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

Christina Widner Last updated 29.01.2021
6 Min.
WordPress Standard Theme Twenty Twenty-One
Last updated 29.01.2021

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 updates of WordPress are always hotly discussed weeks before their release. This is not least due to the huge WordPress community, most of whom work on the new versions on a voluntary basis. In addition, each release determines where the journey at WordPress goes - see in the past, for example, the discussion around the editor Gutenberg.

Overview: What changes with WordPress 5.6?

With WordPress 5.6 there are some changes coming to you as a user of WordPress , which we will take a closer look at in the following text. Please note: The current state of the beta tests is not yet final. Therefore there might still be some changes. However, since we are already in the release candidate stage, possible changes should be limited to minor details.

The development of WordPress

You can always read about the progress of the current and future versions of WordPress on the WordPress .orgblog. There you will also find more about the discussion, which features are in focus.

New Standard Theme: Twenty Twenty-One

New standardThemes products are also regularly the subject of debate. Some praise the design, others reject it. Here you should make up your own mind - tastes are known to differ. WordPress classically names its standardThemes after years, this time after the coming year 2021, in English Twenty Twenty One.

After the update or a new installation, if you are just starting with WordPress , you will find the new Theme in the Theme directory under Design -> Themes. You can activate it from there or preview your site as it would look with Twenty Twenty-One as Theme .

New in WordPress  5.6: Twenty Twenty-One, Dark Mode, PHP 8 and More
Twenty Twenty-One standard 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 Themes Twenty Twenty-One you can now activate the Dark Mode under Colors & Dark Mode. This will make it more comfortable for your visitors to visit your website in a dark environment:

New in WordPress  5.6: Twenty Twenty-One, Dark Mode, PHP 8 and More
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 also 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.

The main purpose of WordPress is to prevent too many websites with outdated versions of WordPress . This is to increase the security of the websites and the system. For old installations, the option still has to be activated deliberately and receives a warning in the health area of the website, under Tools -> State of the website. For new WordPress installations, the option should be enabled by default.

However, if you activate this option, you should also ensure that regular backups are made and that they can be easily restored so that you can quickly downgrade to the previous version in the event of a problem. You should also keep Plugins and Themes up to date to prevent possible incompatibilities.

Support for PHP 8

On November 26, just before WordPress 5.6, another major version was released - this one of PHP. See our blog post on PHP 8 with new features, improvements and potential issues when using it with WordPress . Compatibility of WordPress 5.6 and the new PHP version 8 is also part of the planned major update. The team behind WordPress writes about this

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 more about why upgrading to PHP 8 might be difficult to begin with once WordPress 5.6 is released. Read it carefully if you want to work with the combination of the two versions.

Modernization of jQuery usage

The three-step plan of WordPress , to modernize the use of jQuery, has already led to discussions in the summer. Because with the release of WordPress 5.5, the first step of this plan, there were problems on many websites. This is because not all developers had updated their Plugins and Themes accordingly to the end of the jQuery Migrate 1.x library.

WordPress then released the Plugin Enable jQuery Migrate Helper for immediate help, which you can think of as a sort of short-term stopgap for those who had trouble with the transition. However, 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 are currently using the Plugin "Enable jQuery Migrate Helper" and don't see any error messages, you shouldn' t have any problems with WordPress 5.6. Otherwise, contact the developers of your Themes and/or your affected Plugins before updating. By the way: The third and last step of this modernization 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: 

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

WordPress has already been working for several years on improving the platform so that it is as barrier-free as possible. This goal will also be pursued with WordPress 5.6. The platform is based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) of the W3C.

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 will not see

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.

After they were so far behind with the navigation screen that a timely completion was no longer possible, they postponed this feature to WordPress 5.7. This freed up more resources for the development of the widget screen. But this feature was also planned forWordPress 5.7 a little later.

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 schedule 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.

The aim is to find and fix as many bugs as possible before the final release. The first release candidate, i.e. the first of a total of two prerelease versions, has been available since November 17. The final release of WordPress 5.6 is currently scheduled for December 8, 2020 and is thus imminent. By the way: Four major updates are planned for 2021: WordPress 5.7 in March, WordPress 5.8 in June, versions 5.9 in September and 6.0 in December.

WordPress 5.6: Outlook and conclusion

If you are interested in the development process of WordPress and the planned features, you can find a list of changes and a lot more first-hand 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.

However, with the auto-updates of major versions and jQuery modernization, WordPress 5.6 also brings some potential for emerging issues. You can prevent these by keeping your Themes and Plugins up to date and being careful not to use Plugins which is no longer maintained. See our tips for choosing WordPress Plugins. Of course, you should also always make regular backups of your site so that you can rebuild in the worst case.

Your questions about WordPress 5.6

What questions do you have about WordPress 5.6? Feel free to use the comment function. You want to be informed about new contributions to WordPress ? Then follow us on Twitter, Facebook or via 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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Comments on this article

R

Dark mode became increasingly important with many theme developers, so twenty-twenty-one offering this option. There is another plugin for dark mode as well that supports dark mode both in the admin dashboard and frontend. In today's WordPress world WP Dark Mode is playing like a gem. It supports multiple custom options and automatic time zone settings.

Here is the free version link if you want to try it out: https://wordpress.org/plugins/wp-dark-mode/

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