What’s New in WordPress 3.9

By Craig Buckler
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This article is outdated, check out what’s new in WordPress 4.6 here.

WordPress is the world’s most popular Content Management System. (Some will argue it’s not a CMS. To them, I say: WordPress is a System for Managing Content — stop being persnickety!) Reasons for its colossal success include:

  • WordPress is free.
  • It’s easy to install, use and extend. Novice developers and content editors have a shallower learning curve than similar products.
  • There are plugins and themes to suit every requirement.
  • An active community means support and development resources are easier to find than most software.

WordPress adoption has reached critical mass. Other systems may be prettier or have a more elegant code base, but it’s difficult to recommend an alternative when WordPress is so ubiquitous.

WordPress 3.9 was released on April 16, 2014. It’s a major release so your existing installations won’t auto-update; you’ll need to log in and follow the update instructions. Plugin and theme incompatibility is rare, but you should back-up and investigate further before starting. You have backed up, haven’t you?

What can users and developers expect from version 3.9?…

Closing the Gap Between Editing and Publishing

Content editing is more advanced than previous editions:

  • Images can be dragged to the editor, cropped, rotated, and resized.
  • Gallery previews appear in the editing window.
  • The “distraction-free” writing mode is responsive and scales to any screen size.
  • Live widget and header image previews are available in the Customizer.
  • TinyMCE has been updated to version 4.0.

Content editors have more sophisticated controls and the inevitable cutting-and-pasting from Microsoft Word will lead to fewer issues. In theory. In my experience, users trash a lovingly-created site within three seconds of gaining access. It doesn’t matter what safeguards you put in place — they’ll find a way to insert a 5Mb image or fill the page with impenetrable HTML. I often wish WordPress would switch to markdown syntax like Ghost — but few content editors will agree.

Theme Browser

WordPress 3.9 features a new theme browser which allows you to preview and install new layouts in a couple of clicks:

WordPress theme browser

A powerful filter and search form allows you to define a theme to match your mood:

WordPress theme filter

Audio and Video Playlists

You’re no longer limited to image-only galleries: users can create their own audio and video playlists within WordPress 3.9. Media files added to the library can be organized and inserted into the page using a shortcode in the same way as any other gallery. WordPress will even fetch song cover thumbnails for MP3 files containing appropriate ID3 tags.

Developer Updates

Several new features have been added for theme and plugin developers. At the time of writing, documentation is fairly minimal — if not non-existent — but the most interesting new functions are:

  • wp_get_playlist(), wp_playlist_shortcode(), and wp_video_playlist_shortcode() functions permit control over playlists. In addition, WordPress now uses HTML5 for gallery and playlist controls.
  • has_image_size() and remove_image_size() join the add_image_size() function and allow fine control over image resizing.
  • New post_supports_thumbnails() and theme_supports_thumbnails() functions.
  • New doing_filter() and doing_action() functions identify hooks in progress.
  • Multi-site WordPress installations can now use get_network_by_path() and wp_get_network() functions.
  • New action hooks have been added for wp_install, wp_upgrade, and wp_playlist_scripts.

Time to Upgrade?

Those of a more nervous disposition may prefer to wait a few weeks until issues have been fixed and plugin code is updated. A search for “WordPress 3.9 upgrade problems” already returns a long list of pages. That said, I upgraded several standalone and multi-site installations without issues — although few had a significant number of third-party themes and add-ons.

My advice: Problems are rare and, if you have a file and database back-up, you have nothing to lose. WordPress 3.9 is excellent — you’ll be glad you upgraded. WordPress 4.0 should be very special…

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  • amit d

    Loving WordPress 3.9 and specially the widget preview in Customizer.

  • Hey. Thanks Craig. Two thoughts, if you don’t mind.

    re: “Theme Browser”

    Pardon my bluntness but why is this baked into WP in the first place? Doesn’t this feel like a plugin to you? Does anyone really use their local / personal WP admin CP to “shop” for themes? In the end, this is just code bloat, and a distraction.

    re: Developer Updates – “Several new features have been added for theme and plugin developers. At the time of writing, documentation is fairly minimal — if not non-existent — but the most interesting new functions are…”

    Oh! Now you hit a nerve :) This happens with EVERY release. It’s hard to take a product – in this case WP as a framework / dev tool – seriously when a critical part of the experience with the product is left blank. Put another way, when was the last time you bought a new car and the gas tank was empty? Or the sales person says, “Take it for a spin” but then refuses to give you the keys. Really?

    I love WordPress in many ways. But I can’t help but thinking that they could have skipped the theme browser updates and instead completed the product (i.e., documentation) before releasing it.

    • Craig Buckler

      Thanks Mark.

      WordPress is becoming more than just a CMS. It’s a
      whole eco-system of themes, plugins and collaboration facilities. I
      don’t think the theme browser is bad in itself – there’s already a
      plug-in browser and WP calls home to fetch updates and news. However, I
      do think it should be easier to disable it – inquisitive clients will
      cause no end of trouble.

      As for the lack of documentation, I
      agree — it’s inexcusable given that the features were highlighted in
      the various announcements and press releases. WordPress is open source,
      but a little information goes a long way. All I can say is: it will
      appear at some point.

      • Hey Craig. Thanks for taking the time to reply.

        The theme browser would be fine if there was an excess of resources. But given the choice between more features v better documentation, my personal choice is the that the latter would better improve the product.

        I’m it can be removed from the admin menu, but it still doesn’t feel like a core feature to me. That is, remove it and the product is not going to crumble. But again, a lack of documentations makes those new “features” more or less unusable.

        Thanks again.

  • WordPress’ admin interface (though not released with 3.9) is absolutely incredible. With all the features that 3.9 contains (and the theme gallery is amazing), I’m still a little disappointed that they don’t integrate more useful plugins into the download by default, like JetPack and All in One SEO, which contain features so useful that virtually any WordPress web site, regardless of its content or aim, would find critical.

    – Steve

  • Nini Tjäder

    3.9 has a bug with images which intermittently causes an image to resize to thumbnail at 150 px all by itself when you go in to edit an alt tag or so. Easy to fix back to your desired size, but annoying when it happens.