Custom fields are one of the main features that moves WordPress from being just a blogging platform to being a platform that supports different types of content and functionality. While you can create custom fields in code, many site builders turn to one of four popular plugins that let you easily add custom fields: Advanced Custom Fields, Meta Box, Pods, and Toolset. In this post I’ll share a summary about each of these plugins, look at page builder support for them, and share my opinions about their strengths, weaknesses and when it makes sense to use them.
Advanced Custom Fields
The Advanced Custom Fields plugin allows you to add custom fields and field groups to WordPress edit screens in order to capture structured inputs. There is a feature rich free version and a Pro version that adds more capabilities.
ACF is a go-to solution for creating sites with customized content types. The free version is very popular and has several relationship field types that you can use to link different post types. ACF Pro comes with more than 30 field types and includes the powerful repeater field. The Pro version also includes a Gutenberg block builder. ACF does not have the ability to create Custom Post Types so it is often coupled with the Custom Post Type UI plugin or the output from a CPT code generator to create the actual CPT.
ACF – More than 1 million active installs
$49 1 site per year – all features
$149 10 sites per year – all features
$249 unlimited sites per year – all features
ACF is regularly updated and is GPL. It has good documentation and support, and there are lots of online resources. ACF is the most widely used plugin for adding custom fields with more than 1 million active installs of the free version. All major page builders support it.
ACF is a good example of a plugin that focuses on doing one thing very well. While this is a strength that helps keep it focused, all of the other options considered here combine the ability to create custom fields with additional features. This is a convenience and can also be more efficient for site builders as you don’t need to evaluate products from different vendors and try to make them work together. Another consideration is pricing. ACF is an excellent plugin, but the annual price for unlimited sites is more expensive that other options which provide more functionality.
Meta Box Overview
Meta Box is a solution that has been around for a while, but it has had a higher profile in the last couple of years. The core plugin is freely available in the WordPress plugin directory, but has no user interface. Instead, it serves as the base framework for all of the other features. It allows you to create CPTs, custom taxonomies, custom fields, and also has a number of other features. Meta Box was designed in a very modular fashion and there are currently 31 extensions covering the range from front-end submissions to custom database tables. This means that there is a separate extension for each feature. The Meta Box “All in One” addon is a convenience extension that allows you to enable the ones you need without having to download each as a separate plugin.
The Meta Box is actively developed and support is good. It is GPL licensed. The Meta Box team has created their own extensions for use with Beaver Themer and Elementor Pro.
Meta Box Pricing
Meta Box – More than 600,000 active installs
$99 unlimited sites per year – some features
$199 unlimited sites per year – all features
$499 unlimited sites all features lifetime
Meta Box Pros
Meta Box is under active development and the product is well coded. The developers are regularly adding new features as well as supporting new WordPress and third party plugins.
Since Meta Box is very modular it is able to offer a lot of features while avoiding bloat. While it started out being very code based, it has been adding more user interface options, which makes it more accessible to non-developers.
Meta Box Cons
Third party support is thin. It is not as well supported by third parties as ACF or Toolset. Also, there are not as many online tutorials available.
Pods is a free solution for creating CPTs and custom fields. It has extensive support for a range of field types. It allows you to create CPTS and add custom fields easily and is very flexible. There is some templating ability and conditional logic available using Pods templates, shortcodes, and Pods “magic tags.”
Pods is GPL. There are a good number of 3rd party extensions. Many Pods users are enthusiastic and willing to help others and the project has an active Slack channel for help. The bi-directional relationship feature is easy to use.
Pods – More than 100,000 active installs
Free unlimited sites – all basic features
$79 1 site per year – Pods Pro Addons
$119 unlimited sites per year – Pods Pro Addons
Existing Pods features work well. It is a good, free, alternative to the free version of ACF for simple to moderately complex projects. In many ways the ethos of the project reflects the core values and goals of WordPress itself.
The Pods website and the documentation includes videos from 4 and 5 years ago and it sometimes feels like a hodgepodge. The templating ability works, but is somewhat primitive, will require HTML and CSS, and is not a visual building experience. Some standard features, such as a repeater field, are not yet available. The release schedule is inconsistent, though it seems to be moving towards a major release that has been in the works for several years.
Pods lost some major funding and rather than release a Pro version as many other organizations do, the lead developer launched premium extensions on his own website. He explained that this had to do with the structure of the project, but unfortunately this doesn’t help the project’s coherence.
Toolset is another solution that has been around for a while. It is used for both creating custom fields and CPTs, as well as for displaying dynamic content. Toolset is a full suite of plugins largely focused on CPTs and their display, so it makes sense that it is the most comprehensive.
The Toolset suite includes:
- Toolset Types for creating CPTs and adding custom fields
- Toolset Blocks for creating content templates and custom data displays in Gutenberg
- Toolset Forms for creating front-end forms
- Toolset Maps for working with Google Maps
- Toolset Access for controlling user and user role access
- Toolset WooCommerce Blocks for creating WooCommerce Sites
- Toolset Views is a legacy plugin for creating templates and custom dynamic content displays using HTML and Bootstrap.
Toolset provides a number of advanced features for working with dynamic data including conditional display options and the ability to create front-end filters. Toolset plugins are GPL.
Toolset – Had more than 200,000 active installs before leaving the WP directory
$69 1 site per year – all features – ~25% renewal discount
$149 3 sites per year – all features – ~25% renewal discount
$299 unlimited sites per year – all features – ~25% renewal discount
The Toolset suite is very extensive and full featured. In many ways they offer solutions that are unique or missing from the WordPress ecosystem. The plugins are often cited for their ability to cover a number of edge cases that simpler plugins don’t address. The post relationship features are well designed, sophisticated, and performant, perhaps the most performant for large complex projects,
The main Toolset documentation consists of “courses” for building different types of sites. These provide practical, real-world examples of how to use the tools. Toolset provides test sites where you can try out Toolset and follow along with the tutorials before purchase. Support is well trained and almost always responds within one business day.
The older Toolset documentation can be difficult to find as much of it has been unlinked from the menu system. While Toolset handles more complex scenarios than other options, edge cases will require being a power user or developer to realize.
Toolset used to integrate with popular page builders, but there were sometimes glitches when third party builders were updated. Now that Toolset has its Gutenberg workflow, they are discouraging using Toolset together with the theme building features of premium page builders, encouraging users to use Gutenberg.
The Views plugin is an extremely power option for creating CPTs and dynamic data output for developers and power users who are comfortable working with code. One of the criticisms of Toolset was that it was too hard for non-developers, so the move to Gutenberg makes sense in that regards. However, Views is now listed as legacy, but is still widely used, which is a concern for long-time users.
Page Builder Support for Custom Field Plugins
It is important to note: even though a page builder’s claims support for a custom field plugin, the extent of that support varies. Advanced features, such as repeater fields, flexible content / groups, relationship fields, and advanced database storage options may not be available. So it is safe to assume that “support” means basic support. If you need advanced features, such as repeaters or relationship fields, it is a good idea to check the builder’s documentation before starting the project.
As you can see from the table, ACF is supported by every builder, generally making it a safe option. The table shows wide support for Toolset, but note that Toolset has made its Gutenberg integration its main focus, and encourages users to go in that direction. Strictly speaking, Gutenberg is not a page builder, but together with Toolset it is being used in that manner.
|Page Builder||ACF||Meta Box||Pods||Toolset|
|Beaver Builder / Themer||✔||Third Party||Third Party||✔|
|Gutenberg||Third Party||Third Party||✔|
Discussion and Recommendations
Before discussing the four favorites, there is another “bonus” option. Crocoblock is a suite of addosn for the Elementor page builder. It includes the ability to add custom fields, in addition to CPT-related features. The suite includes a plugin called JetEngine, which allows you to create CPTs and custom fields, and another plugin JetThemeCore for creating templates. JetEngine supports ACF as well as its own JetEngine custom fields. I thought about including Crocoblock in the list because it can be used to create custom fields.
The Crocoblock suite works with Elementor free version (works with Pro but doesn’t require it) and has a lifetime license option. The plugins are distributed without a license file, but I believe they are GPL. Recently the Crocoblock team has been adding basic support for Gutenberg in JetEngine, JetSmartFilters, and a few of the other plugins.
Crocoblock JetEngine – Unknown number of active installs
$50 1 site per year – just JetEngine and JetSmartFilters
$130 1 site per year – full Crocoblock suite
$265 unlimited sites per year – full Crocoblock suite
$750 unlimited sites lifetime – full Crocoblock suite
Surprisingly, Elementor Pro has limited dynamic data options and many Elementor users resort to third-party addons, like Crocoblock for advanced features. It is an attractive option and makes sense for people who are committed to the Elementor ecosystem. Since Gutenberg support is new, and does not run very deep, it probably doesn’t make sense to purchase it for Gutenberg. Perhaps this will change in the future as more support is added. Pricing for the unlimited sites lifetime license are very high, but they occasionally have sales.
All of the page builders mentioned here support Advanced Custom Fields and there are a ton of online resources available. It is straightforward to use. It is an especially great choice if the free version is sufficient as all of the page builders support it. There may be good reasons for choosing one of the other options, and you can see my recommendations below for details, but basically you cannot go wrong using ACF.
Meta Box Recommendations
It used to be that Meta Box required working with code and so it only appealed to developers and power users. Now most of the Meta Box features have a GUI, making them easier for non-developers to use. If your tools support Meta Box then it can be an attractive option as its lifetime all-inclusive package is about the price of two years of ACF. Oxygen is another tool that is popular with developers, and now that it officially supports Meta Box, it would seem like a natural fit. If you are comfortable working with code, Meta Box Views is very performant.
The Pods Beaver Themer extension makes working with CPT relations very easy when using Themer to create your templates. Users of this combination are very pleased with how well they work together, and this would be the recommend use. Projects where there is no budget would be another place where using Pods makes sense, as it covers all the basics in a free option. I probably would not use Pods in other circumstances due to the project’s uncertainty and lack of organization.
I wouldn’t get Toolset today planning to use it with a page builder because the company discourages this and encourages people to use blocks. So, Toolset is a good option if you want to use Gutenberg as your builder and if you want to get all of the parts of a project from the same vendor. It is also a good option if the site is going to be complex and simpler alternatives are not sufficient.
So, that’s my overview of ACF, Meta Box, Pods, and Toolset – four custom fields plugins, with a look at page builder support. I hope you’ve found this overview helpful and interesting. Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions or have other perspectives I didn’t consider.
The absolute reality is that I don’t expect much of anything in any free version.
No matter what the theme, plugin, or builder, as clever as these software developer are, they are equally clever in providing just enough to be useless and frustrating without the PRO version. I’m disgusted by the WordPress ecosystem of bait & switch artistry.
Advanced Custom Fields free version has over a million active installs and I’ve used it on a number of websites.
I’m very happy with the free ACF version. Having said which, if I were to build my site again, 16 years after I set it up and around 5 years after I started using ACF, I’d have a different data structure (with more custom post types) and would need either the Pro version or one of the other solutions
Yes, ACF free has a lot for free. I’m surprised that the relationship fields were included in the free version. That is the kind of thing that would be reserved for pro these days.
Thank you for the generosity of your experience.
Do you think with the addition of “repeater fields” to Pods that the relationship ability now gives it a lead in features?
Also, their site notes:
Simple Repeatable Fields – You can now make any field into a repeatable input that supports multiple values 🎉
File-based Configurations – Register file-based configurations using JSON or YML format and Pods will automatically pick them up from your theme or other custom locations you specify via code.
Drag and drop fields to another Field Group – Did you add a new Field Group and now you want to move some of your existing fields to it? Just drag and drop and you are all set.
Import and Export Pods Settings – The Migrate Packages component now supports importing and exporting Pods Settings.
No-follow links for Website fields – Specify whether you’d like website links that you output to have no-follow or not.
Pods development of new features was absent for four years. They have been playing catchup. I think they are getting close.