Creating 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?