Sandvox 2.10 review: A newcomer-friendly tool for publishing simple sites
By Nathan Alderman
At a glance
For everyday folks who want to build a website but don’t know how, Sandvox (Mac App Store link) offers a friendly all-in-one solution. Web design pros who need powerful, versatile tools won’t find them, however.
Once you’ve chosen from Sandvox’s plethora of premade designs, it’s a snap to customize headlines, text, and sidebars, drop in images, and create new pages. After watching a quick intro video, it took me less than an hour to knock together a simple site with a nice-looking photo gallery and a basic blog.
I particularly liked Sandvox’s nifty nested system for organizing those latter two categories. Once I’d set up a primary page to hold the gallery or blog, I could create new pages for each individual entry underneath it, which were then automatically added to the full index on the main page.
Sandvox’s designs are serviceable enough, but they’re stuck about a decade behind modern sites’ sleek stylings. You won’t find big, bold graphical backgrounds, widescreen layouts, or precise control over style elements. This odd semi-obsolescence extends to the blend of premade objects you can drop into your pages. Some are pleasantly useful, including YouTube and Vimeo embeds and readymade “contact me” forms. Others seem head-scratchingly obscure or outdated: your IM status, a page counter, or your del.icio.us bookmarks.
A media palette hooks into your Pictures and Movies folders and iTunes library to make adding sounds and images easier. However, if you’ve upgraded from iPhoto to Apple’s new Photos program, Sandvox’s media browser won’t be able to find those images anymore.
The comfiest of straitjackets
Sandvox also locks you into a series of standard layouts, no matter what kind of design you choose. You can move embedded images up or down the page, to the body or the sidebar, or change how they’re aligned or how the text wraps around them, but that’s it.
To be fair, Sandvox’s rigidity has one notable upside. If you want to give your entire site a facelift, simply select a different design from the program’s palette. All your existing content will fit neatly into the new look and feel.
Sandvox’s outstandingly thorough online help files explain how to customize your own designs. But unpacking the application’s contents and editing its .plist files seem like a big ask for a program aimed at making things easy. There’s also no way to peek at any given design’s CSS code without opening it up in a browser first.
If you tire of its own library of designs, Sandvox has a built-in menu of user-built creations to download and try out. Some are free, but other non-Karelia designers charge around $13 apiece for their work.
Super-simple or ultra-advanced, with no middle ground
Like a tiny budget hatchback tricked out with elaborate aftermarket parts, Sandvox displays an odd gap between its low-end accessibility and its higher-end features.
I was also baffled, if impressed, when Sandvox offered me a choice between Facebook, Disqus, or IntenseDebate for comments on my site. Sandvox also boasts support for jQuery scripting, although its default version is several decimal points behind the latest one.
While the bare-bones basics of building a site couldn’t be easier, trying to fine-tune those features quickly got more confusing. Sandvox crams all its customizing options into a small, floating, multi-tabbed Inspector window. It often took me a while to figure out which section I needed to visit to adjust the desired setting.
Sandvox also lacks support for responsive design. My test site showed up OK, if teeny-tiny, on my iPhone screen, but there’s no way to create different layouts for different resolutions. Karelia says that ability, new designs, and other refreshes will arrive in future versions, possibly as soon as the end of this year.
During my tests, I encountered a handful of odd, inexplicable crashes while using Sandvox. None recurred consistently, or kept me from using or enjoying the program.
Sandvox’s secret weapon
Sandvox gets one aspect of site creation wonderfully right: moving those pages onto the Web. Once you’ve wrangled the initial setup, its built-in FTP client lets you whisk any changes to your site onto your server with the push of a button. Some files didn’t transfer the first time I uploaded my site, but a second try fixed that problem.
If even that sounds too intimidating, Karelia also offers Sandvox Hosting. From within Sandvox, I picked a user name, let Sandvox work with my Mac’s keychain to generate a secure password, and in less than 30 seconds, I had my own account. You can set up your own custom subdomain at sandvox.net, or point your site to an existing domain name. Once I’d finished that setup, my sample site showed up on sandvox.net quickly and completely. (Unfortunately, Sandvox forgot all my original FTP settings once I’d switched to Sandvox Hosting; it must not expect most users to switch between them.)
Sandvox Hosting offers four plan tiers, starting at $8 a month for the basics. Higher tiers include one or more free domain names, multi-site management, and the ability to forward email from your site to your own private address. While Sandvox’s rates weren’t the cheapest I found, they seemed reasonably in line with most of the competitors I looked up. Karelia lets you try the service free for 14 days without even asking for your credit card info.
I had fun using Sandvox, despite its limited abilities and occasional clunkiness. I think it’d make a particularly great classroom tool to help students build online school projects. Sandvox aims to offer users the simplest way to make a website, and I think it succeeds handily.
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