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how to set up a forumCreating a new website, complete with community features like a forum, can be expensive – but it doesn’t have to be. While paid options like vBulletin remain popular, free alternatives also exist. Some are more obscure than others, but these free bulletin board options are surprisingly good, offering easy installation and a reasonably intuitive interface.

Let’s take a look at three of the best free bulletin boards you can find today.

phpBB

how to set up a forum

Now over a decade old, phpBB has long been considered the premier free bulletin board for users across the globe. It’s a shining example of the quality of product open-source development can lead to, and it is in many ways competitive with paid bulletin boards. In many cases, the main advantage of a paid bulletin board when compared to phpBB is not general ease of use, or even features, but rather the availability of customer support (phpBB, being free and open-source, of course has nothing more than a community help forum).

Even that difference may not matter, however, because phpBB is extremely easy to use. The installation process requires only a passing familiarity with FTP software and a web server capable of database hosting (and virtually all web hosting services are). In fact, if you’ve ever installed WordPress, you’ll know exactly what to do. The whole process takes about 10 minutes and steps are detailed on the phpBB website.

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Perhaps the biggest advantage of phpBB, however – and the reason why many people flock to it – is sheer force of numbers. The popularity of phpBB makes it more likely that someone has already tried to do whatever you’re thinking of doing with your forum, which means it will be easier for you to attempt. Plus, there is a very large database of “Styles” that can be used to further customize your forum.

MyBB

how to set up a free forum

MyBB is free and licensed under General Public License. Unlike phpBB, however, MyBB is not an open-source project. It is instead written by a group of developers simply known as the MyBB Group.

In terms of installation and ease-of-use, MyBB is just one step behind phpBB. The installation process is virtually identical, but the administrators panel isn’t as slick or as well laid out as the one that comes with phpBB. This isn’t to say that the admin panel of MyBB is hard by any measure, but the arrangement of options requires just a bit more digging than the layout of phpBB.

So why use MyBB instead? There are a few reasons, many of which are tied to features. MyBB has a built-in user reputation support, excellent calender features, multi-quote and quick reply. These sort of features are not unavailable to phpBB, per say, but they require some customization on the part of the user. For this reason, MyBB is often times a better choice than phpBB. Just be aware that the smaller user base may make it harder to find answers to your questions, and while there are pre-packaged styles and mods available, they are fewer in number.

Simple Machines Forum

how to set up a forum

If you’re looking for a free bulletin board with an excellent interface, Simple Machines Forum is likely your best choice. Although both phpBB and MyBB are not bad looking pieces of software, they have room for improvement. MyBB in particular has an admin panel that is by no means pretty. Simple Machines Forum, however, has an excellent default style and easy to navigate admin panel that provides a lot of information in minimal space. The admin panel is also accessed from a tab on the forum when you log into an admin account, unlike the other two free bulletin boards, which keeps admin functions tucked away in their own space.

SMF also has a “modification database” which includes a wide variety of add-ons that can be used to change the bulletin board. This includes everything from added smileys to search engine optimization to social networking features. The mods aren’t excessively difficult to install, either – although MyBB’s plugins are easier.

The biggest problem with SMF is support. Although this bulletin board is true to its name when it comes to installation and admin management, finding help on the SMF website is a chore. Even navigating the website is difficult due to an usual layout that often requires visitors to navigate through multiple areas to find even the most basic information.

Conclusion

So, which free bulletin board should you choose?

Honestly, there isn’t a clear-cut answer. Some users prefer SMF because it requires little modification to look professional, but others like phpBB because of its huge community. Personally, I decided to go with MyBB when I installed a forum on one of my blogs because it has some out-of-the-box features that I wanted.

Which one do you prefer and why?   What features stood out for you?

  1. info15
    October 8, 2015 at 11:49 pm

    phpbb 3 all the way and with the premium theme: http://themeforest.net/item/flatboots-phpbb-31-and-30-/8536771?ref=ThemeSplat yay yay yay. I dont understand why my comments are not showing . blah.

  2. hyip
    March 31, 2015 at 4:25 pm

    I choose MyBB. I need to make some customization by y own. I found MyBB is more accepting thispurpose.

  3. kathy76
    January 19, 2015 at 5:41 pm

    I just joined a SMF Forum not, as a Creator but, just as a Member and, it has Flaws. Slow Page changes, Pages you try to access comeing up as blank Windows with no error Msg or, a can't connect Msg.
    Now, I don't know if this is a Platform Problem or, a Forum Creator Issue but just as a User I'm not real happy with it.

    • Diego Andrés
      June 2, 2015 at 8:53 pm

      Maybe you're just very stupid to use it

      • Lea Ann Savage
        June 25, 2015 at 3:22 pm

        How rude and presumptuous!

        • Starblazing Rebel
          July 20, 2015 at 11:40 pm

          Would you expect anything less from a bored little troll that needs attention?

  4. Clarkie
    April 27, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    I've used SMF before and it was really tacky and as others have said, by no means professional. I started with phpBB on my main forum and found it didn't cut it with plugins etc and I switched to MyBB. I've never looked back since.

    In fact I don't know what you're talking about when you say the Admin CP is harder to find your way around. Yes it takes some getting used to but no more than phpBB.

    MyBB and phpBB are both miles better than SMF and I think MyBB is better then phpBB.

    • Diego Andrés
      June 2, 2015 at 8:52 pm

      Maybe you're very stupid

  5. Blipton
    March 21, 2011 at 2:13 am

    That's interesting, I wonder if that applies to closed forums as well. For example, some forums require logging in not just to write a post, but to even VIEW posts! Unless google has a way to authenticate to gain access to private forums, it's indexing might be limited to open forums only, no?

  6. Blipton
    March 20, 2011 at 5:55 am

    Does Google or Bing normally index through forum posts? It would seem that would be an awful lot of pages since every site seems to have a forum sections with thousands of posts each!!

    • M.S. Smith
      March 20, 2011 at 6:41 am

      Yes, they do. I regularly come across forums in search results. And google index one of my forums without me doing anything except putting it up.

      • Blipton
        March 21, 2011 at 1:13 am

        That's interesting, I wonder if that applies to closed forums as well. For example, some forums require logging in not just to write a post, but to even VIEW posts! Unless google has a way to authenticate to gain access to private forums, it's indexing might be limited to open forums only, no?

  7. Blipton
    March 20, 2011 at 6:55 am

    Does Google or Bing normally index through forum posts? It would seem that would be an awful lot of pages since every site seems to have a forum sections with thousands of posts each!!

  8. TM
    March 4, 2011 at 11:12 am

    As a web hosting company owner, I can say without a doubt to stay far away from pbpBB. It's persistently plagued with one vulnerability after another, and the average user cannot keep it maintained, nor do they bother to check for security updates. I've banned it on all of my servers. SMF is your best bet.

    • Aibek
      March 4, 2011 at 12:05 pm

      thanks for the input. Never heard about SMF though :?

      • Jack Cola
        March 4, 2011 at 12:28 pm

        SMF = Simple Machine Forums

  9. Matt Rider
    March 4, 2011 at 2:05 am

    I defiantly like vanilla forums MUCH better http://vanillaforums.org/ so much easyer to use and administer

  10. Matt Rider
    March 4, 2011 at 3:05 am

    I defiantly like vanilla forums MUCH better http://vanillaforums.org/ so much easyer to use and administer

  11. Jared
    March 3, 2011 at 3:11 am

    The SMF version that's posted is old. That's from the 1.1.x series. The most current version is 2.0 RC5. Yes, it's still in RC and not recommended for production sites but it's the version series that's demonstrated on the community site.

    And I don't believe that the support is that bad. There are a ton of Support Specialists that help out (in addition to all of the other team members that help out) to make replies quick in the proper support boards. Not to mention that the Online Manual is clearly linked in the top nav bar.

    SMF is definitely the top on my list.

  12. Jared
    March 3, 2011 at 4:11 am

    The SMF version that's posted is old. That's from the 1.1.x series. The most current version is 2.0 RC5. Yes, it's still in RC and not recommended for production sites but it's the version series that's demonstrated on the community site.

    And I don't believe that the support is that bad. There are a ton of Support Specialists that help out (in addition to all of the other team members that help out) to make replies quick in the proper support boards. Not to mention that the Online Manual is clearly linked in the top nav bar.

    SMF is definitely the top on my list.

  13. Greg
    March 2, 2011 at 8:24 am

    Missing Vanilla forums: http://vanillaforums.org/

  14. Greg
    March 2, 2011 at 9:24 am

    Missing Vanilla forums: http://vanillaforums.org/

  15. M.S. Smith
    March 2, 2011 at 6:24 am

    I don't think we're necessarily moving away from forums. The various styles of comments make it very easy to have a conversation but exceedingly hard present anything more than brief thoughts. They're different things, and there is room for both.

  16. Jack Cola
    March 2, 2011 at 5:54 am

    And if you don't want to host it yourself, check out one of my earlier posts on Make Use Of 5 Great Sites To Create Your Own Forum http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/5-great-sites-create-forum/

  17. Jack Cola
    March 2, 2011 at 6:54 am

    And if you don't want to host it yourself, check out one of my earlier posts on Make Use Of 5 Great Sites To Create Your Own Forum http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/5...

  18. Bogdan
    March 1, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    You forgot about PunBB, which is great and lightweight.
    More here http://php.opensourcecms.com/scripts/show.php?catid=5&category=Forums

    • Aibek
      March 2, 2011 at 7:41 am

      thanks for the input

  19. Bogdan
    March 2, 2011 at 12:30 am

    You forgot about PunBB, which is great and lightweight.
    More here http://php.opensourcecms.com/s...

  20. Frost
    March 1, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    Good comparison (if brief) of these alternatives. Though "per say" is somewhat cringe-worthy, the phrase you're looking for is "per se" which is latin for "in itself". :)

  21. Azefze
    March 1, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    "but the administrators panel isn’t as slick or as well laid out as the one that comes with phpBB"

    In my experience, the admin panel of phpBB is a gigantic mess of all the stuff pushed closely together. MyBB is very obvious, well explained and offers a lot of breathing space.

    • M.S. Smith
      March 2, 2011 at 6:22 am

      Different strokes for different folks. I like phpBB's admin panel, but I can see where you're coming from - it looks nice but is a bit crammed.

  22. Amitash
    March 1, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    I have tried all the scripts featured here and personally loved MyBB too. phpbb is too hard to maintain. SMF is in no way professional. My vote goes to MyBB.

    • Aibek
      March 1, 2011 at 4:37 pm

      thanks for the feedback

  23. Azefze
    March 1, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    "but the administrators panel isn’t as slick or as well laid out as the one that comes with phpBB"

    In my experience, the admin panel of phpBB is a gigantic mess of all the stuff pushed closely together. MyBB is very obvious, well explained and offers a lot of breathing space.

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