Never experiment with themes, plugins and coding on a live website in case something goes wrong, use a safe test site only you can access instead. Get started with free Local by Flywheel.
Local by Flywheel is a great tool that enables you to set up and run WordPress websites on your Windows PC or Apple Mac. The free Community edition lacks the advanced features of the Pro and Teams edition, but it is all you need to learn how to use WordPress and experiment with plugins, themes and website development.
You can create a WordPress site on your computer and pretty much do everything with it that you would do with a live site. The paid Pro and Teams editions enable you to create staging sites. In other words, you can copy a live website to your computer, make changes, then sync the changes to the live site when you are happy with them.
There are special features for those with Flywheel WordPress web hosting, but you don’t need to be a Flywheel customer to use the features of the free Community edition.
Why you need a WordPress test site
Install a plugin on a site and there is a small risk that it could conflict with other plugins you have on your site. It should not happen of course, and developers try to ensure that their plugins work nicely with other plugins, but sometimes problems still occur.
Even updating a plugin can cause problems and it is not unusual to hear of people updating a plugin only to discover that it breaks the site. WordPress updates can also cause compatibility problems with plugins that can cause anything from a minor error to a complete site failure.
It is useful to try plugins on a test site before installing them on a real site and make sure they work OK.
Some plugins are very straightforward and require very little configuration, but some plugins are quite complicated and have many settings. A test site lets you try a plugin and go through the configuration settings, getting to know how it works.
You can try different features and options, and work out what steps are required to get it to do what you want. When you are familiar with its setup and know what is needed to get it working, you can then install it on your real website.
WordPress themes always look fantastic in the demo, but getting your site to look like the demo can sometimes be difficult. It can also take a couple of hours to get to know a new theme and learn how it works and how to set it up the way you want it to. Install it on a test site and you can get to know it.
It is not always obvious that a theme can do what you want from a thumbnail image or even from a live demo. You need to get your hands on it and see what features it has and how easy or hard it is to get it to do what you want. You cannot add half a dozen themes to a live site and spend the day playing around with them. A test site is useful for trying new themes and getting hands-on experience.
Get a WordPress test website
I looked at a couple of ways to run a local copy of WordPress here:
- How to run WordPress on your PC or Mac for testing and learning
- How to run WordPress on your Mac or PC to build websites
Those methods are quite good and the free Community version of Local by Flywheel is easily their equal and is perhaps even better. The paid Pro and Team versions are far superior. Here I look at the freebie though, which is a good place to start and if you like it, you can always upgrade.
Download either the Windows PC or Apple Mac version of Local By Flywheel and install it. I used the Mac version, but the PC one works just the same.
It is a 560 MB download and 820 MB when installed. Add a few more tens of MB for various things and you need around 1.5 GB of disk space. It will work in 4 GB of RAM, but only just and 8 GB or more is best.
As is often the case on the Mac, you have to allow various permissions and enter your admin password several times, but it is all straightforward and very easy to get up and running. The PC version has fewer permissions to click through.
Run Local by Flywheel
The app opens a window with a toolbar down the left side and there is a button to create a new website. You are asked for a site name and username and password for your admin account.
Unlike other local WordPress installations, Local by Flywheel lets you choose the PHP version from 5.2 up to 7.3, nginx or Apache web server, and MySQL 5.5 to 5.7. That is great for expert users, but if you don’t know what all this means, you can ignore all this and simply accept the recommended setup.
You can even set it up with https using a local SSL certificate. You don’t need a secure connection to your own site running on your own computer of course, but it is useful to make tests sites just like real sites on the web.
That’s it and the site is set up for you. Click the Start Site link and use the Admin button to log in to the backend as an admin or the View button to view the site in a browser. From here on it is no different to accessing a real self-hosted WordPress site on the web. You can install plugins and themes, create posts and so on.
Local sites can be cloned, so you could clone a site before trying something risky for example, which makes it easy to return to a previous version. The WordPress installation on the disk can be viewed in Finder (Explorer on PC), so if you want to hack the files, you can.
Live local sites
There is a great feature that enables your site to go live on the web. It is just one click on a button in the app. It is not intended for the general public, but if you are developing a website for a customer, you could give them the URL so they can try the site on your computer and OK it before you transfer it to a web host.