In the last post in this multi-part series, I'm going to look at arguably one of the most popular PHP free forum solutions out there, phpBB. It is designed to be feature-rich and a complete solution for building an online forum.
It requires PHP 4.3.3 and a supported database (including MySQL, Oracle, Postgres and even Microsoft SQL Server). I'll be covering the latest version at the time of writing, 3.0.1. As always, it's all about Ease of Installation, Features, Extensibility and Themes.
Ease of Installation
The extraction is pretty much a standard process, with both zip and tar+bzip2 archives available on the downloads page. Once you've extracted, you have a phpBB3 folder.
Right off the bat here, you can browse to the folder you extracted to to get this fancy-looking Installer.
It's nice and clear, provided you realise you need to click the Installation tab. Once you're on it, you click through to a Requirements screen, which compares what you have on your server with what you need and optional components. This does make it nice and clear of any issues you might need to clear up before you proceed.
At this point, I changed the permissions on config.php, as it identified the file as not being writable.
Now you enter the database details (setting up a database first if you don't have one) and move on. If you didn't set the permissions on config.php to be writable, you will at this point have to copy and paste the completed contents manually into the file.
After this point, you have an opportunity to set some basic options before the database tables are created and filled with data. After that, delete the install directory and you're ready!
The installation process here isn't quite as streamlined as some, but the Installer is well written, fairly clear and elegant.
Ease of Installation Score: 7/10
phpBB is all about features. One of the main aims of phpBB is to provide what most people want in a forum, so that they don't have to go and hack the core code or add plugins to get commonly desired functionality.
This means that phpBB is chock full of features right from the beginning. These include:
- Categories and unlimited subforums
- Avatars and Signatures
- Private Messaging
- Access Control Lists and Pruning
If you don't want to spend a lot of time fiddling around installing extra things after the main software to get the features you want, phpBB definitely fits the bill in this area and certainly has an impressive featureset.
Features Score: 8/10
This is my big gripe with phpBB. Unlike other forum systems, that utilise a plugin architecture, phpBB has no way of adding external features to the main software without ugly mods (involving patching the core files).
Sure, mods do work, but they're a lot more difficult to install most of the time and they add numerous changes and therefore complications to the software that discourage people from doing important security updates to the core software itself.
I would love to see phpBB include a real plugin system for a future major release. It would clean this process up so much and make a lot of developers, site owners and security people a lot more happy.
On the positive site, the newest mods generally ship with browser-based install instructions that do walk you through most of the process of manually updating files. Thanks to phpBB's popularity, there is also a huge quantity of third-party mods available.
Extensibility Score: 1/10
phpBB's themes system, called Styles, is very well executed. As well as a massive community of designers building themes and therefore a wide range to choose from, Themes are pretty easy to install and apply.
You head over to the Styles Database, download a zip package and extract it into your styles/ directory. A simple trip to the Admin CP later, you can apply that style. The process works just how it should. Well, actually, no.
I searched, but the Styles DB only appears to list phpBB 2.x styles right now, which isn't much use when it comes to phpBB 3.0.1.
Third party sites, however, do offer lots of phpBB 3.0 styles, and once you do get the right package the installation process is simple and you get up and running with a new style almost instantly.
From a technical perspective, the templates are built using HTML with custom tags (through custom HTML comments) to define dynamic sections that are evauated by phpBB at runtime to build the templates into the relevant pages. It's not quite as simple as some systems I've seen, but I guess it does the job adequately.
Themes Score: 6/10
Feature-wise, phpBB is very hard to beat this side of the source code divide. As I've said already several times, if you don't want the hassle of installing plugins for features like avatars and PM that other forums don't include in the core, phpBB might be for you.
Having said that, if you really want to go wild with features, you will be stuck using the (to put it politely) less-than-optimum mod system, which could quickly become infuriating following software updates to the phpBB core software itself.
It does have a large dedicated support community, however, and lots of others are using it. phpBB is a bit like Marmite - you either love it or hate it, and sometimes it can be an acquired taste. Personally, I don't particularly bite, and would prefer something a bit lighter, but it takes all sorts.
phpBB, you get a 5.5 out of 10.