New in WordPress 5.6: Twenty Twenty-One, Dark Mode, PHP 8 and more

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WordPress  Standard Theme Twenty Twenty-One

The third and final major WordPress update of 2020 - WordPress 5.6 - is about to be released. We explain in this article what you can expect in the new WordPress version, what you should pay attention to, and when you can expect the update.

New major WordPress updates are always hotly discussed weeks before their release. Not least because of the huge WordPress community, many of whom work on the new versions on a voluntary basis. Moreover, each release determines where the WordPress journey is heading. Let's not forget the discussions in the past surrounding the Gutenberg editor.

Overview: what's changing with WordPress 5.6?

WordPress 5.6 brings quite a few changes for WordPress users and we'll take a closer look at those in the following text. Just a quick reminder that the current beta testing hasn't been finalized yet. There may therefore still be some changes coming our way. But as we're already at the release candidate stage, any changes should be limited to minor details.

The development of WordPress

You can check the history of the current and future versions of WordPress in the WordPress.org blog at any time. You'll also find more information there on which features are currently in focus.

New standard theme: Twenty Twenty-One

New standard themes also encourage lively debates. While some people praise a new design, others reject it outright. You should make your own mind up about Twenty Twenty-One - no design is going to be to everyone's taste. WordPress traditionally names its standard themes after years. The upcoming theme continues this trend with the name Twenty Twenty-One (for the year 2021).

Once you've updated WordPress - or installed it if you're just starting out - you'll find the new theme in the theme directory under Design -> Themes. You can activate the Twenty Twenty-One theme from the directory or preview what your website would look like with it.

Theme Activate Twenty Twenty-One
Activate the Twenty Twenty-One theme

Dark mode is here!

In addition to a new look, another exciting feature in the latest WordPress update is dark mode. Since dark modes were introduced on smartphones several years ago, they've been becoming increasingly important with many theme developers already offering this option.

In the Customizer panel of the Twenty Twenty-One theme, you can now activate the dark mode under Colors & Dark Mode. Accessing your website in a dark environment will now be much more comfortable for your visitors:

WordPress  Customizer Dark Mode
WordPress Customizer: set up Twenty Twenty-One dark mode

Dark mode supports your visitors' device settings. If they've activated dark mode on their device, your site will also be displayed in dark mode. A small button will be available in the lower right corner so customers can switch dark mode on or off themselves.

Dark Mode mobile WordPress
Dark mode in mobile view

Auto-Update for major versions

In WordPress 5.6 there will also be an option for auto-updates for new major WordPress core versions. Until now, there have only been auto-updates for minor security updates. The team has been working towards this for quite some time and now it's finally possible.

It's hoped this will prevent, and WordPress recognizes this is an issue, too many websites with outdated versions of WordPress. This should increase the security of the websites and the system itself. For old installations, you still need to make a conscious effort to activate this option and a warning is flagged in the Health section of the website, under Tools  ->Site Health. The option should be activated by default for new WordPress installations.

If you activate this option, you should also create regular backups and be able to restore them easily so you can quickly downgrade to a previous version should any problems occur. Plugins and themes also need to be kept up to date to avoid incompatibilities.

PHP 8 support

Just before WordPress 5.6 was announced on November 26, the new PHP major version was released. Check out our magazine article on PHP 8 where we discuss new features, improvements, and potential problems when using it with WordPress. The compatibility of WordPress 5.6 and  PHP 8 is part of the planned major update. The team behind WordPress explains

The WordPress project has a long history of being compatible with new versions of PHP as soon as possible, and this release is no different. 

To avoid any issues, you should make sure all your plugins and themes are compatible before switching to PHP 8. The developers also point this out.

Only PHP 8 "beta" support?

WP Tavern writes in a detailed article about why it might not be ideal to upgrade to PHP 8 as soon as WordPress 5.6 is released. Have a thorough read of this article if you're planning to work with a combination of the two versions.

Modernization of the jQuery usage

The three-step plan from WordPress to modernize the use of jQuery already led to discussions over the summer. The release of WordPress 5.5, i.e. the first step of this plan, caused problems on many websites. This was due to not all developers updating their plugins and themes by the end of the jQuery Migrate 1.x library.

WordPress then published the plugin Enable jQuery Migrate Helper which is serving as a temporary solution for all those who encountered problems with the update. In WordPress 5.6, the second step of the plan, this interim solution is not supposed to work anymore.

So you need to ensure you keep all your plugins and themes up to date and, most importantly, check whether they're still being updated. The announcement to modernize jQuery usage was announced several months in advance so there was certainly enough time for developers to update their plugins and themes.

If you're currently using the plugin "Enable jQuery Migrate Helper" and you don't see any error messages, you're unlikely to have any issues with WordPress 5.6. You can alternatively contact the plugin or theme developers directly before updating. By the way: the third and final step of this update will follow in March 2021 with WordPress 5.7.

UX improvements

There are, of course, some changes in the way WordPress is used in WordPress 5.6. In the editor, the info panel (the small "i" in the upper left corner of the editor) now also displays the number of characters and words in the current post:

Number of words and characters in Gutenberg
The number of words and characters in WordPress

This is an important innovation for media companies and for bloggers who work with collection management agencies for royalties or write on behalf of customers. They can now see exactly when the minimum text length has been reached.

There are also more options in the cover block for positioning videos. Improvements have been made in the drag & drop functionality and keyboard navigation through the individual blocks.

Accessibility in WordPress 5.6

WordPress has already been working for several years to make the platform as accessible as possible. This aim continues in 5.6 and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) of W3C are being followed.

The new standard theme Twenty Twenty-One is designed to be "AAA-ready", i.e. it should offer the highest possible level of accessibility. There are also some minor improvements and fixes in terms of WordPress user experience.

Features we won't be seeing

Some features haven't made it into the new version of WordPress as planned, however. WordPress had originally intended to switch the navigation and widgets to the Gutenberg system with the 5.6 update, for example.

But after the navigation screen was so far behind schedule that it was impossible to complete on time, it was postponed until 5.7. This postponement freed up more resources to develop the widget screen but, after a while, the introduction of this feature was also pushed back to WordPress 5.7..

While these are setbacks, they did free up resources to get the other features up and running, e.g. the compatibility with PHP 8 described above.

The timetable for WordPress 5.6

Work on WordPress 5.6 began in the summer and has been in the beta phase since 20th October. Developers and interested members of the WordPress community can install the 5.6 betas in their development environments and test them to their hearts' content.

This way, as many bugs as possible can be found and fixed before the final release. The release candidate, available since November, is the first of a total of two prerelease versions. The final release for WordPress 5.6 is currently scheduled for December 7, 2020 and is therefore nearly here! Four major WordPress updates are then planned for 2021: WordPress 5.7 in March, 5.8 in June, 5.9 in September, and 6.0 in December.

WordPress 5.6: outlook and conclusion

If you're interested in the development process of WordPress and the planned features, you'll find a list of the changes and much more information about the new WordPress 5.6 here and here.

The WordPress 5.6 release on December 8 will be the third and final major update in 2020 before we see the development from 5.7 to 6.0 next year. Not everything went as planned during this development and some features were moved to 2021. But a few current changes are especially important, however. Among them the PHP 8 compatibility, auto-updates of new major versions, and the new standard theme Twenty Twenty-One.

Because of the auto-updates of the major versions and the jQuery modernization, WordPress 5.6 also has some potential for emerging issues. You can prevent these by keeping your plugins and themes up to date and making sure you don't use plugins that are no longer developed. Check out our tips for choosing WordPress plugins. And of course you should always make regular backups of your site so you can rebuild if the worst were to happen.

Your questions about WordPress 5.6

What questions do you have about WordPress 5.6? Please use the comment function. Do you want to be informed about new WordPress articles? Follow us on Twitteror Facebook , or subscribe to our newsletter.

Christina is service editor at BASIC thinking, one of the biggest tech magazines in Germany. Her topics include technology, business, and marketing. For many years she has been working with WordPress at BASIC thinking as well as on her own projects.

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