/config.php.new file to config.php, then, following the instructions provided within the file’s comments, to edit the contents to match your site setup. This file includes configuration options to allow certain administrators access to given admin features — SQL query execution and administrator permissions are some of these. The configuration of these settings within this file is a good idea, because it ensures that admin options are set by the board founder and prevents any take-over of the forums by malicious administrators.

Once this is done, and the files are uploaded, simply browse to yourdomain.com/install/install.php to start the installation. This is the first time that you will be presented with the new vB3 default admin template — and it’s pretty good-looking!

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Because vB is not a free product, the first thing you need to do is input your customer number to authorize your copy. Once you’ve done this, you’ll be re-directed to the installer script, where the on-screen instructions guide you through a very painless process. All you have to do — until you reach step 9 — is click "Next!" Step 9 asks for basic information about your forum, as you can see in the screenshot below (click to see a larger image).

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Once you’ve completed this step, you’re asked to delete the install.php file before continuing to the main board.

Administrator Control Panel

The vB3 admin control panel has the greatest number of options of any admin panel I’ve ever seen!
The template and colours hit you as soon as you log in — deep blue and silver, like the installation system. This can become a little overpowering after a while, however, and I’d prefer a lighter admin template, which is, of course, possible if you’re prepared to edit the default template or obtain one that someone else has modified. Alternatively, you could choose to use the silver template, or revert to the vB2 admin template if you wished.

The control panel home presents you with a user PHP and MySQL function lookup, along with the Jelsoft credits. However, you can configure that homepage to show extra statistics such as Database Data Disk Usage, Unique Registered Visitors Today and Custom Profile Picture Disk Usage.

The first thing you’ll want to do is edit the Options. You can select to edit different sections of the Options, or view all settings on a single page, which allows you to update them all at once — a nice touch, in my opinion.

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This page includes a wealth of customisable options, which range from disabling your board, altering meta tags, optimising server usage, and setting censorship levels, to defining what is to be shown on each page. Every element you could ever want to change or set can be accessed from within the vBulletin Options page. And, if you get stuck, context-sensitive help is available for almost every option.

In vBulletin 3, the styling system has had a total overhaul, and has been made extremely powerful. Every aspect of your styles can easily be edited via the admin control panel. You create a new template based upon the default, then use the interface to edit the HTML code, fonts, colours, CSS — even the WYSIWYG posting editor colours and menu images. This really takes customisation to the extreme — it even includes options for custom variables and PHP support, and you can edit each individual page template as well.

Some users will want the ability to download the template pages and edit them in their editor of choice; unfortunately, this isn’t immediately possible with vB3, in which everything is edited via the admin panel. However, there’s nothing to stop those users copying the template HTML from the Web editor into their favourite editors, editing it there, then pasting it back into the template editor form.

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Once you finish editing the template, why not go ahead and edit the copy that appears within the pages of your bulletin board? You can alter every word, phrase and description directly from the admin control panel, so there’s no need to up and download files to edit the content that’s displayed! However, while all the text is grouped into sections, there are some 49 pages of phrases that you’ll have to trawl through to edit. If you wanted to edit all the copy, it could be a real pain.

The categories, forums and permissions system is quite complex, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s difficult to use. Users can specify a number of options for every forum they create. You might decide to create notifications of new posts, set moderation options for new posts/topics, set up warning options, define a custom template, set up password protection, and enable or disable a range of other features.

This functionality provides you complete control over your forums and categories. And, to make sure you don’t have to set the same options for each separate forum, the system remembers what you selected previously, and automatically sets those choices as the default for any new forums/categories you create. You can also set up a forum as a link, and redirect forums users who click on it to a URL that you specify. You can define moderators as individual users or groups, which is where the permissions system comes in very handy.

vB offers a set of default usergroups — unregistered users, registered users, administrators, etc. Each group has default permissions, which are inherited by each forum and category you create. However, you can alter these permissions on a category or forum basis if you don’t wish to use the default values.

The permissions’ customisation is not limited to simple options — vB3 provides very specific options, ranging from moderating all posts by members in a given usergroup, to disabling the search functionality. This permissions system is very powerful and enables you to maintain tight control over what individual users can and cannot do. One downside to this is that, because there are so many options, new users may become confused as to which settings they’re altering for which groups. But help is at hand — vB3 offers context-sensitive support that explains each option very well.

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The vBulletin 3 control panel is very, very powerful. It will allow you to effectively administer every aspect of your forum right down to the last pixel. However, in the time I spent playing around with it for this review (about 4 hours), I noticed 2 problems:

  1. The fact that there are so many options can be both good and bad. I spent some time searching for an option earlier that ultimately I was unable to find. Eventually, I loaded up the ‘All Settings’ page of the vB Options and used my browser’s Find command to locate it. It’s good to be able to alter everything, but when there are so many options that it is difficult to find the one you want, it’s a sign that that section of the interface needs re-organising.
  2. The template looks nice to begin with, but can become overpowering and cluttered when you’re trying to get tasks done. Although my opinion may differ from your own, I prefer a clean, tidy and uncluttered interface, usually with a light background. The different shades and blue gradients of the vB3 interface, along with the tremendous number of options available, make the control panel difficult to use for extended periods of time. Luckily, in the final release, the developers intend to include an admin template that looks the same as the default forum template. You can then choose which styles you wish to use depending on your tastes. You can see what this in the screenshots below — it looks much better!

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Forum Main

The default forum template is completely different from the vB2 admin and main forum templates, and it looks great. It’s light, clean, tidy and it’s not overpowering — an excellent example of a good template. A number of neat JavaScript effects have been included, among them, the search option and the ability to hide and shown certain panels. These features are generally compatible with other browsers and work fine; those that aren’t compatible are non-essential. For example, when you click Log Out in Internet Explorer, the page is dimmed and greyed out, similar to the way WindowsXP greys out the screen when you select Turn Off.

The features available to forum users are as extensive as the options in the admin control panel. When posting, forum members gain access to an advanced WYSIWYG editor to allow post formatting, and the insertion of lists, images, links and smilies as if they were using Word. This also allows users to utilise the bbCode tags such as and [quote] quickly and easily. This can, of course, be changed via the User CP.

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All forums users gain access to their own CP to configure their account. This allows them to view subscribed threads, alter their signatures, profiles and forum options, and update account information. They can also easily set up private messaging, defining message folders and tracking messages to see if they were read. In addition, users can set up special event reminders, define buddies and ignore lists, and manage attached files. All-in-all, the User CP is very comprehensive and gives your users the options to customise their forum experience as much as they wish.

Other features that allow your members to interact even further are the Calendar and the Reputations/Rating system. The Calendar might be useful, for example, on a sporting Website to allow members to post dates of key events and have reminders sent to them. The Reputations and Rating system allows members to add ore remove reputation points to or from the accounts of other members, and to rate other users — this functionality is obviously controllable via the admin control panel. This could be beneficial in an advice-style forum, to allow new members to see who the most trusted forum members are.

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Forum moderators also have at their disposal a good set of controls that allow them effectively to manage the forums. Moderators enjoy access to their own control panel in the same style as administrators. This allows them to add new announcements to forums; moderator threads, posts, attachments and events; search for, edit and ban users; and prune threads. The banning system allows the admin and moderators to specify time bans (including permanent bans), which are then automatically lifted when the duration expires, saving you and your team the hassle of doing this manually.

In addition, the usual options, such as closing, moving, splitting, deleting and merging (as well as several others), are also present in the main forum. A reporting system allows members to report posts to the moderators and administrators to speed up removal of inappropriate content. One thing that’s missing from the moderating tools is a warning system. Although this is available as an extra hack, it could be a useful addition and would allow you to give members warnings, and set levels at which they are banned.

Conclusion

Until now, I’ve been a devout follower of phpBB because of the development team, the free, open source effort and the ease of use and features. However, after seeing vB3, I’m seriously tempted to convert and purchase it for my site and forums.

phpBB2.2 looks good and has similar features to vB3, but if you want these features now, then go ahead and purchase vB3. It’s definitely the current number one forum software for the professional Webmaster — it supports huge boards with features to match the requirements of any community, and the creators allow you to view the source code to edit and develop it for yourself.

The good points around vB3 far outweigh the downsides, although these should be addressed — in particular, the admin interface and the organisation of options within it. But, in my opinion as a site owner and PHP enthusiast, vB3 is the choice for all serious Website owners. You will not be disappointed.

Website: http://www.vbulletin.com
Platform: PHP/MySQL
Price: $85 leased license (renewed yearly); $160 owned license (lifetime, but $30 per year after that for updates)
Support: Available via community and priority support tickets. Telephone support available from $60
Add-ons Available: Extensive list of modifications (hacks) due to visible source nature but limited templates available as it has not gone gold yet
Pros: Very good default main forum template, exhaustive feature listing, comprehensive admin and user control panels
Cons: Organisation of options in admin area not great, few templates available at present
Rating: 9.5/10

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