Each week Matthew Porter contributes The Creamy GUI Center, a column aimed at helping you enhance your WoW experience by offering an in depth guide to addons, macros and other tools we use to play WoW, along with commentary on issues that affect how we all play.
As my first column, I wanted to start out with a review of action bar addons. WoW's default UI (User Interface) is built around the action bar and for many is the cornerstone for their interactions within WoW. Comparatively speaking, Blizzard's default UI is elegant and user friendly when contrasted against many other MMOs on the market. In fact WoW's two newest competitors, Vanguard and Lord of the Rings Online, both mimic Blizzard's design to varying degrees. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all. Blizzard's UI doesn't overwhelm the user with information or complexity, which can be a barrier of entry to new players. Its information is displayed cleanly, however its faults lie in the fact it's rather inefficient, and nothing about it can be moved or resized. The action bars are a decent size and buttons are easy to click using your mouse, but it's rather sprawled out taking a lot of screen space including the unnecessary art. For those content with the default layout or who prefer using key bindings, Blizzard's action bars get the job done.
For a lot of users, this isn't enough. There's always room for improvement. Blizzard being the smarties that they are, gave us the freedom to add usability that they never even thought of through the use of addons. (Sometimes to unwanted effects, hello decursive nerf.). You may crave a customized playing field, or a clean and efficient layout, or maybe you just want to express yourself by creating your own UI for that personal touch. To accomplish this let's take a look at three addons that offer different ways to do the same thing: create and manage action bars.
First up is Bongos which entered the scene after the big 2.0 patch and quickly became a favorite with users. With its clean options menu and easy bar customization it's no wonder why it became a favorite. Bongos offers customization to the menu, bag, and pet bar beyond just action bars. You can scale and adjust the columns for each bar individually. Users wanting a space saving tight layout rejoice because each bar can stick to one another which makes lining things up really easy with no wasted pixels! The Bongos package include its own cast bar, and key ring. Bongos also comes with a movable and scalable roll area where loot rolls will appear, and a similar area for stats like FPS, memory usage, and lag. These two inclusions feel tacked on and while they may be handy for some, you can safely delete the containing folders with these features and the rest of Bongos isn't affected. The cast bar is also optional if you prefer using a specialty addon for it.
Using Bongos is easy with a well laid out options panel. Here you can control the visibility of each bar, choose an out of range color highlight, set up key bindings and stance/shapeshift bar switching. This is done by selecting the stance/form and entering the bar number you want to change and the bar number to change to. Key bindings are also easy to setup, just select the option in Bongos' options panel, mouse over a button you wish to bind, and press the key you wish to bind it to. Customizing each individual bar is done by right clicking a bar when it's not locked in place. When right clicked, a menu appears with sliders allowing the usual scaling and padding options, along with options for adjusting columns and opacity of the bar. Once you have all your bars how you like them, Bongos provides profiles to save your settings so you can recall it on other characters.
All in all Bongos has a nice presentation and is easy to use. Adding a cooldown count option and experience bar would have been welcomed over the roll and stats area. The sticky bars option is also a nice feature, but Bongos lacks the ability to make bars show and hide with a mouse over or when in/out of combat. Another wish list feature would be to allow the assigning a default target to a bar, like your focus target, pet, or party member. For another take on Bongos, check out its review over at AddOn Spotlight.
Trinity Bars is next under the microscope with some unique features. Trinity Bar's rise in popularity can be attributed to its assortment of icon styles. Rather than just the normal (and boring) square icons, Trinity Bars feature circular, diamond and borderless icon styles. While novel to users who want some eye candy with their UI, this feature is out done by another addon called Cycircled which can apply styles to practically any action bar addon. More on this later.
Trinity Bars' interface at first glance looks slick, with a neat fold out animation on the minimap button, however
it's a usability nightmare. A circular layout is a little confusing because there is only an icon; to see what it does you must mouse over to see a tooltip. This combined with the fact that many of the buttons have dual functionality depending on if you left or right click them make using Trinity Bars' options awkward. You end up spending too much time looking for the right option to tinker with. There is a control panel window which alleviates this somewhat, but it further confuses the user with odd terminology. Customizing a bar is done individually for each bar using little up and down arrows to control a bar's aspects such as columns, amount of buttons, scale and padding. Text entry would be a nice option to have as its rather cumbersome having to click so often. Getting a bar setup how you like it is clunky at best due to Trinity having to redraw the bar each time a change is made. One feature I did like was the ability to assign a default target to a bar, such as target, self, focus, or party members. When used with the "show bar when moused over" option this can make a nice alternative to unit frame button addons. Trinity also adds customization to the menu, bag, cast, and experience bar; all of which can be scaled and tinkered with. Trinity Bar's key bind system is simple to use, just mouse over your buttons and push the key you wish to bind it to.
Overall Trinity Bar has a lot of good ideas, but fails to execute them. While it performs well once set up and has some interesting features, in the long run it's just not worth it. Other addons provide the same or better features in a better package.
To round up the review we have Bartender3 which is a complete recode and successor of Bartender2 (whodathunkit?). Bartender3 is an ACE addon and like most ACE addons it strives to be efficient with its memory footprint. Hypothetically this means it takes up less system resources and minimizes load time and overhead. In the real world this is hard to measure and only really becomes a factor on PCs with limited memory. I'll be writing more about ACE and other memory efficient addons and how they affect you in a future column.
Bartender3's configuration panel is easy to use but a little sterile in its look. All the usual features are there like resizing the bar and padding between buttons, adjusting the columns of each bar, and opacity. Bartender3 lets you decide how to customize each bar by letting you access the options on the main configuration panel or by right clicking an individual bar. Here you adjust the options with a slider or by typing in the desired number. The latter is a nice touch as it allows quick fine tune control. Bartender3 includes customization of bag, pet, menu, stance/form, and experience bar; essentially everything that it replaces from the Blizzard UI sans lag meter. Actions can be colored red when out of range, but you can't adjust the color or tint. Bars can auto hide till moused over, but cannot fade depending on combat. Hopefully this will be added along with the ability for bars to stick together. Lining up bars neatly can be frustrating for a perfectionist such as myself. Cooldowncount option is intentionally left out in fear of over bloating the addon. Bartender3 uses Blizzard's default key binding process which isn't bad, but could be improved upon. Once you have arranged everything to your liking you can save to a profile. The profile can become a default template by class, server, and name making it easy to setup for all your characters.
Bartender3's author routinely updates and listens to feedback; hopefully more functionality will be added soon to compliment an already capable addon. While the options panel is functional but bland, the ability to right click a bar to adjust it streamlines the process. Bartender3 also supports a Fubar plugin that allows for quick access to change options around.
The Wrap Up
Out of the 3 reviewed addons I would suggest Bongos for most users. It's easy to configure and covers the basics well. If you need just a little more control, Bartender3 offers auto-hiding bars and could potentially overtake Bongos usability if sticky frames and easier button binding is added. Trinity Bars offers assignable targets for each bar and styles to make round buttons, but its clunky interface and confusing options makes it difficult to use.
A few other addons also serve up action bar support but didn't get a full review because they're a little rough around the edges; however they offer advanced options that a power user might like. For example, InfiniBar doesn't use Blizzard's button ids meaning you can make any number of additional buttons. The developer is going for great control in all aspects of the bar modification so the learning curve can be steep, but advanced users might want to keep an eye on its development. Yet another addon, called Cogsbar, might be worth checking out if you want a more "Flexbar" style of bar creation. It uses all slash commands to create bars and states to manage them such as shapeshift forms, warrior stances and stealth. Finally, what many consider to be the grand daddy of customizable action bars, Flexbar, is getting a new incarnation. Flexbar2 is under development and promises great functionality like the original, but of course following WoW's new secure template parameters.
Even with a full featured action bar addon, a little extra unf is nice every now and again. cyCircled, Klappa, and Geist add just that. While not able to stand on their own, they both add some nice functionality when used with others. Cycircled is an easy way to make action bars more visually appealing. It comes with several different styles to change the normal square buttons into a variety of different shapes, including a replica of Trinity Bar's glossy circles. For a little more in depth review, check out this AddOn Spotlight article. Klappa is a small addon that features 3 buttons which when moused over show 4 additional buttons in a row. It's under development and new features will be added shortly. Geist is an action bar addon that shows a grid of action buttons when a key binding is held down, and disappears when the key is let up. It's a great way to access buttons that aren't used often. The middle of the grid always pops up where ever you have your mouse cursor making it easy to access with a minimal amount of movement.
That just about covers it for action bar addons. Did I leave anything out or do you have further questions? Have an addon category you want detailed? Let me know! I enjoy and encourage feedback.
Matthew will continue spending more time building the ultimate UI than actually playing his Mage and assorted alts in his quest for usability nirvana.