On November 16, 2017, WordPress released version 4.9, the second, and final, major release of 2017. Named “Tipton” in honor of jazz musician and band leader Billy Tipton, version 4.9 is now available for download via your WordPress dashboard or via the WordPress website. Version 4.9 offers some great updates and new features to further enhance the WordPress user experience, including improvements to the Customizer, enhanced widget functionalities, and a more secure and intuitive code editing feature.
Improvements to The Customizer
In previous WordPress versions, users had to publish theme changes to the live site in order to preview them, so even if you weren’t sure you wanted your theme to go live as it was, you had no choice but to publish. In version 4.9, you can save drafts, view previews, and schedule publishing for your theme customizations, just as you would your blog or news posts. You can also share site preview URLs with viewers (such as clients) who can’t/shouldn’t access the WordPress admin.
Version 4.9 also features an improved theme browsing experience, allowing users to preview and change their theme selections directly from the customizer. From the preview panel, users can now view their currently installed themes or browse through the available WordPress.org themes, then download and activate those themes right in the customizer.
Another change in version 4.9 is the improved flow for creating customizer menus, guiding the user through a more intuitive process for selecting menu items and locations. In previous versions, when you changed an active theme (even from a parent theme to its child), all of the menus and widgets from the old theme were lost, making double the work recreating them in the new theme. In version 4.9, WordPress preserves menus and widgets in a theme switch, automatically mapping menu locations and widgets that have similar IDs or names in both themes. Also, if a theme has more than one menu loaded, then the menu locations will be automatically mapped to the same locations in the new theme.
Enhanced Widget Functionality
Building on the version 4.8 introduction of media widgets, 4.9 takes that one step further with the addition of gallery widgets. Image galleries can now be displayed on widgets anywhere on your site, simply by loading the images from your Media Library. You can also define the number of columns in the gallery, along with the size and order of the images.
When the Text Widget Visual Editor was introduced in version 4.8, the user still needed basic knowledge of HTML and CSS to actually add media to a text widget. In version 4.9, Text Widget includes the “Add Media” button, allowing the user to easily browse for and add any kind of media (images, audio, video, rich text, etc) to their widget without using any coding.
In previous versions, automatic oEmbeds only worked within post content. In version 4.9, oEmbeds now work in text widgets and other areas. Also in previous versions, users who wanted to use shortcode in text widgets had to enable the functionality. Version 4.9 introduces the use of shortcode in text widgets straight out of the box.
Before version 4.9, the Video Widget could only display videos hosted by YouTube and Vimeo, because those are the only providers that are supported by the MediaElement.js library without the use of oEmbeds. If a direct video URL was inserted from another source (such as Facebook), then the Video Widget would only display a thumbnail of the video, but it would not appear correctly on the live site. The improved Video Widget in version 4.9 now includes oEmbed support, so that users can add and properly display videos hosted by providers other than YouTube and Vimeo.
Intuitive & Secure Code Editing
WordPress allows you to add HTML and/or CSS code in various places, including the custom CSS panel, the theme/plugin editor, and custom HTML widgets. In previous versions, code editors looked and functioned like plain text boxes, but version 4.9 includes CodeMirror, a syntax checking editor that includes code suggestions, live error checking, syntax highlighting, and autocomplete, and can be used to edit custom HTML widgets, custom CSS in the WordPress Customizer, and theme and plugin code from the Dashboard editor.
With the addition of CodeMirror, WordPress provides stronger support for novice developers just learning to write code, as the program will now highlight any mistakes in the code, and provide hints about the incomplete function, missing element, or faulty syntax that may be causing an error.
Version 4.9 also adds a new level of security to code editing, with the addition of several warning messages aimed at preventing users from making changes directly from the WordPress built-in editor without fully understanding the consequences. Users will see a warning when using the plugin or theme editors, and when they try to edit their themes and plugins for errors before saving. WordPress will offer tips for more safely customizing code, and will prevent users from saving the code in case of error. While the code highlighter feature is meant to help users pinpoint errors early, some users may not like this feature, which can be disabled for those who don’t want to use it.
Aimed at providing a smoother workflow and more secure code editing experience, WordPress version 4.9 includes various fixes and additions that help to achieve this goal. New developers, experienced developers, and end users alike will find that version 4.9 continues the WordPress goal of providing a user-centric experience. As the last major release of 2017, version 4.9 caps this year’s progress nicely, providing improved and enhanced techniques for website development and coding, and hinting at what may be to come with next year’s release of the eagerly awaited version 5.0.