Advanced Custom Fields Vs. Pods Vs. Toolset: A Detailed Comparison

In this article, we wrote an in-depth review of the 3 most popular custom post type plugins.

If you want to build more complex websites with WordPress and Elementor, custom post types and custom fields are your best friends.

Elementor Pro lets you build templates for custom post types using the theme builder and insert data from custom fields using the Dynamic Content option. But when it comes to actually creating and managing custom post types and custom fields on your site, you’ll need a separate tool.

Three of the most popular options for working with custom post types and custom fields are:

  • Advanced Custom Fields
  • Pods
  • Toolset

So…when it comes to Advanced Custom Fields vs. Pods vs. Toolset, which tool should you use to help build your site?

That’s what we aim to help you choose in this post!

All three of these tools are high-quality options, so this won’t be some winner-take-all post where we recommend you a single option at the end.

Instead, for each tool, we’re going to:

  • Highlight where it excels.
  • Give you a quick tour of the interface so that you have a basic idea of how it functions.
  • Share information about support and pricing.

Defining a Few Key Terms Before We Start This Comparison

If you’re already a veteran when it comes to terms like custom fields and custom post types, you might want to click here to skip straight to the comparison.But we want this post to be accessible to Elementor users of all knowledge levels. So before we get into the actual nitty-gritty comparison, we’ll quickly cover some common terms you’ll see in this article and, more importantly, how these concepts help you build more advanced WordPress sites with Elementor.Let’s start with the two biggies – custom post types and custom fields.

Custom Post Types Explained

A custom post type is a type of content, just like regular posts or pages. Because it’s “custom” you can make it whatever you want. Two examples of custom post types you, or a plugin, might want to create are:

  • Houses – if you had a real estate site, you might create a “house” custom post type. Then, to add a new real estate listing, you would create a new “house” inside your dashboard.
  • Event – if you had an events site, you might want to create an “event” custom post type for each event (or, if you use an events plugin, it will create an events custom post type for you).

For example, if you use WooCommerce, it creates a custom post type for “Products”.

Donna shared a deeper look at custom post types if you want to learn more.

Custom Fields Explained

  • A custom field lets you add additional information to “something” in WordPress. This “something” could be a post, a page, a custom post type, or even a category or tag. Let’s use those same examples from above to explain custom fields:

    • For a real estate custom post type, you’d add custom fields to contain information like how many bedrooms a house has, how many bathrooms, square feet/meters, etc.
    • For an event custom post type, you’d add custom fields for stuff like venue, organizer, date, etc.

Why Custom Post Types and Custom Fields Are Important for Elementor Users

Together, these concepts are what help make WordPress a complete content management system.

For Elementor users, custom post types and custom fields play an essential role in helping you create more customized websites.

Basically, you can use custom post types and custom fields to organize your content on the back-end (or, to make it easier for your clients to add information to the backend).

Then, you can use Elementor Pro to display all this information on the front-end by:

  • Creating templates for custom post types using theme building functionality.
  • Inserting dynamic information from custom fields in your templates.

The three tools that we’ll look at in this post are all quality solutions that can help you work with custom fields and custom post types without requiring any specialized coding knowledge.

Advanced Custom Fields vs Pods vs Toolset: A Quick Introduction

 Advanced Custom FieldsPodsToolset
Free version?YesYesNo*
Starting price for pro$25100% free$69
Lifetime plan?Yes, lifetime updatesN/A, freeNo
Custom fields?YesYesYes
Custom post types?NoYesYes
Bi-directional relationshipsAvailable with extensionYesYes

*There is a popular version of Toolset Types at WordPress.org. While this version is still being maintained until the end of 2018, all new major releases are only available as part of the paid Toolset plans since November 2017.

Ready to go? Let’s dig into the plugins!

Advanced Custom Fields - Great for Pure Custom Fields

As the name suggests, Advanced Custom Fields (ACF) is entirely focused on helping you work with custom fields.

As a result, it has:

  • A huge variety of custom fields – over 30 different fields at the time we’re writing this post. This includes more advanced fields for galleries (great for helping clients manage galleries), Google Maps, color pickers, and many more. View the full list here.
  • A really simple UI because it’s only focused on one thing. Most people will probably find Advanced Custom Fields to have the smallest learning curve thanks in large part to its UI.

Beyond that, Advanced Custom Fields has a big community behind it (it’s active on over 1 million sites).

This benefits you in two main ways:

One thing to note, though, is that you will still need to pair Advanced Custom Fields with another solution for creating custom post types and/or custom taxonomies. For that, you can either:

Use one of the many free custom post types plugins at WordPress.org – Custom Post Type UI seems to be what most ACF users choose.

A Quick Tour of the Advanced Custom Fields Interface

Advanced Custom Fields uses something called Field Groups, which are exactly what they sound like (a group of one or more fields).

When you get started with the plugin, you’ll:

  • Create a new field group
  • Associate it with one or more post types (this is where the new fields will show up)
  • Configure some other basic design settings

Then, you can get to work by adding any of the available fields using the + Add Field button. For each custom field, you can:

  • Choose what type of field to use
  • Add labels and instructions to make it more user-friendly
  • Choose whether or not it’s required
  • Use conditional logic (e.g. only display this field based on how a different field is configured).

Once you publish your field group, all the custom fields that you added will display at their target location:

And you’ll also be able to insert those custom fields in Elementor templates that you build with Elementor Pro using the Dynamic option and the ACF Field option in the drop-down:

Getting Support If You Need Help With Advanced Custom Fields

Advanced Custom Fields offers several ways to get support:

Advanced Custom Fields Pricing

There’s a popular free version of Advanced Custom Fields at WordPress.org. The free version is generous with its functionality and will have enough functionality for many webmasters all by itself.

The Pro version adds some new field types, as well as a variety of new features – see all the new stuff here.

The Pro version comes with lifetime updates and has two tiers:

  • Personal – $25 for use on a single site.
  • Developer – $100 for use on unlimited sites.

Pods - 100% Free and Great With Relationships

Pods is a popular, and 100% free, solution to help you create and manage custom post types, custom fields, and custom taxonomies. What’s more, it is the only plugin to offer “Advanced Content Types”. These are entirely separate from WordPress and function off their own database tables. This functionality is extremely valuable for advanced developers, and includes performance and coding benefits you can read more about here.

It’s kind of an “all-in-one solution” for custom content. You can:

  • Create a custom post type
  • Add custom fields to your post type (or any existing custom post types)
  • Create custom taxonomies and associate them with your custom post types
  • Add custom fields to those custom taxonomies that you’ve created.
  • Etc.

One of the biggest areas where Pods excels is how it handles relationships between different content types.

More About Relationships (And Why Pods Does Relationships Well)

Relationships are a powerful feature that let you get even more creative with how you structure your site.

Essentially, they let you “connect” two things together. For example, if you have:

  • One custom post type for “Book”
  • One custom post type for “Author”

Relationships let you connect the Books post type with the Author post type.

All three of these tools support relationships at some level, but a lot of developers like how Pods implements relationships (Toolset also has deep relationships support, while Advanced Custom Fields isn’t quite as feature-rich).

First off, Pods supports:

  • One-to-one relationships
  • One-to-many relationships
  • Many-to-many relationships

Toolset has a great article explaining the three types of relationships.

Pods also supports something called bi-directional relationships.

Let’s go back to that book example to explain what this lets you do…

  • Each book will have an author associated with it
  • Each author will have one or more books associated with him or her

Rather than having to:

  • Manually set the author for each book while editing the book
  • Manually select the book for each author while editing the author

A bi-directional field lets you just make the selection in one of those interfaces and then that information will automatically propagate to the other. For example, if you select the author while editing the book custom post type, that book will automatically show up in the author custom post type – no action needed.

Pods also keeps strengthening its relationship functionality. For example, Pods 2.7 added an awesome new productivity-boosting feature that lets you actually edit related content from one single interface in a modal popup.

To hit our example one more time, you can:

  • Add a new book to the book custom post type from the author custom post type
  • Edit all the existing books associated with that author from the author custom post type

This can save you a ton of time when working with relationships – this video does a great job of showing how powerful it is:

A Quick Tour of the Pods Interface

Because Pods works with custom post types, custom fields, and custom taxonomies, it has more going on than Advanced Custom Fields, which means we won’t be able to show every nook and cranny of the interface.

Despite having more features, the learning curve still is fairly simple and you should be able to quickly grasp most of the core functionality.

When you head to Add New in Pods, you can choose two core options:

  • Create New – lets you create an entirely new post type or taxonomy (you’ll then be able to add custom fields later on).
  • Extend Existing – lets you extend an existing post type or taxonomy with custom fields and other settings.

The Extend Existing functionality is sort of like what Advanced Custom Fields does, while Create New is something you can’t do with Advanced Custom Fields (that’s why people often stack ACF with Custom Post Type UI).

If you go with Create New, you’ll choose a content type from the drop-down and give it a label:

Then, once you create your content type, you’ll be able to add custom fields and configure other important settings like:

  • Whether or not to display the content type in search results
  • Creating an “Archive” page

Currently, Pods offers 18 different custom fields. You can see how Advanced Custom Fields goes a little deeper with its 30+ available fields:

Once you’re finished, you’ll be able to create a template for your custom post type using Elementor Pro:

And you’ll also be able to dynamically insert content from Pods’ custom fields using Elementor Pro’s Dynamic option and the Pods Field option in the drop-down:

Getting Support If You Need Help With Pods

Despite being free, Pods has an awesome support community if you ever run into issues.

There are a few different ways that you can get help:

On a personal note, I was impressed with the support I received via the Pods Slack chat – it certainly feels like you’re getting premium support even though it’s a free plugin.

Pods Pricing

Again, everything about Pods is 100% free.

If you’d like to support the project, you can donate. But donations are optional and supporters don’t get any extra features (though they do get other perks – like discounts at sponsor stores).

Toolset - the Deepest Feature List, Including Front-End Content Creation and Search Filters

Toolset is a suite of plugins from OnTheGoSystems (the same team behind WPML). These modular plugins all connect to help you build deeply customized sites without needing to know any PHP.

In terms of the pure amount of functionality that you get access to, Toolset does “more” than both Advanced Custom Fields and Pods.

Toolset comes with 8 different “components”. You can mix-and-match them as needed to get the functionality that you need.

The two core components are:

  • Types – formerly a free plugin, this is the basic building block that helps you create and manage custom post types, custom taxonomies, and custom fields.
  • Views – this helps you display custom content on the front-end of your site. It’s especially helpful for creating custom queries on your custom post types/custom fields. You can then take a list generated one of these queries and display it in Elementor using the dedicated Views widget.

Then, there are a number of optional components that you can also make use of:

  • Forms – this helps you create front-end forms from which users can submit content. For example, if you have a custom post type for “Classifieds ad”, you could create a front-end form so that users can add a new classified ad from the front-end of your site. Forms was formerly known as “CRED” – you still might see some references to that name.
  • Layouts – this helps you build layouts for entire pages (you probably won’t use this if you’re using Elementor Pro’s template functionality).
  • Access – this one helps you create custom user roles and edit capabilities. It’s helpful for controlling what users can do with the custom content types that you add.
  • WooCommerce Views – helps you work with WooCommerce products.
  • Forms Commerce – lets you add payment collection to forms.
  • Maps – this helps you display your content on Google Maps. For example, you could put the address from a custom field on an embedded Google Maps map.

If you want to get an idea of how all those extra features play out, the huge Toolset showcase does a great job of showing off what you can actually do with it.

Because you have access to so much functionality, Toolset can have the highest learning curve of these three tools. That’s not a negative – just be aware that you’ll likely need to spend more time learning to unlock the full power of Toolset.

A Quick Tour Of The Toolset Interface

Because Toolset has even more feature than Pods, we can’t show you anywhere near everything that you can do with it.

Instead, we’ll focus on the Types component because it’s the building block – just remember that there’s a lot more going on, and the Views component is also a big part of what makes Toolset so powerful.

The Toolset Dashboard gives you an overview of all the custom content types on your site, including those you’ve added yourself or from third-party plugins.

Like Pods, you can:

  • Add your own post types.
  • Extend one of these existing post types with custom fields or taxonomies, or create a view or form.

Here’s what it looks like to create a post type:

And then here’s how it looks to add your own custom fields. Toolset lets you pick from ~20 custom field types:

Toolset also gives you a dedicated tool to set up relationships (this article explains what the different types mean):

And once you get everything set up, you’ll be able to create templates for your Toolset content types with Elementor Pro and use custom fields from Toolset using Elementor Pro’s Dynamic option:

If you want to see more about how Toolset and Elementor work together, this post is a great place to start. It shows you Toolset’s dedicated Views Elementor widget, which makes it easy to insert Views queries into your Elementor designs.

Getting Support If You Need Help With Toolset

Because Toolset can have a bit of a learning curve, the developers have done a great job of creating not just documentation, but also tons of tutorials and user guides based on real use-cases (including how to use Toolset with Elementor).

Running through a few of these tutorials is a great way to familiarize yourself with how Toolset works – check out the user guides here and the tutorials here. You also can look at pre-built reference sites to see how everything comes together.

Beyond those detailed user guides, you also get:

Overall, the depth of Toolset’s documentation is quite impressive all by itself.

Toolset Pricing

Toolset comes in a few different plans, all of which offer one year of support and updates:

  • Toolset Presentation – $69 – an entry-level tier that offers a single-site license, but doesn’t have all the components.
  • Toolset Interactive – $149 – includes all components and supports 3 websites.
  • Toolset Agency – $299 – includes all components and supports unlimited websites.

All plans get a 25% renewal discount after the first year.

Toolset no longer offers lifetime plans as of April 2018.

Which One of These Tools Should You Use?

Like we set up at the beginning, this isn’t a winner-take-all post. Instead, you should pick the tool that best matches your needs based on its features and ease of use.

To help you do that, let’s quickly recap where each tool excels…

Advanced Custom Fields is a great option if you’re primarily interested in adding custom fields to content types. It has the simplest interface and the largest number of custom field types. You’ll just need to stack it with something like Custom Post Type UI if you want to create and manage custom post types.

Pods is more of an all-in-one solution because it handles both custom post types and taxonomies, as well as custom fields for new or existing content types. Its focus on content relationships (and productivity-boosting tools therein) also makes it an especially great option if your site relies on “connections” between content.

Toolset gives you the most functionality with things like front-end content creation forms and the detailed query options in Views. If you want the most power, Toolset is probably the best match for you. Using those more advanced features naturally necessitates a higher learning curve, but Toolset has plenty of guides/tutorials to help you learn.

Now over to you all — what are you using to build and manage content types on your Elementor sites?

About the Author

Colin is a freelance writer for hire specializing in WordPress and digital marketing. Grow your business with in-depth, conversational blog posts.

53 Responses

  1. ACF is great if inly elementor would allow some fields like the image gallery to dynamically fill a slider, you need an additional plugin to achieve this currently so it is possible

      1. The plugin is now unnecessary for my purpose which was to create a slider of Woocommerce gallery images, i now have one less custom field and have the Product Gallery Images showing up in addition when sharing a page on social networks.

  2. I’ve seen many incidences of these terms and acronyms and couldn’t find any decent explanations of them. Thanks for this article, Colin. It clarified a lot of things for me and explained them really well.

  3. THX for great article!
    I need to study this all more but which one handles image galleries & audio/video media ‘the best’?
    (Also hoping to build sites with user submissions of media.)

    1. Repeater comes with ACF Pro (was a separate addon before).

      It is also automatically included in Toolset and I guess in Pods as well…

      If you’re talking about “Views” in Toolset, then they have a lot of documentation on that on their site… If not, which “view” are you referring to?

  4. Thank you for delving into custom post types in your recent articles! Elementor’s CPT integration was the last thing holding me back from starting my site. Now I have zero excuses. Thanks again for this in-depth article, Colin. It confirmed that PODs is right for me….

  5. This is very valuable. I think ill start with ACF and work my way up. As a designer this qill surely upgrade my site building skills. I can now harnass the power of dynamic content. Super cool! ?

  6. Image carousel and image gallery will dynamically fill from a ACF gallery field – works for me – I do have pro versions of both plugins

  7. ACF is very very good but Toolset Types is, for me, more usable and intuitive.
    I prefer ACF only why is compatible with elementor and is totally free but i’d like to use Toolset Type

  8. Is it possible to have dynamic content in a Global widget? Actually i’m looking for a way to update an image, heading and text all from the backend. And then using this data all over my site.

    1. Now I am curious. Single page templates can do this, but you said widget. Single page templates generate a shortcode, but I am pretty sure pasting the shortcode would bring the whole page in. But if the “page” only had one widget on it, and the Additional CSS zeroed out that page’s CSS…would be an interesting experiment. I’ll report back if I find something!

  9. Thanks for the article Colin, it was really helpful. I have decided to use the Generatepress theme in combination with Toolset and Elementor now that they are all integrated.

      1. I can absolutly confirm: with this Dynamic Content WP-PlugIn, you can really implement any type of content / shortcode assignment within a Elementor Templates is possible!

  10. It’s great that Elementor can display custom fields on the front end, as there are very few plugins that will do this without extra coding. Another option is to use the Posts Table Pro plugin to display posts (or custom post types) in a table layout with custom field columns, as well as other columns for data such as the name and content. It works perfectly with Elementor, as you just add the table shortcode directly to an Elementor text block.

  11. I am grateful and not entitled, but I am also not afraid of wishing reaaaally hard, while and I realize it’s more developer-y than something likely to be used by the “easy/intuitive” target demo, but my life would be complete if Carbon Fields joined this group =)

    I might try to make a patch soon for my own purposes. A lot of CF meta has underscores before it which seems to keep it from being recognized as a regular custom field which Elementor does great by default…that would probably be a good first step on my part.

  12. Most of all, the biggest problem of using all these apps is – you can NOT stylize any ACF using Elementor.
    Everything you have to code using Css classes.
    It’s a crappy solution. You have powerful tool Elementor but you have to spend many hours coding manually all fields!?!?!?
    Today I spent lots of hours trying to stylize Toolbox Views with no success.

  13. I’ve used the pro version of Toolset and the biggest complaint I have about it is…it is a resource HOG. I mean the hoggiest hog in the trough. Don’t even THINK of using it on shared hosting. You need a dedicated VPS at the very *least* to use Toolset effectively. Otherwise, it will grind a site to a halt. Like it will literally not even load.

    Now, after seeing the comparison, I think I’m going to play with Pods. Sounds fantastic for some projects I have coming up.

  14. Worked with both Pods and Toolset and loved both. Be aware your Pods-driven site might get slower, when it becomes more complex. (OPcache and PHP7 help though.) Never experienced this problems with Toolset.

  15. Thanks for the article and the comparison. I hesitated a lot to use Toolset a while ago but having seen how dedicated the PODS team is, I finally chose PODS and don’t regret it. Just a quick note about forms: there are forms to allow users to post content from frontend in PODS too. Might not be as powerful or user-friendly as ToolSet (?) but you can generate a form with specific fields with a simple shortcode. 😉

  16. We’ve been using ACF for a few years now and love it. I like some of the extended functionality you get with Toolset though and will have to try it out on a future project.

  17. Great article, but it maybe worth adding in an additional step in setup. Under Elementor >Settings > General to tick the custom post types you want Elementor to register. I know this trips up new users when they can’t workout why new CPT are missing from widgets.

  18. Toolset has repeating fields, which I think you were asking, and Toolset also has Views, which is one of its most powerful features.

    Gravity Forms has a view builder, however it is at least twice as expensive.

    For a serious web developer, Toolset is a must!

    1. I use Toolset as well… But just bought ACF Pro (at 50% discount), which includes the Repeater for repeating fields…

      Of course, if you can afford Toolset (I had the chance to have a lifetime account) and you’re not afraid of the learning curve, it can do more than ACF (and even Pods)…

  19. I’m personally using Toolset. Started using it from WPML and kept using it… I was fortunate enough to buy the unlimited lifetime license back in 2014 for $295… so, less than currently for one year! One of the reasons I use it is the advanced Views… I also use the Maps component that allows me to dynamically add pins to a Google maps, and sometimes Access, when I want to limit content to some users without the overload of a membership plugin…

    Just bought ACF 5 Pro a couple of days ago and will probably use it with sites already made with ACF free as well as if I only need to add custom fields to already existing types…

    Pods seems great for most people, though, since Toolset is not lifetime anymore and it’s way too much if you just need Types… Up to a certain point, Elementor can replace Views…

  20. This is what I call value for your money with Elementor. I always prefer free plugins over paid ones only if they are good. I was thinking of coding some custom plugin for creating a reviews post with lots of fields. This article came at the right time. Kindly thanks to Elementor’s newsletter list and a bigger thanks to the mysterious Universe for providing more insight into my needs!

  21. When I choose Dinamic content, for example in the creation of a Blok of Posts (Edit Posts),
    If I have PODS installed to make CPT (Custom Post Types), we can not select the rows that have “Relations” with other CPTs

    Can this be done with ACF or Toolset?

    Thanks

    1. I have, it seems incomplete but what it has to do works fine. I guess they’ll add features from time to time. Plus: the support is outstanding, even giving you custom code solutions for your problems. All in all, great plugin with even better support.

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