SMF vs. phpBB: The Real Deal
For the newbie, SMF (Simple Machines Forums) and phpBB are the two "Discussion boards" listed in cPanel's Fantastico offered by many forum hosting providers. Fantastico (or the similar Softaculous) allows users to install forum software and setup the database with a few clicks.
However, if you are looking to do an easy install of a new forum, there currently is only one reliable choice between the two.
I was able to install SMF cleanly using Fantastico and login as admin to begin configuring everything within about 2 minutes.
As for phpBB, it seemed to install nicely but then it didn't let me login as admin. I wondered if maybe I did something wrong, so I re-installed everything onto a completely new folder, yet the problem persisted.
Then I wondered if maybe it was isolated to my hosting platform, but a quick search on Google revealed that I was not the only one having this problem, and on the official phpBB forums where others reported similar errors, the response seemed to be that manual installation is recommended over automated installs of phpBB (current version was phpBB3).
I found this surprising considering how many forum hosting companies include cPanel with either Fantastico or Softaculous.
Most users don't know how to FTP files or setup a MySQL database, so not being able to install the software automatically is a pretty limiting factor. I don't know how widespread this problem is, but having tried on a standard cPanel install myself, and other people having the same problem with different hosts and platforms, I am going to have to say that for automated installs within cPanel, the easy choice is SMF.
Okay so let's forget that phpBB can have issues when installed automatically, and get to the meat of what distinguishes them. To do this, I studied a manually installed version of phpBB against an automatic installation of SMF.
The first thing most new forum owners do is browse for themes (which are called Board Styles in phpBB) to customize the look and feel of the forum. At first glance, I noticed SMF currently had more than 1000 themes listed on their website, while phpBB had less that 200 board styles.
Both forums have their share of high-quality themes, and others that could use some TLC. But there was another clear cut winner here when it came to theme installation.
In SMF, to install a theme you go to the official SMF themes site and browse the themes. When you find one you like, you then click the zip file associated with the theme to download it to your computer. You can then upload and activate the theme with the admin area.
Finding board styles is pretty much the same process in phpBB, but that's where the similarities end. With phpBB you then have to extract the files from the zip file onto your hard drive, and then login to your board installation using FTP software, navigate to the folder and then upload all the files for the style before activating it in the admin section.
SMF lets you do this all without using FTP software. Like installing themes or plugins in Wordpress blogs, you don't need to learn how to use FTP unless you want to do things manually.
So unless you are a bit more tech savvy than the rest, SMF is the clear way to go for both ease of theme installation and variety of themes.
Finally let's go to the last big feature popular among forum owners: mods (short for modifications). Mods can be everything from adding a chat room to the forum to banner advertising to a blog and other features on top of the core forum functions.
SMF wins again with the numbers, with more than 1500 mods while PHP has just over 500. And to make a long story short, installing a mod in SMF is also much easier than in phpBB.
In SMF, you simply download the appropriate zip file from the mod site, select it in the package manager and then SMF takes care of the rest. Of course if you are using a different theme than the default, there could be some manual editing required with steps listed on the mod's page. However in phpBB, it seems that manual editing is the rule of the day regardless of the theme.
Of course all of these observations at the time of this writing can change over time, and both SMF and phpBB have incredibly popular forums out there using their platforms, but in the end it appears phpBB requires more technical know-how to both install and customize.
If you're one of the many users who has Fantastico or Softaculous installed in their forum host's cPanel, then my recommendation is simple: It has to be Simple Machines Forums.
Guest post by: Joseph Moody is a consultant with Online Institute, specialists in forum hosting services and Wordpress for business customization and hosting.