First Impressions of Drupal 6 from a Drupal 5 User

A quick look at and mini-review of the new Drupal version

First Impressions of Drupal 6 from a Drupal 5 User

by Christopher Heng,
Date written: 22 February 2008

As you know, Drupal 6 was released on 13 February 2008, after about a year of development work. The announcement provides a huge list of changes, all of which looks very impressive as far as announcements go. I downloaded a copy a few days ago, and proceeded to check it out. This review is my first impression of the new version 6.

Please note a few disclaimers before you read on:

  1. This is not a full review. In fact, it's far from even being a review, which is why I called it a first impression. I merely did a clean installation of Drupal 6, enabled a few modules, posted an article or two, and tried to make a miniscule adjustment or two to the appearance of the default Garland template. So don't take it to heart if I don't mention your favourite new feature. It'll probably be covered on in one form or other, eventually.

  2. The article is written from the point of view of someone who has used Drupal 5 in the past, and it assumes you have some familiarity with that version. It's probably not relevant to anyone else.

  3. As an existing Drupal user, I obviously bring to the review my personal hopes and expectations for the new Drupal version. This of course colours the way I see the new version.

Initial Impressions of Drupal 6

  1. The Not-so New but Improved Installer

    One thing I must give the developers credit for is the truly improved installer. In version 5, the installer did a half-baked job requiring you to do a number of things after installing that everyone had to perform anyway. I always wondered why they didn't simply integrate those needed steps into the installer itself.

    Well, in Drupal 6, they indeed have. Or at least some of the steps anyway.

    • It automatically checks for "Clean URLs" and enables it if the facility is available. This is good, since just about everyone that installed Drupal in the past enabled this feature, so requiring users to go to the "Administer" screen after installation to enable it was in my opinion somewhat unnecessary.

    • You no longer have to go to the "Administer" screen to set the "Files" directory immediately after installing. The installer now automatically does this for you if it is able. Again, this removes another one of the silly annoyances that the previous versions of Drupal had.

    You will still have to run cron immediately after installing. I supposed they left this out of the installer to make users aware that they need to set up a cron job.

    Another new feature in the installer is its multi-language support. You will see this from the very outset when the first thing the installer asks you is to select a language.

  2. Cron Jobs — the Bane of Newcomers

    Yup, cron jobs are still needed in Drupal.

    As in previous versions, Drupal is still dependant on your being able to set some sort of scheduled task on your web server. If your web server does not have cron facilities, all Drupal does is to refer you to its documentation which you're supposed to (diligently) read to figure out how to solve your problem.

  3. The Automatic Updates Checker

    There is now a facility to automatically check for updates, called the Update Status module. The installer allows you to enable or disable it, but sets it as enabled by default (a wise choice). You can of course change your mind later in the Administer screen, where you can also fine-tune the module to look for all updates or only security updates. You can also set it to email you when there's a new version.

  4. There are Other Improved Features But...

    The announcement for the new version talks about things like "sticky table headers", "pretty signatures", "better polls" and "forum improvements", but as I noted above, I haven't really checked out those features. They don't really look like "must-have" features that compel an upgrade though. I have a feeling that a lot of the work in version 6 has gone into improving the theme support, a matter on which I will touch upon in my next section.

  5. Personal Gripes: Holdovers from Drupal 5 and Still Plaguing Version 6

    1. Unlike WordPress, which out-of-the-box allows you to set it to automatically create articles and blog posts with titles in the URL, Drupal 6 still does not have this facility. You will still have to install third-party modules to enable this very standard and regularly-used feature. By default, your site will still be plagued by "node/1" types of URLs and whatnot.

    2. Theme and template handling has been improved somewhat. Probably substantially. I haven't tried making a brand new theme yet. You can apparently now control a few things simply by defining regions in your template .info files and styling them in your CSS files.

      But if you think that this version has solved all your Drupal theming headaches, you will be disappointed. There are still a number of things not yet controllable from the theme/template files, and you will still need to be conversant in PHP, HTML and CSS (all three) if you want total control of the appearance of your site. For example, as far as I can tell, things like the "username's blog" link still have to be modified by diving into the main program script files.

      I personally feel that easy theme creation and modification has always been Drupal's Archilles heel, and it seems to me that while Drupal 6 goes a little way to improving the ease of theming, it still has a long way to go.

Preliminary Verdict

If you've survived the previous versions of Drupal, you'll probably see this version as an incremental improvement over them. Although there are changes and new stuff, I don't find the changes so compelling that I feel motivated to quickly upgrade my Drupal 5 sites to version 6. In fact, if you have an existing Drupal 5 site with a custom theme, you may need to scrutinize the changes in theme support before you rush to upgrade.

On the other hand, if you are not currently using Drupal, then you should go straight to version 6. Compared to all the previous versions, this version is undoubtedly the best of the lot.

Copyright © 2008 by Christopher Heng. All rights reserved.
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