I recently had to find a mobile solution for a client. Their theme had been custom made a while ago and was not responsive so the easiest route (and the one that fit their budget) was to use one of the many available mobile plugins for WordPress.
If one of your goals is to make the mobile version of your site perform better on PageSpeed Insights and other speed tests, check out this guide to making your mobile WordPress pages faster.
What’s the Difference Between A Responsive Theme and A Mobile Plugin?
A responsive theme adapts to the size of the screen it is being viewed on, so it retains a consistent overall look and feel. The mobile plugins work in various ways – some of them do let you use a responsive theme of your choosing, but oftentimes they install their own mobile theme which could look significantly different than your standard theme, but it may have some handy mobile-specific features. A mobile plugin will detect the actual device being used (rather than just the width of the screen) and show a different display based on that. It’s a quick and easy way to get a mobile solution for your site. Retrofitting an existing theme to make it responsive requires custom coding, so for many people, a plugin is the easier way to go.
Criteria for Comparing Mobile Plugins
As I played around with various plugins, several key distinguishing factors emerged. So before you start looking at plugins you may want to think about these factors and how important they are for your circumstance so you can make an informed decision:
- How much could the look be customized, either through an options panel or through custom CSS?
- How does the plugin handle widgets?
- Ability to choose which devices the mobile version would be displayed to, i.e. could you treat tablets differently than phones? My client in question specifically wanted iPad users to see the desktop version of the theme, not the mobile version.
- Can I provide a separate navigation menu for mobile devices or would I have to use the same navigation items as the regular theme? This is useful if you have a lot of pages but you want to provide a more streamlined experience for your mobile user.
- Ability to choose a different homepage for mobile
- Does the plugin provide its own mobile theme or does it let you select from a theme you may have on your current WordPress installation?
- How does it handle image resizing?
I tested a number of plugins – below are the ones worth mentioning, either because they are a good solution, or because you should avoid them! If you Google for WordPress mobile plugins you’ll find tons of lists and there are some reputable sites (not mentioning names) that are making poor recommendations that do not seem to be researched. So that’s why I’m including some plugins that I would not recommend because you’ll see them listed elsewhere by people that clearly have not tested them, and I want you to know the real deal!!
- Allows you to choose a specific homepage for mobile site
- Comes with one mobile theme included which is pretty clean looking. You can create and upload your own custom mobile themes.
- Doesn’t display your widgets
- The hugely major problem I found is that there seemed to be no navigation menu! I have to imagine this is a bug rather than intended behaviour, but in any case I saw a lot of other people also complaining about this in the forums, and no solutions offered.
WP Touch (Free and Pro versions available)
I think this plugin has been around the longest. It’s certainly one of the most referred to. It gets quite a bit of flak from developers and others for its sterile look, but after testing it, I find that view to be very shortsighted. The Pro version in particular gives you quite a bit of control over customizing the icons and the look as a whole and if you take a minute to play with the options you can avoid the sterile default look and create something more custom-looking. The in-built themes of most of the mobile plugins discussed here are actually all quite similar at the end of the day.
- Can select a page to use as the mobile home page
- Can upload custom icons
- Allows you to enter google adsense for ads in mobile posts
- Smooth handling of image resizing for small screens
- Can choose to show your regular site to iPad users (this is a big deal – most plugins lump tablets in with mobile phones)
- Can specify a custom navigation menu for mobile
- Includes a couple of different mobile themes each with various customization options for the look
- Can easily create a child theme for further customization
- Widgets are not displayed be default but developers can create a child theme and add some code to enable widget display
- Can customize header, footer, all the icons and more.
- There are actually a ton of other options in the Pro version that get quite detailed which I didn’t find elsewhere. I recommend you read all of them on the plugin site (linked above)
PRO version RECOMMENDED, Free version is a little stiff looking.
WordPress Mobile Pack
- Can deliver mobile site based either on browser detection or mobile domain
- Lets you turn on and off your existing widgets for mobile version – this is a powerful feature I did not find elsewhere
- Can choose any of your installed themes to serve for the mobile version (so doesn’t have to be your currently active theme, as long as it’s viewable on your Manage Themes tab, the plugin can use it), or can use one of their basic included themes. WordPress’ Twenty Twelve makes for a good mobile theme and looks better than their included themes.
- Doesn’t offer a separate mobile homepage or navigation menu .
- The styling for the menu in the plugin’s own mobile themes is very primitive and not attractive especially if you have drop-down menus.
- Widgets are displayed at the bottom of the screen
- Overall look of the in-built themes is so-so – fairly clean but a little dated
- The handling of image re-sizing of the plugin is really bad! If you enable the “shrink image” feature, it makes images way too small, but if you don’t enable it, your large images will be too large for a small screen.
Worth looking at if you have a basic blog, but if your content is not blog-based, I wouldn’t recommend it, especially if you have more than a few items in your nav menu.
WP Mobile Detector
- Allows to choose whether to show mobile version to tablets or not
- Widgets are placed at the top of the page in a clickable tab
- Has a couple of mobile themes included
- No way to provide mobile specific homepage or navigation
- The MAJOR problem with this plugin is that it places an ad at the bottom of the screen which you cannot switch off.
- Even worse is that after you click on a few pages it interrupts with a full screen video ad!! Again, there is no mention of this in the plugin info and you can’t turn it off. Yuck!
AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE due to the spammy handling of advertising.
Mobile Smart (Free and Pro versions)
- Pro version allows you to define mobile specific content on each version of your page/post
- Mobile specific menus only available in Pro version
- Lets you choose any installed theme to use for mobile, so again, you would have to have a responsive theme in your WordPress installation for it to work. The plugin does not provide its own mobile theme.
- Free version does allow you to turn off mobile theme for tablets
- Free version has some developer features for customization, such as template tags, but regular users won’t get much use out of that.
The free version is recommended as long as you don’t need to customize menus and homepage for mobile. The Pro version is only $13. I didn’t purchase it, but it seems very reasonable for the extra features.
This is only available as a paid plugin for $60
- Can choose which page to use for mobile homepage
- Can set up a mobile specific menu
- Has some basic but pretty clean looking in-built mobile themes
- Does not seem to display widgets
- Has a comprehensive set of options, comparable to WPTouch Pro
- Has a in-built featured slider which can be enabled
- You can provide custom logos and background
- Image scaling works well
- There are 5 in-built themes or you could custom create and upload your own.
- Major downside is the lack of ability to turn off the mobile theme for tablets. I personally think that a $60 mobile plugin should include that feature.
RECOMMENDED as long as you don’t care about treating tablets differently than mobile phones.
WPTouch Pro and Obox come out tops for me. I couldn’t use Obox for my client because of the lack of iPad control, but otherwise its solid. Both these plugins have comprehensive options, withWPTouch Pro having a slight edge (for me). If you’re looking for a free solution I think I might use Mobile Pack or Mobile Smart with a responsive theme such as Twenty Twelve. The Pro version of Mobile Smart is inexpensive so for a budget-friendly solution with more options, that could be good.
A couple of tips before I go:
If you have a caching plugin running on your site, you may need to make some tweaks so that the mobile version works correctly on the right devices.
Without actually owning all the various mobile devices, it could be hard to actually test out these plugins. But an awesome method I found was to install an add-on for the Firefox browser called Override User Agent. This lets you have your browser act as if it were a mobile device (and it has a good list of devices to choose from) so that the mobile plugin you are testing thinks you are an iPad 9or whichever device you choose), and therefore you can see how the site will look on that device. Extremely handy!
So that’s my roundup. What has your experience been with mobile plugins? Have one you love? Leave a comment!