(Possibly the best version of the song aside from – maybe – the Cheech and Chong version!)
One of the most-used addons out there is the Unit Frame mod. One of the first addons I ever installed, in fact, was a unit frame mod – CT_UnitFrames, in the early days of 2006. We’ve come a long way since then.
Unit frame mods come in several flavors and variations, but the essence of the beast is this. Look at your default layout. See that little widget that has your picture, your health, and your mana (or other similar power) in it? That’s your player unit frame. There are several others such as target, pet, party members, raid members, and so forth.
WoW comes with a full set of unit frames, but, in the past, they have been less than adequate to the users’ needs1.
As with the HUD review series, I’m going to take a look at the various unit frame addon candidates out there. While this series is primarily concerned with unit frame replacement addons, I will also be looking at alternative unit frame addons such as Grid. The main difference is that the former is designed to replace all unit frames completely, while the latter is intended to be used alongside your unit frames (or replacements).
Unit Frame addons are highly complex because what they are replacing is complex to start with. A unit frame conveys so much information, and can be tweaked in so many ways, that something like your pet’s unit frame could be a blog article all by itself. Unit frames are deceptively simple on the surface, and filled with potential when you look beyond that.
The hardest part of this review was to sift out the important features and to drill down to the truly useful stuff. I consider the ultimate test bed to be instances – party and raid. Therefore the final pass of performance reviewing required a few weeks to complete, since I’m not in raids and parties every day.
A note about bugs
One big fat caveat for this review. We are in a transition period between patch 4.0.3 and 4.2. There were a few change to the Blizzard UI interface (moving function calls to a secure domain, removal of pet happiness stat, etc) that directly impact unit frames.
Now, normally, in a transition period such as this, I would not be too hard on an addon if it hadn’t caught up yet. But for most of the changes we’re talking months. I have far fewer charitable thoughts in that light.
If a change was made in 4.2 that caused problems, I’ll call it out as such for your consideration. If it was a 4.0 or 4.1 change that broke the addon, however, I am not cutting any slack. That should have been resolved by now. If it hasn’t, it’s possible that the addon has been abandoned, and you should consider that.
Let’s talk about the spread of features and how important they can and cannot be.
A proper feature will jump out at you, especially if you are used to it and it goes missing. For example, the very act of moving a unit frame around is a major feature, and arguably the one single feature that drives people into the arms of the various addons to begin with.
On the other hand, a lot of addons are filled to the brim with features that are nice to have, but not so important. For example, a large portion of the entire gaming world can get by without having the means to add arbitrary text to every health bar. Changing the font, on the other hand, is a big deal if the default one, well, sucks2.
One of the first things to look at is, how much of the default UI does it actually replace? On the whole, you’ll probably want as complete coverage as possible so that everything works in a consistent manner. However, in the case of the group-focused addons, the intent is not 100% coverage, so we don’t want to take away from them just because they have focused goals.
The following frame types are up for replacement.
- Raid and Party frames – These only appear during group activities and represent your fellow adventurers. These are usually smaller and more utilitarian, so as to reduce clutter and avoid performance issues. At minimum, it’ll be a frame that has the name of the character and the character’s health. Subframes may or may not be “stuck to” the main frames. I think the better ones are, but not all addon authors agree.
- Group Target Subframes – In my opinion, the really good raid frame replacements will also track each members’ target, though positioning it can be problematic. But at least have the ability, is what I say.
- Group Pet Subframes – More common than the group target subframe, this shows the combat pets for the group. I find these less useful as DPS, but can see the value to a healer – though I suspect a healer would be using something more … healy.
- Player Frame – This represents you. In the default UI, it is in the upper-left corner, and has the player’s pet sub-frame stuck to it as well. Many addons do not keep the pet attached to the player.
- Pet Target – Most addons – but not all – also support a pet target subframe. This represents the target that the pet is going after.
- Target Frame – This represents your target. Generally it may have buff and debuff info as well. Usually, you can also create a Target of Target and Target of Target of Target mini-frame. In the default UI, the former is latched onto the target’s frame.
- Focus Frame – This is like a target frame but does not represent your target per se. Some addons feature a Focus Target frame as well.
- Boss Frame – In 4.0 or 4.1, the Boss Frame was added, and, as you likely suspect, it is a representation of the boss or bosses in a boss fight. It is incredibly handy. If an addon does not support it, it better not hide it!
- Main Tank and Main Assist – Many addons – including the default – support them. As you might suspect, they represent the tank(s) and offtank(s) should the raid leader so designate them. Some addons have the means for you to assign “private” tanks and offtanks yourself, so you don’t have to nag the raid leader. Most of these also show or support showing each tank’s target, and, in some cases, the target’s target, in the same frame.
- Arena Frames – A fairly new addition, arena frames often also support team targets and team pets.
There are a number of features that apply to the addon in general, in terms of how it’s put together, how it handles configuration, how it supports the underlying unit frame mechanics of WoW.
- UI Compatibility– This is in reference to the native Blizzard UI, and how well the addon supports it.
- Configuration UI – Does the addon use Blizzard’s native configuration panel, or does it roll its own?
- Unit Frame UI – The default Blizzard frames have a few UI features that not all addons support, such as “unlock frame” and click-to-drag subsequent to that.
- Hiding Blizzard Frames – If an addon replaces a Blizzard frame, it should either hide the default frame automatically, or at least let you turn it off yourself via its configuration panel.
- Configuration Features – These features are relevant to the actual setup of the addon itself. The major items are profile support (supporting the loading and saving of preset configurations, usually but not always character-baed), click and drag (visual adjustment of the frames’ position), and configuration mode (simulate a raid or other environment to facilitate the placement of the unit frames).
- Extensibility – Some addons offer a constellation of plugins to enhance them. King of this hill is Grid.
- Modularity – A modular addon comes with several pieces – typically one core piece, and then additional pieces that extend it further, such as a configuration module. Most of these also feature load-on-demand, so even if you don’t disable the parts you don’t need, they won’t eat memory until you actually use them.
The meat and potatoes of the unit frame addon will be the features supported by the unit frames themselves.
- Portraits are little representations of the frame’s owner. They can be animated, they can be 3D, and can be movable. Animation and 3D consume frame rates, so if you are having issues with that, you should keep those features turned off – or eliminate portraits totally if possible. They really aren’t a vital feature.
- Faders “dim” the frame to indicate something, such as out of range, AFK, and so forth.
- Border highlighting is another way of indicating events visually. The most common use is to indicate that the frame is selected, it is your target, or it has aggro – but that varies a lot between addons.
- Combat text is that text that pops up over your character when you are hit or healed. Overall, this seems (to me) to be a noncritical feature.
- Geometry – This is a key feature, in that frames should be sizable, scalable, and movable without making a big fat mess. Blow it here, and you’re gonna hear about it.
- Different bar types convey information of interest, though health and power are of most interest in raids, parties, etc. Alternate Powers are also pretty crucial in the new Cataclysm raiding idiom – Omnitron, Four Winds, and Atramedes are good examples. Others, like reputation and XP are rarely of interest for anything other than your own toon, and some – such as the cast bar – are possibly better done by other addons such as Quartz. Others, like incoming heals, are largely situational – you’re less likely to care if you’re not a specific role. The fancy ones let you resize everything, but it’s generally not a deal-breaker if the layout is done right.
- Auras is a generic term used to describe both buff and debuff effects, and how they are presented in terms of unit frames. Again, this is a feature I feel is best handled by other addons, such as Decursive, though some of the healy unit frames do a pretty good job of providing useful information without getting carried away. Anyway, there’s a bunch of features associated with auras, and if they’re important to you in unit frames, pay heed to the charts.
- Indicators are those little symbols such as “in combat“, “raid leader“, “PVP“, and all the various raid symbols. Quite a few of these are truly useful.
- Class Features – Several classes have specific iconography which indicates very important information, so how it is conveyed is a big deal. For example, failing to display combo points is probably a deal breaker for rogues and cat druids. Not all classes have special needs, but those that do, are listed.
So, the stage is set. In the next part, I will start discussing the specific addons. I’ll be doing it alphabetically.