Overview and Comparison of Three Free WordPress Themes: Atahualpa, Graphene and Parabola — Introduction

Update: Since I amalgamated my four sites, I decided to build a custom theme based on the Underscores starter theme, so I no longer use any of the themes reviewed in this article. I will soon write an article detailing my experience with Underscores, so stay tuned!

With all the time I spend on my sites, I feel like I know my themes, their nuances, and to some extent, their makers. I spent a lot of time finding the right theme for each site, and while each has its pros and cons, I’m more than satisfied with my choices. I always look for flexible, customisable themes; the more options the better — so long as they’re easy to use! Ultimately, the three free WordPress themes I use have proven themselves. Now I want to share some tried, tested, and true recommendations based on my own experiences of website building with the Atahualpa, Graphene, and Parabola themes.


Review of Atahualpa WordPress Theme by BytesForAll

Atahualpa is the theme I use for my personal site, and I love it! When I searched for “most flexible theme,” Atahualpa popped up on the first page of the results. But when I activated Atahualpa, my heart skipped a beat: it looked complicated! But as soon as I started looking through the options, I saw that it was actually all quite logical and well-organised. Now I wonder why all themes aren’t made this way.

Possibly one of the things that originally impressed me was that there’s a lot you can do with the header area in Atahualpa. I don’t use the majority of the available options, to be honest, but it can get fancy! There are rotating images, customisable overlay, and a logo area in addition to site title and description. With complete control over the position and layout of menu and custom widget areas, and even the design and layout of divider bars, Atahualpa lets you create a truly custom header area.

And at the end, in the footer to be exact, Atahualpa gives you a lot of the same options as for the header. It took me a while to figure out how to insert a footer menu, but now I love how it’s done (with simple tags).

Of course, everything in between is customisable too, from text and body to links, widgets, post excerpts, images, post info items, content areas, and sidebars. For example, it’s possible to hide the “Comments are disabled” text, which drives me nuts.

But it’s Atahualpa’s sidebars that really do it for me. The options available with Atahualpa continually throw me for a loop. Normally, I lament the too few options, but with Atahualpa, I find it hard to decide what to do (without ever saying there are too many options!). There are four sidebars, two on each side. You can adjust the width and look of each, and where exactly on the site each displays. That’s the kicker: total and absolute sidebar control! Check out what I mean by visiting my personal site, where you’ll see a sidebar on the left on the home page, one on each side on posts, two on the left on multi-post pages (archives), and two on each side on many other pages.

What else can you do with Atahualpa? Well, it has a lot of built-in SEO options, and menu options if you’re not using the WordPress menu options. There are some RSS settings, multi-post/archive page navigation settings, and options for comments, tables, forms, and more. And there’s a handy spot for html inserts, plus another for CSS inserts. Atahualpa has excellent Print CSS built right in, so no need to do anything with that.

The only downside I’ve found with Atahualpa specifically is the need to use a plugin to upload a favicon (since I don’t know how to create the necessary file type), as well as the need to upload header images to the theme folders rather than to the WordPress media library. I also wish a plugin wasn’t needed to use Google Fonts.

Frankly, I think Atahualpa can be used by anyone but that someone comfortable with coding would be able to do much more with it. However, beginners shouldn’t be afraid to try because plenty of explanations and examples are provided directly within the various options sections.

I also think part of what makes Atahualpa so flexible is that it’s not heavily designed, so you really can make it look exactly the way you want. But non-designers could find that challenging.

Update: For extra help with the Atahualpa theme, check out Solving Not Found Issues with Atahualpa, which offers a solution for creating separate Not Found Search Results and 404 pages without writing any custom php code.

Review of Graphene WordPress Theme by Stampede Design

A similar Google search, perhaps “most customisable theme,” had previously led me to find Graphene when I decided to build Green Niackery. Green Niackery had previously been part of my original blog-unfriendly Yola website, and I’d long been sick of not being able to manage my blog properly.

Graphene turned out to be an excellent choice. It’s got some cool header options of its own, especially placement of the social media buttons. With it, too, some significant styling of the header and menu areas is possible. In addition, it’s got a separate header widget area that can be enabled and styled, and the option to replace the header image with the featured image can be disabled.

Graphene’s got a nice little feature which lets you disable comments entirely on pages while leaving posts intact, so you don’t have to check the box every time you publish a new page. It’s got the option of disabling comments site-wide, but WordPress already lets you do that. And sadly, Graphene lacks the option of hiding the “Comments are disabled” text, which I think is a big downfall I will really have to work on.

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What’s more, as I’ve mentioned in a prior post, Graphene has a great front page post slider. In fact, it’s got a static front page option as well as some other cool front page features which I don’t use yet, like homepage panes, which I can’t wait to try. Also, Graphene has a few good sidebar options, too, including alternate front page sidebar and footer widget areas.

One of my favourite Graphene options is the action hooks section, which adds widget areas to predetermined locations on the site. The selection of check boxes is much more user-friendly than how it’s done with Atahualpa (code that’s simple enough once you get the hang of it).

A lot of similar options are available for styling the site, yet a few key differences stand out. Google Fonts is built into Graphene, and you can upload a site favicon directly from the Graphene options screen. And, Graphene has a simple checkbox option to enable Print CSS. Sweet and easy, but I wonder why it wouldn’t just automatically be included. It certainly can’t harm anyone to make sure their site looks good when someone prints out a post.

Some really cool advanced features come with Graphene which I don’t use but which others might really appreciate. The theme lets you automatically insert AdSense code at the bottom of your posts, and it can also display a Creative Commons license in the footer if you so choose. It displays automatically, but it can be disabled and replaced with other text. The Return to Top link in the footer menu can also be disabled.

Possibly the best part about the Graphene options is that there are Save buttons everywhere, and the screen doesn’t refresh or move when you click them, so that it’s easy to continue working without interruption.

Graphene feels more user-friendly and intuitive, and there’s barely anything I’ve tried to do that I couldn’t figure out. I know I’m not using Graphene to its full potential, so look for improvements at Green Niackery in the future!

Review of Parabola WordPress Theme by Cryout Creations

Parabola, which I found for MiscellaNiackery, has a built-in front page option which I find pretty cool. There’s an amazing front page post slider and a bunch of customisable layout options, though not enough for more complicated needs, I’d say. The Parabola front page wouldn’t work at all for the layout I’ve got over at my personal site, for example.

Still, it’s a fairly new theme and it’s doing really well. I see improvements with each update, and it looks like the theme authors are keeping their eyes peeled for bugs at this early stage.

Parabola has a lot of the same built-in options as Graphene, which makes it very user-friendly. Plugins aren’t needed to use Google Fonts or to upload a favicon, for example.

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With Parabola, the site header is defined directly in the header options. Responsive layout is enabled automatically but can be turned off for those who might not want to use it. The colour settings are a little less intuitive than I would have liked, and it seems that the theme colour schemes are a little tricky to override, but the theme designers have done a good job with them so it probably wouldn’t bother most users.

That being said, Parabola is most certainly the most heavily designed of the three themes, and man in looks fine! It’s got plenty of options to personalise the theme and most people will be satisfied with those. Designers may need to mess around with code more.

I really like Parabola’s graphics settings. You can enable breadcrumbs and pagination without installing a plugin or two. You can align the menu and enable a “Return to Top” button. Plus, you can hide list bullets, category archive titles, and more. One of the things I appreciate most about Parabola is that the “Comments are disabled” text can be hidden.

Enabling Parabola’s pagination on multi-post pages like category archives is so much better for navigation than simple “Previous” and “Next” links. You can also choose a magazine layout on multi-post pages, which is really cool. I also like how the excerpts can be styled in Parabola, with complete control over the image size and alignment. Those who want to replace their post header image with their featured image can do so.

Like Graphene, Parabola has a built-in social media display. I don’t really like the positioning so I don’t use it, but that’s only because I try to maintain some consistency across all Niackery sites, whenever possible. I think Parabola’s social media display would please many bloggers.

On the downside, Parabola’s drawback is a lack of custom widget areas, but that can be overcome with plugins. Lots of great features do make this a good theme to work with, but for the most part, the options are limited. For example, when setting the layout of the content area and sidebars, you can adjust the site width, content width, and sidebars width; but, if using two sidebars, the sidebar width is split evenly instead of providing the option to set each individually, as with Atahualpa and Graphene.

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Another downside is that Parabola doesn’t seem to have any Print CSS at all, so that a lot of extra code has to be added to get posts and pages to print properly. Not so sweet, though definitely not difficult. But it’s always nice to save some steps.

I plan on trying out some more of Parabola’s options, too, especially on the front page. Plus, since it’s still so new, updates almost always have something good added. MiscellaNiackery’s bound to feel the effects of change over time.

Update: For extra help with the Parabola theme, check out Improving Parabola: 8 Simple Theme Tweaks. It’s full of tips for better post navigation, breadcrumb navigation, not found results, menu locations, and more.

Overview: Comparing Three Free WordPress Themes

Overall, I like Atahualpa the best, definitely, though I like how each of my sites currently looks and functions. Atahualpa truly is the most flexible, customisable theme of the three, but it takes more coding knowledge and time invested (as in, hard work) to get where you want to be. Graphene is in my opinion the most flexible and customisable while remaining more user-friendly. Parabola is very customisable and user-friendly as well, but it has a few more limitations (and possibly a few more options to help overcome them).

But I’m happy with the way things are going on each of my sites for now, and in large part that’s thanks to three wonderful themes! I couldn’t be more thankful for the great support I’ve found in the forums, from theme authors and community members alike. I’d encourage anyone to give either of the Atahualpa, Graphene, or Parabola WordPress themes a go.


2 Thoughts on “Overview and Comparison of Three Free WordPress Themes: Atahualpa, Graphene and Parabola

  1. Raza:

    Cryout Creation is good company but one of the theme called Mantra is not working properly . I think Cryout need to work on it . I face an unknown error problem inside this theme .

    1. I’ve never used Mantra… Have you tried posting to its support forum?