These days, finding a free WordPress theme that you can actually rely on to run your website or blog is like finding a diamond in a lump of coal. With a few exceptions, free themes tend to be either underdeveloped or require you to pay for an “upgrade” to unlock full functionality. In this review, I'm going to look at a theme that has the potential to be one of those exceptions. It's called Justread, it comes with documentation and lifetime support, and yes, it's 100% free. Let's put it to the test and see how it holds up.

1. Theme Intro

As its name indicates, Justread is a minimal WordPress blogging theme with an emphasis on text and readability. It's a pretty straightforward affair. You get a home page with a grid displaying your latest posts; a full-width navigation bar at the top; and a widgetized footer at the bottom.

Front page of the Justread theme.

Single posts are displayed in single column format similar to Medium.com. The theme supports the new Gutenberg editor and includes bespoke styling for all the main blocks.

Single post view

Justread is part of GretaThemes, a premium theme shop run by a digital agency called eLightUp, based in Hanoi, Vietnam. The agency comprises a team of ten designers, developers and marketers who work on building WordPress based websites and products.

the eLightUp team (image:source)

Among their current WordPress projects (aside from Greta Themes) is a free plugin called Meta Box, which is a toolkit that helps developers to create unlimited custom meta boxes and WordPress custom fields.

They also run a premium WooCommerce plugin site called ProWCPlugins and another premium WordPress theme shop called FitWp. Between their two WordPress theme shops, they have released a total of 28 themes. You can follow them on Facebook here.

This is what the developers have to say about the Justread theme:

With a great care for the layout and typography, we want to deliver a great reading experience to our WordPress users. The theme uses system fonts and SVG, thus it’s super fast. Justread is compatible with all modern browsers and responsive on all screens.

https://gretathemes.com/wordpress-themes/justread

Typography, speed and cross-browser compatibility seem to be the theme's main selling points. The developers also claim that the theme requires “zero configuration” to get up and running. I'll be holding each of those points to account over the course of the review.

Let's round this introduction off with some basic stats about Justread:

Theme typeblogSupport systemTicket System
Launch dateOctober 14, 2017Support durationLifetime of theme
Last updateMarch 21, 2019User reviews (avg. rating)5/5 based on 2 reviews (source)
Update frequency (yearly avg.)4 times / yearPopular plugin supportJetpack
Current version1.0.9
Gutenberg optimizedYes
Developer(s)GretaThemes (run by eLightUp)Developer location(s)Hanoi, Vietnam

Justread was uploaded to the WordPress.org theme directory in November 2018 and currently has over 400 active installations. Since its launch in October 2017, it has had 8 updates that have dealt primarily with bug fixes and support for WordPress 5.0.

2. Design

There are three aspects of the Justread design that I want to address: colour, fonts and form. Starting with the colour palette, the theme does a great job of balancing bold and subtle monochrome tones. Take for example, the contrast between the white grid tiles and the light grey background on the home page. This gradation helps soften the impact of the theme's bold black post titles, which might otherwise be too in-your-face to be readable.

The post titles for Justread use the famous Helvetica font created in the late 1950s by Swiss typeographer, Max Miedinger. Today, Helvetica is often associated with the New York Subway station signs and their clear legibility.

Visual clarity: Helvetica Medium on the Fulton Street subway station sign in NYC.

In contrast, regular paragraph text uses the web standard sans serif font, Georgia. This is a solid choice, since sans serif fonts tend to make for easier reading, particularly when it comes to lengthy blog posts. I also like the fact that the default body font size is on the larger rather than smaller side. I see so many beautiful themes that ruin the reading experience with squint-inducing font sizes.

What about form? The grid structure used on the theme's front page gives the design a sense of order. Grids are perhaps the most efficient way of giving visitors a quick overview of a blog's content.

I find the rounded edges of the thumbnail images included in each tile coupled with the zoom-in roll-over effect helps give the theme a friendly feel.

The single post layout is probably my favourite part of the whole theme. I think the developers got the balance of elements just right here. Post titles sit neatly above the featured image and outside the main text. The featured image fits neatly inline with the full post width and has two curved top corners.

Single post LAYOUT

The spacing between blocks in the main post content is nice and airy giving posts a good sense of “flow” and there are some nice touches in terms of element styles, such as the blockquote format and and table layout.

I tested the theme on a 27″ desktop PC monitor, an iPhone 5 and a 10″ iPad and it worked well on each device. However, I did notice that the menu on my tablet in portrait mode bunched up instead of switching to the “hamburger” mobile style menu. You can see what I mean in the image at the bottom left below which is a responsive design test using the ami.responsivedesign.is website.

3. Installation and setup

Installation and setup was about as easy as it gets. Justread is part of the WordPress.org theme repository, so all you need to do is login to your WordPress dashboard, go to Appearance > Themes > Add New and search for “Justread.” Click “install” and “activate” and you're done. Here's that process in gif format.

2019-03-28-13.10.19-compressor

After activating the theme, I returned to my WordPress admin panel, went to the “Appearance” tab, and clicked the “customize” option to start arranging the theme to my liking.

The customization options are very limited with Justread. This is a blessing and a curse. A blessing in the sense that fewer options means less hassle. Justread really does work straight out of the box and in this sense it ties in with the theme's overall minimal design approach. A curse in the sense that if you use the theme for your blog, you will be more or less limited to the theme's default design options and any elaborate styling of the theme will require CSS coding knowledge.

Let's have a look at the main customization options:

Screen Shot 2019-03-30 at 15.54.25
Justread customization options

The “Site Identity” tab lets you add a logo to the site header.

Color manipulation is limited to two options: you can change the header text color or the main background color. I found it frustrating not being able to change the default blue color for links and buttons.

Bear in mind that the blue search button in the header menu and the blue-colored hyperlinks are the only elements of color in the entire theme, so being able to customize that would have a strong impact on the overall visual identity of the theme.

Content options tab

The “Content Options” tab gives you some control over what information gets displayed on front and single pages. You can choose to display post excerpts of full content; you can add or remove post meta data including date, categories, tags, author and the comment link; and finally you can also choose where to display featured images: on the main page, on archive pages, single posts or regular posts.

It's worth mentioning that there are no bespoke widgets for Justread, but standard WordPress widgets such as “Search”, “Recent Posts”, “Categories” and “Calendar” all render properly.

I found the overall experience of installing and setting up the theme very easy. I had everything configured in under 5 minutes. This bare bones approach will be a breath of fresh air for those who feel frustrated by the complex options panels and 3rd party plugin requirements that many premium themes ship with today. Others will find this degree of simplicity too limiting in terms of branding the theme to fit their niche. As the old adage goes, you can't have it both ways!

4. Everyday use

After using Justread for the best part of a week, the main impression I'm left with is ease of use. If you're new to WordPress and you want a theme that will have you blogging in under 5 minutes, then Justread is definitely a strong contender.

There's almost no learning curve in terms of installation and setup. The only thing you will need to experiment with is formatting elements in your blog posts using the Gutenberg editor.

As mentioned above, Justread was designed with Gutenberg in mind and it supports all the main blocks. To really take advantage of the theme's visual design, it's worth taking some time to learn how to manipulate text and visual media content.

For example, you can make use of full-size images that stretch seamlessly from one side of the post column to the other (see below).

seamless full-size image display

The same goes for the gallery block. You can display an elegant full-width tiled gallery in the body of your post. Justread makes it look very cool as you can see here:

in-post gallery example

Videos can be displayed in this way too.

Full-width Youtube video embed

You also have the ability to add titles over images too. Check this animated gif out to see how it's done:

How to add text over images in gutenberg

In an ideal world, all the Gutenberg functions that Justread supports would be explained in the theme's documentation. That would be a long and dry read though. If you're new to WordPress or new to the Gutenberg editor, a better option is to sign up for this series of free Gutenberg tutorials and experiment with blocks yourself.

5. Speed

In this section, I am going to run some benchmark tests to evaluate the page speed of the Justread theme. The load time of a website is a crucial factor in retaining or deterring visitors. While expectations differ from person to person, the general consensus is a 3-second load time is the threshold beyond which audience retention dramatically decreases. The optimum load time is 1 second, but for an average website with mixed media, running on cheap 3rd party hosting, a 3-second load time would still be considered decent performance.

Let's start with the Pingdom Tools website speed test to analyze the load speed of the theme. Here are the general results:

Screen Shot 2019-03-30 at 16.39.50
Read the full report here

The overall Pingdom score of 90 is excellent. To put it in perspective, here is how some of the most used sites on the Web perform:

Website namePerformance GradeLoad TimePage SizeRequests
google.comA 94329 ms413.4 KB17
wikipedia.orgB 88 345 ms368.4 KB33
nytimes.comD 623.35 s4.0 MB187

*Note: this data fluctuates according to time, location, content changes to each website etc.

So comparatively, the load time of 1.60 seconds for the Justread demo site's home page was very fast. This is an excellent result.

You can also see that the theme generated only 23 requests in loading the home page. Requests are Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) communications between the browser and the server that hosts your site.

Each request is sent by the Web server to the Web browser and the Web browser collects all this information and displays it in the form of a web page. It can includes things like displaying text, rendering images, rendering any animations or plugins and so on.

Since Justread doesn't rely on 3rd party plugins to operate, the request number is relatively low, making the theme light weight and speedy.

Let's take a look at how the theme performs on mobile platforms. To do this I'm going to use the Google Mobile Speed Test for smartphones. Here are the results:

Screen Shot 2019-03-30 at 16.43.17
Read the full report here

The mobile score is outstanding. If you take a look at the Google report, the main recommendations to improve mobile speed are largely related to image rendering:

Screen Shot 2019-03-30 at 16.44.40
GOOGLE PAGE SPEED INSIGHTS RECOMMENDATIONS.

Let's see how Justread performs in comparison to other sites.

Website nameGoogle Mobile Score
google.com90
wikipedia.org92
nytimes.com29
Chipmunk WordPress Theme77

Overall, the Justread theme performs at a very high level in terms of load speed. It is at the blazingly fast end of the spectrum, and this along with the theme's ease of use makes it a very respectable offering in the free WordPress theme landscape.

6. Support

One of the most important parts of buying into a premium WordPress theme is theme support. Being able to solve problems in a short amount of time through efficient and accessible feedback is invaluable.

When it comes to free WordPress themes, the tendency among developers is not to provide support. Thankfully, the folks at eLightUp buck this trend by offering free support for Justread users.

Granted, priority is given to users of paid themes, but if you're patient and understanding, you can submit a support ticket and the developers will respond.

The theme also comes with documentation. The information is minimal, but it does cover the main points of operation.

You can also try and post support questions on the WordPress.org forums since Justread is part of the theme repository. At the time of writing, there are no threads open for Justread, but it's worth posting there so others can benefit from your experience.

7. The verdict

In the introduction, I mentioned that Justread claimed to do 4 things well: Typography, zero configuration, speed and cross-browser compatibility. So how did the theme do?

Typography: Justread definitely lives up to its name in being an easy to read theme. The font treatment is superb and when combined with the subtle gradation of layout colors makes for a superior reading experience.

Zero configuration : I can confirm that this claim is absolutely true. This is one of the easiest themes to install and configure. However, as I mentioned above, that ease of use comes at the price of limited configurability, but that's a compromise I'm willing to accept, given the professional look and feel of the design.

Speed: Justread is lightweight and fast. It scored highly in the speed tests, and particularly in the mobile test. This is a big plus for this free theme.

Cross browser compatibility: I tested Justread on a range of browsers, including Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera and Microsoft Edge, and I couldn't find any render problems.

To sum up, Justread is a fast, light weight, elegant and professional theme for bloggers that is easy to set up and use. The theme's support for Gutenberg makes creating content a breeze and with a little effort you can take advantage of the bespoke options for certain blocks. It would be great to see the developers include Gutenberg-specific tutorials in their documentation. As it stands, it's a case of figuring it out for yourself.

Justread will be of interest to anyone looking to start a new blog with zero $$ investment and minimal configuration time. For those interested in customizing your theme to fit a particular brand, unless you're comfortable with editing CSS, you might want to look elsewhere.

Pros

Clean design ✓
Easy to install ✓
No extra plugins needed ✓
Gutenberg optimized ✓
Fast loading time ✓
Lifetime support ✓
Active developers ✓
100% free ✓

Cons

Limited design options ✘
No added layout options ✘
Very narrow comment sections ✘
No bespoke widgets ✘

Justread WordPress Theme

Design
Installation & Setup
Everyday Use
Speed
Support

OVERALL THEME SCORE
(how does it compare?)

4
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