Unit frames have evolved significantly over the course of WoW's life, from static, portrait-driven frames to dynamic and animated hubs of information. I've always treated the unit frames as a centerpiece and counterweight, like a see-saw, using the unit frame's natural duality to its best effect. There are few addons or types of addon that can take on as many shapes and forms as the unit frames do. Not least, the unit frames provide some of the most vital information to the player possible -- your health.
For healers, from the very beginning, the group and raid interfaces were unable to cope with the sharp skill incline after reaching level 60 cap. There was nothing that I wanted more than a robust group layout of buffs, debuffs, and easy-to-read healths and percentages, with the ability to make it look the way I wanted to. The idea of something like Grid had not even come up yet. Original unit frame addons were blocky messes of textures and bright blue and green bars. Portraits were taken way, way too far. Kids in the candy store.
What are unit frames, anyway?
When I talk about unit frames, the first question many people have is what exactly they are. Combined, the unit frames include the player frame (your health, mana, energy, portrait, etc.), the target frame (your target's information), the group frames, the target of target (and its associated frames), and the focus target frame. Originally, the raid frames were included in this package.
Then, one day, a marked shift in the way healers interacted with raids dipped into group play. Grid-style group and raid frames and layouts split off from the unit frames and became the raid frames we know today. Blizzard eventually adopted its own version of the Grid-type raid frames which, we have noted multiple times, are better than they've ever been.
Unit frames evolved in three distinct directions: the streamlined and customizable set including Shadowed Unit Frames, Stuf, and Pitbull; a minimalist and occasionally obscure healer box-style including Grid, Vuhdo, and others; and a modern heads-up display interface that places unit frame information much closer to player's actual on-screen representation.
The HUD style of unit frames never clicked with any part of my brain that appreciated unit frames, mostly because I wanted to see my character in the midst of the action at the center rather than any health bars or whirligigs and crazy visuals. Little did I know that PowerAuras would come about one day and change my perception on crazy crap dangled in front of me. Bars next to my character, however, are still out of the question.
But that's not to disparage the HUD style. It works, and it works well in many cases and in many custom UIs. Beautiful heads-up UIs exist all over the community. It's an impressive style that has found a way into a world in which it feels utterly out of place and right at home in the same breath. That must be good, right?
Fans of the regular, plain-Jane type of unit frames -- and there is nothing wrong with that -- are in luck. The feature sets of the modern unit frame replacements and addons are largely the same. These days, the decision comes down to a combination of personal preference and variety of customization.
For the simplest, easiest, out-of-the-box experience, I've always recommended Shadowed Unit Frames. It looks clean, the colors are solid and don't commandeer the screen, and the addon's footprint is small -- all good qualities that every unit frame addon should have. The biggest issue with Shadowed is that that people just like Pitbull more. Maybe it's just a name issue and people know one brand over the other. Suffice to say, it's a nice experience.
Pitbull and Stuf are awesome. If you have moderate to advanced UI skills, love tinkering with your UI, and want all of your information right there, ready to roll, exactly how you want it, Pitbull and Stuf are your babies. You can't go wrong with the options -- and frankly, everything these addons can build will look wonderful. Just choose your colors carefully.
Download Shadowed Unit Frames at [Curse].
Download Pitbull at [Curse].
Download Stuf at [Curse].
Edit: I have no idea why I forgot to include xPerl. It's awesome and deserves a spot here. I love you, xPerl -- please don't hate me forever.
Download xPerl at [Curse].
For a Grid-type interface for your party and raid frames (and potentially your own player frame), the granddaddy Grid is still my favorite option. Blizzard's own raid frames are excellent as well and don't require any installation. That's awesome, too!
Honestly, I'm not going to talk too much about raid frames in this column because I will write a column soon on that very subject. For now, Grid, the default frames, Vuhdo, Healbot, and whatever else are all great and work wonders in various different ways. That's for another week.
Download Grid at [Curse].
IceHUD is still, I believe, the premiere HUD package in terms of robust and well-done HUD-style unit frames. You can do some pretty impressive configurations with IceHUD, so I implore you to download the addon and give it a go. At least see what it is capable of before dismissing the idea of a HUD, like I did. At least I gave it a shot, right?
Check out my Addon Spotlight on IceHUD.
The unit frames are a staple of the WoW UI and always will be. How else could you get incredibly detailed information about your health, mana, energy, and more without those handy bars? What about the boss's health and all that? Unit frames were one of the last pieces of the user interface that I finally found comfort in, in terms of the right addon and placement for me. They moved around a lot.
Unit frames also have the unique task of displaying a lot of information but also being wildly different in placement for people who choose to move them. Remember, the unit frames in the default interface only recently have been movable, and that's in beta. In fact, the best Reader UI of the Week submission I have ever received was -- well, how about I save that for next week?
Addons are what we do on Addon Spotlight. If you're new to mods, Addons 101 will walk you through the basics; see what other players are doing at Reader UI of the Week. If there's a mod you think Addon Spotlight should take a look at, email firstname.lastname@example.org.