The top two custom field plugins for WordPress are Meta Box and ACF. In this article, we're going to be comparing the two to determine which offers the most value to professional website creators.
The free versions of both plugins are great for creating basic websites, but when you need advanced functionality as any agency or professional will, access to ACF Pro or MetaBox Developers Lifetime is a must. For the purposes of this comparison between the two, we will be discussing features that are only available if you own the pro versions of each.
Our goal is to make it easy for you to choose between ACF or Meta Box.
The intention of this article is to give you enough information where you can make an informed purchase on one or the other.
This article will review the data first and foremost, then user reviews, then our experience with both plugins. As an agency, we have used both ACF Pro and MetaBox Developers Lifetime in large projects. For the purpose of transparency, as an Oxygen Builder agency, we've had a lot more experience with ACF Pro in recent years (though it’s worth noting, we actually got started with MetaBox). The recent MetaBox lifetime deal on AppSumo (no longer live) have renewed our interest in that product, and we've been using it in smaller projects in 2022.
Because we've used both of these plugins in practice, we have a great understanding of the features and limitations of both pro versions. We hope that this experience will help you identify the pros and cons of each, and make the best decision for your needs.
We love both products, know the development teams at both companies, and simply want to make it easier for you to find the better solution for your specific needs. Both products are incredibly well developed, supported by reputable companies, and ever improving.
First, we suggest you open our standalone reviews, which act as a great additional source of information for you:
|Field Types||Tie||Both offer a wealth of fields. This is a tie because the core collection of fields is similar between the two tools.|
|Layouts / Backend Display||Meta Box||Meta Box eeks out a win here; they allow you to customize the structure and look of fields on the backend in an easier and more powerful way when compared with ACF.|
|Learning Curve||ACF||ACF is easier and quicker to use and understand.|
|Power||Meta Box||MetaBox is more powerful (only a bit) than ACF, but requires more learning and is a bit more complex.|
|Custom Post Types||Meta Box||Metabox has a built in way to add custom post types and taxonomies. ACF does not, but this is relatively easy to do if you know basic PHP or want to install CPTUI.|
|Custom Tables||Meta Box||Meta Box supports custom database tables - a big feature if your site will have a lot of data.|
|Front-End Views||Meta Box||Meta Box views allows you to create templates without touching theme files. ACF requires paid third party addons for this.|
|Front-End Post Forms||Meta Box||Metabox has a solid native way to populate data from the frontend. ACF needs other plugins to do this.|
|Page Builder Support||Tie||Both support major page builders, including Elementor, Oxygen, and Beaver Builder. Both have their own solutions when it comes to creating Gutenberg blocks. MB has it's own tool called MB Views.|
|Local JSON||ACF||ACF has local JSON. Meta Box does not.|
|Composer||Meta Box||Meta Box supports composer. ACF does not.|
|Other Features||Meta Box has more features than ACF Pro. Though many features that ACF lacks have third-party plugin solutions.|
|Pricing||It Depends||Meta Box has a unique pricing structure, where they sell individual addons, as well as a bundle deal. The bundles can be installed on unlimited sites, offering more value than ACF. At the same time, ACF has a single site plan for $49, so if you're a single-site user, this may be a better option in terms of $$.|
|Docs & Support||ACF||Both offer easy to understand documentation and support. Meta Box will consistently publish video tutorials in response to user questions. If we had to choose a winner (it's close!) we'd select ACF.|
|Relationships||Meta Box||Meta Box really wins here. They natively support bidirectional relationships, custom tables, reciprocal relationships, and all content including users, posts and taxes. ACF can kind of catch up if you install additional third party addons, but Meta Box AIO has all of these built in.|
|Third Party Ecosystem||ACF||ACF wins here - they have a ton of paid and free third party tools. But keep in mind, many of these are simply adding something that Meta Box has natively.|
|Settings Page||Meta Box||Meta Box supports this and makes it easier than ACF to implement.|
|LTD?||Meta Box||Meta Box has a LTD if you're not interested in paying an annual subscription. It's pricy, but fair in our opinion.|
At the heart of any custom fields plugin is the actual type of fields that are offered. Fields allow you to store custom data, then call and display it on the front end.
Section Overview (TLDR)
On paper, ACF has less fields than MetaBox, though many of the features it "lacks" can actually be set by using a WYSIWYG field or manipulating native settings in the back end. Because of this, ACF and MetaBox offer roughly the same fields and features.
ACF WINS IF:
If you love the Repeater; Meta Box does not have a specific field for that. Instead their implementation is "cloneable fields".
METABOX WINS IF:
You want unique field types, such as lists or groups of elements. This can be done with ACF but requires some more configuration, custom HTML, or using WYSIWYG. If you're building for a less tech savvy client, these unique but less used fields may be helpful.
|Field Name||Meta Box Support||ACF Support|
|Open Street Map||Yes||No|
Both ACF and Meta Box employ field groups to place custom WP meta boxes on content types. The implementation is essentially the same: you add as many fields to the group as need be, and apply it to a specific post or range of content. Field groups can have settings such as conditional visibility. You can then pull data from the database for the specific post that data is saved to.
Meta Box and ACF also have standalone settings pages which add a backend page to WordPress and allow all values stored within the contained custom fields to be queried globally. Meta Box's settings page is easier to use and set up.
ACF offers a defined field that allows end users to create repeating content, called the "Repeater". This is a field that contains other fields. All fields within the repeater can be duplicated by the end-user, and have data added to them.
Meta Box's implementation of this feature is a bit more universal. You can make a group (field that contains other fields) repeatable as well.
In our opinion, Meta Box is a better choice if you want more fields and more power, but we also love the repeater element that ships with ACF Pro; there's one less click to get a repeating section.
Saved fields are added to the frontend of a site either via an integration with a builder, or PHP added to theme files.
The previous section discussed how each plugin accepted data from users; using custom fields, displaying them on an individual content type backend page, and having users input data.
Now, let's talk about how the data is stored.
In the default configuration, both ACF and MetaBox will save all data to the wp_postmeta database table row for the specific post.
This is actually how WordPress core and their basic custom field implementation works as well. It works well for smaller websites, but if you're building a website that will have a ton of data (like a directory or listing site; a perfect use case for custom fields plugins such as ACF or Metabox.)
But, there are many downsides if wp_postmeta is used to store data for bigger set ups. Search will be less efficient, there's no easy way to export data, and scaling results in deteriorating performance. Instead, you'll want to make custom database tables for this type of data, minimizing exposure to these issues.
Meta Box, via the custom table extension natively supports using/creating custom tables to store data (ACF does not).
There is a third-party workaround for ACF called "ACF Custom Database Tables". Unfortunately it costs roughly $150 and only supports basic fields.
This makes Meta Box the clear winner in terms of how data is stored, queried, and classified. It may not be such a defining factor for small sites, but larger, more complex projects can seriously benefit from MB's custom database tables.
Ease of use is an important aspect of this comparison. Which plugin is easier for WP Creators/Developers? Which is easier for end users and clients?
Section Overview (TLDR)
This is an interesting section as there's a lot of user preference and experience at play here. If you know how to use the tool with 100% confidence, the ease of use for an end user (one actually adding/editing content) should be the same. Meta Box wins if you're looking for power and understand PHP. ACF wins in terms of simplicity.
ACF WINS IF:
You want a simple way to add custom fields and display data on the front end.
METABOX WINS IF:
You want more power and control even if there's a steeper learning curve.
For clients, it depends on the creator of the website. Both tools give creators the capability to create clear data inputs that are easy for people to populate. Here's an example of Meta Box. Note the labels, structure, and buttons. Pretty easy to follow.
Here's an example of ACF. Easy to follow and understand, just like Meta Box.
Now, the question is: "how easy is it to create these types of easy-to-use user field groups as a dev/creator?" and "how easy is it to display this data on the frontend?"
From using both of these custom field solutions, we find the PHP for ACF a bit easier to use and understand. With that said, both plugins have really solid docs so this isn't a massive downside to Meta Box. Let's take a look at some complex fields and how they'd be added to the frontend of a site via PHP.
For this example, let's look at the Google Map fields for both plugins.
ACF requires some helper code to use the maps on the frontend. The actual element is added via the following code:
Meta Box also need helper code. Then, this code is used to display the map:
It depends on the field, but in many situations, we find ACF and Meta Box to be the same in terms of complexity of adding field data to the frontend via PHP. We suggest you take a look at the examples in each of the respective docs to make a decision for yourself.
If you don't want to use PHP, Meta Box supports shortcodes, as does ACF. This is primarily for simpler field types.
These make it really easy to add field data to a website without needing to use PHP. Meta Box shortcodes offer a bit more power as they have more attributes than ACF.
Additionally, both plugins integrate with popular page builders. We discuss that in much more detail in this section.
In terms of ease of use, it really depends on you, the developer/creator. The final product will be polished and easy to use for your client, as long as you understand the framework and UI. To determine which product is best for you, check out the documentations and see which implementation of custom fields works best for you. We found that the PHP for ACF took a bit of less learning, but Meta Box (once learned) was relatively similar, and actually a bit more powerful.
It's never good to put all your eggs in one basket. Let's take a look at user lock in to the actual frameworks as well as the ease of exporting content into standard formats like CSVs. Both ACF and Meta Box data can be exported by using WP All Export or WP Ultimate Exporter.
You can also use Meta Boxes custom database table feature to easily make a SQL dump.
Meta Box has a great (native) tool that will allow you to import all data from ACF, so if you're looking to move an existing site that uses ACF to Meta Box, that process is seamless. There's no official way for the other way around; Meta Box to ACF, so keep that in mind!
Compatibility with popular plugins and page builder solutions make the accessibility and ease of use for these two plugins ever better. ACF and MetaBox are both compatible with all major WordPress page builders. Integrations vary depending on the page builder.
For us the fact that both ACF and MetaBox work with Elementor and Oxygen Builder are the most impressive and helpful.
Both of these plugins also have multisite compatibility. These types of integrations make the use of both ACF and Meta Box very easy on sites that use page builders. It’s 100% point and click and doesn’t require any knowledge of code or PHP. The integrations vary between the tools that offer them, but virtually all of them offer all the features that ACF and Meta Box have to offer.
Because pretty much every page builder supports both of these completely, one doesn’t have a leg-up on the other.
Pricing and license structures vary between the two solutions.
Pricing and license structure vary between the products.
ACF Pricing follows a three license tier structure. You can upgrade and downgrade the license as needed.
The personal license comes in at $49/yr for one website. Freelancer is for 10 websites, and agency is for unlimited sites ($249/yr).
Meta Box pricing is a bit different in that there are only two main license types with a third LTD option. They’re also a bit different in that these are actually bundles - Meta Box is free, but important features can be added with premium extensions. These extensions cost about $45 each, but are included in these bundles.
For the core bundle ($99/yr), you get usage of 12 pro extensions on unlimited websites. These extensions are the most popular. For all extensions, the developer bundle, $199/yr, gives you access to everything.
The Meta Box model is much more accessible for agencies — ACF costs $249 a year for unlimited sites, compared to the $99 or $199 price a year for Meta Box (depending on what extensions you need). You can also opt for just Meta Box core and a single extension that adds the feature you need, which would cost $49ish/yr.
However, ACF Pro for a single site costs $49, which may be a better option for single site creators.
Both companies have a great refund policy, which allows you to try the product risk free. Meta Box has a 100% satisfaction guarantee with a 14 day policy. ACF has a 30 day refund policy.
Only Meta Box offers a lifetime license. This puts it ahead of ACF in the LTD community. It’s worth noting that ACF used to have an awesome LTD, but they no longer offer it. The MB lifetime license offers unlimited access to the top tier license - unlimited sites, updates and support for the lifetime of the product.
It's important to have faith in the developers behind a product - we need them to provide support, fix bugs, and add new features. Both development groups are reputable companies that are well-liked in the WordPress community.
ACF is owned by Delicious Brains (recent acquisition in early 2021). That company is a great developer known for code quality and support.
Meta Box is headed by Anh Tran alongside 6 employees, who also heads the development of several other products.
Both products are well made, constantly updated, and have great support.
Both of these plugins are loved by WordPress creators. ACF is a bit more popular in terms of active installations, but Meta Box is catching up, especially with their appearance on Appsumo in early 2021.
The final thing to take a look at is the third party ecosystem. There's a pretty big contrast here, with Meta Box having a small amount of 3rd party addons, and ACF having a ton. That's because more people use ACF, and it's lacking some features.
Here's a directory of over 170 addons for ACF. Our favorite tool is ACF Extended which adds many missing features. This makes it more than competitive with Meta Box, but costs $249/yr for unlimited websites.
Meta Box is great because:
ACF is great because:
Meta Box lacks:
If we seriously break down the similarities and differences between Meta Box AIO and AFC Pro; it comes down to this. Meta Box has many more native features, and offers a more powerful framework. The cost is a higher learning curve for creators/developers.
We recommend Meta Box, but both options are great.