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Getting to know ExpressionEngine

16 March 2008 at 2:19 am

icon_ee_logo.jpgI’ve recently changed the Content Management System we use for Flashmagazine. The old CMS was built in 2003. It was based on PHP and had a fancy Flash 5-based backend. The system is no longer in active development, so I needed something new for Flashmag. I thought others may be interested in hearing why I ended up using ExpressionEngine, so here it goes.

I spent a good deal of time researching potential CMS systems such as WordPress, Movable Type, Joomla, Drupal and EZ Publish. WP and MT just would not cut it. They were too simple, but I use them on several sites so I know what they’re suited for. EZ Publish looked good. I bought and read an entire book about EZ Publish. If you ever need a book about EZ Publish, DON’T ever buy this book. It’s really poorly written and totally convinced me not to go further with EZ. Drupal looked really flexible, but really seemed like a lot of work to get anywhere. It’s kind of the choice for nerds that want to use the tool that “all the other cool kids use”. Joomla looked alright, but it’s history is terrible. So much useless fighting and it seems it may even go on. I was really uncertain what to do next.

I asked my buddy David Vogeleer what he used. He used ExpressionEngine at work and said he loved it. Expression Engine (EE)? Never heard of it. I checked it out and I instantly liked the website. The syntax looked good and easy to learn. Hmm… They offer managed servers on clusters so I don’t need to fiddle with the setup? Cool. A bunch of official and user contributed plugins and extensions? Really good documentation (with user comments), wiki, knowledge base, active forum with lots of users (but also very active professional admins)? Wow. This really looked promising.

I downloaded the free version, played a bit with it. Tried the $10 hosted trial and sent an email with a bunch of questions and got good answers within 2 hours. That really impressed me!

I thought a bit about this and decided to give it a try. Before starting, I bought and read a very well written PDF book that I recommend buying for anyone getting started with EE. The PDF is a compilation of a free article series but the PDF is worth the $25.

After reading, I used the $10 trial and started setting up. Flashmag had content in four main categories; News, Articles, Reviews and Tutorials. Articles are really just long “News” stories, so I figured I’d just merge the two and rather highlight the articles and other content in a special sidebar. After setting the structure, I imported most of the 1500 stories in the Flashmag archives easily using the import utility. I spent a couple days tweaking and setting up the required templates and lo and behold - a site with 1200 articles converted to a much more powerful system.

I’ve now signed up with EngineHosting and pay $40 a month. Commercial sites pay a $250 license but that is reduced to $200 when you sign up for the hosting as well. Not bad?

I’ve now used EE for two more sites and I’m amazed at how flexible it is. It’s not like everything is golden, but the good by far outweighs the bad. So here’s my take on the pros and cons:

ExpressionEngine Pros
- Docs like no other CMS I’ve seen (I’ve never been this impressed. They even rival php.net at times)
- Development speed
- Flexible architecture
- Extendable through PHP, Plugins or commercial extensions
- A minute to learn, but not a lifetime to master
- Intuitive tag language that’s easy to read and maintain
- Modules for virtually every occasion
- Support!
- High quality hosting at a very reasonable price
- Very helpful and responsive community

ExpressionEngine Cons
- Image upload / organization could definitely have been solved more elegantly
- Automatic thumbnails or scaling of images only available using a third party (non-certified) plugin (great quality tho)
- Not an app framework (but it’s very flexible). You can bend it to do many things, but it’s a CMS at it’s core. You can also customize a lot using plain PHP straight in the templates.
- Some default settings are for bloggers, not professional sites. Most professional users may want to turn off these functions:
1. Admin > system preferences > emoticon preferences to turn off emoticon preferences
2. Weblog Administration -> Weblog Management -> (your weblog here) -> Weblog Posting Preferences -> Automatically turn URLs and email addresses into links?
3. Versioning of templates / entries are turned off by default
- There gotta be an easier way to loose the index.php in the URLs

If you have other pros/cons, please add them to the comments! Before starting the conversion process, Jarle told me that I should sign up for Google’s webmaster tools. If you own a site and care about SEO, sign up to see how you can fix any problems (according to Google’s spider. If you check EE out and end up getting a license, feel free to click this link and I’ll get a little affiliate commission 😊

PS: I haven’t added many new features to Flashmag yet, but that’ll come soon.