With the ascent of mobile devices, website speed has become increasingly important. These days, consumers expect websites to load within two seconds or less. Anything more and they are likely to push the back button on their browser.
One of the most effective ways to make a website load faster is to use caching. WordPress users who want to implement this technology can choose from a number of plugins.
Yet, while their goal is the same, the two plugins are fundamentally different in their handling and aimed at different user groups. To help you decide which one is the right one for you, in this article we will conduct a detailed W3 Total Cache vs WP Super Cache comparison.
We will go over why it’s important to use a caching plugin in the first place (and what caching is exactly) and then compare the two most popular WordPress caching plugins in terms of features, usability and more.
Why Use a Caching Plugin to At All?
Before we dive into the comparison, let’s take a quick look at why you should care about the topic of caching and caching plugins to begin with.
What is Caching?
The term caching means temporarily storing data. Web browsers constantly save data from websites like images, files and pages on your hard drive. That way, when you go back to the same site, they don’t need to load everything from the start but can use what they already have. As a consequence, websites appear faster on your screen.
When someone request to see your WordPress site, its HTML version is dynamically created from the PHP scripts found inside the files on your server. Naturally, that takes time and processing power.
To speed up the process, caching plugins create and save HTML versions of your pages beforehand and serve them to browsers directly. That way, they don’t have to build the pages from scratch every time.
Why does that matter?
Because, as mentioned in the introduction, speed is important. Slow website loading times increase bounce rates, lower search rankings, decrease conversions and overall impede on your site’s performance. For that reason, using a caching plugin can make a real difference in the success of your website, be it visitor numbers, conversions or revenue.
However, our contenders actually have much more to offer to users wanting to speed up their site. So let’s talk about that now.
W3 Total Cache vs WP Super Cache – What’s the Difference?
After getting the primer on caching out of the way, we are no ready to dive into our plugins and how they compare to each other.
First let’s talk about popularity. As mentioned in the beginning, both W3 Total Cache (W3TC) and WP Super Cache (WPSC) have more than a million installs to their name. In addition to that, with 4.5 out of 5 stars, they also both have a near perfect rating.
However, W3 Total Cache is slightly ahead since it has three times more user ratings. That’s probably also why it appears higher in the WordPress plugin list.
W3TC is also the plugin of choice for major sites like WP Beginner, WPML, Sitepoint and Mashable. I couldn’t find any list of notable users for WPSC but with more than a million websites running it, there is bound to be a few in there that you and I are familiar with.
In short, in terms of popularity our two contenders seem to be very much on even footing.
Plugin costs are an important decision factor for many. Both our plugins are freely available in the WordPress directory, so there isn’t much to compare here. However, as we will see further below W3 Total Cache also offers optional premium features that bring some costs with them.
Both plugins can be installed like any other WordPress plugin. Simply go to Plugins > Add New, search for their names, install and activate.
Upon activation, W3TC adds a new menu item named Performance to the WordPress menu. There is nothing in terms of a tour or anything. Instead, you need to click yourself through the (many) options to complete the setup.
Seriously, there are a lot of settings. 16 pages full of them!
If you need assistance getting your bearings, you can use the extensive help section at the top.
In addition to that, there’s also a FAQ menu that you can use to educate yourself.
After activating WPSC, the plugin will prompt you to go to its settings page and switch it on. When entering the options (which are less prominently located in the WordPress settings), users find a very different sight than in its competitor.
One simple button to switch caching on and you are good to go. Sure, there are additional tabs but for the most part it’s as simple as set it and forget it.
Next, let’s talk about what the plugins have under the hood feature wise. For W3 Total Cache, the main benefits are:
- Different kinds of caching (page, object, database, browser, fragment)
- Minification for files (HTML, CSS, JS) and database
- CDN support
- Settings import/export
Each of these has its own dedicated subpage with controls for so many details that they are just too numerous to list here (16 pages, remember?).
In addition to that, W3TC promises to be web host agnostic, support Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), SSL and more. There are also a number of premium options (more on that below).
WP Super Cache is said to work especially well with low-powered servers or during heavy traffic. It comes with a similar set of features as the first plugin:
- Different ways of page caching (mod_rewrite, PHP, legacy)
- Compression for pages
- CDN support
- Mobile device support
- Scheduler that clears cached pages at set intervals to keep them up to date
- Pre-caching to deliver pages quickly at first request
- Ability to export settings for use in another website
There are also a number of additional plugins (e.g. domain mapping, Jetpack mobile theme, WP touch), however, overall much fewer configuration options.
With such a multitude of features, it’s important that they are easy to use. How do the plugins fare here?
In the case of W3 Total Cache, the plugin’s strength is also its weakness. With so many possible options to configure, especially beginners are overwhelmed quickly.
Of course, you don’t have to slog through every single page. The plugin also offers a one-click setup option for its most important features that should work for the majority of people.
On the other hand, its makers makers claim a ten-fold increase in speed when W3 Total Cache is configured correctly. Getting to that point, however, is another topic.
In contrast to that, WP Super Cache requires little to no configuration. Users completely uninterested in the technical side of caching can simply switch the plugin on and leave it at that. Much more beginner friendly, even if advanced users might lament the lack of fine control.
With the complexity of caching plugins, a good support structure is paramount. Probably due to its number of options, W3TC offers huge amounts of information. Besides the ample help section and FAQs inside the plugin there are also external support forums you can also hire them for premium support.
WPSC also has plenty of support options. First of all there is a debug section and plugin messages telling you if something is not quite up to snuff. The plugin also contains links to installation help, FAQs, support forums and a development version.
Besides that you can find recommended settings on the plugin page.
Finally, in our competition of W3 Total Cache vs WP Super Cache, let’s take premium features into account.
For $99/year you can upgrade to W3 Total Cache Pro. In exchange, you get even faster acceleration with Full Site Delivery and unlock extensions for Genesis, WPML and more.
In addition to that, there is the option to book premium support. This ranges from simple responses to support questions over help with plugin configuration, performance auditing, troubleshooting to compatibility issues and other things.
You can be book premium services directly from inside WordPress or via the homepage.
WP Super Cache does not offer any premium features. What you see in the free plugin is what you get. As a consequence you can use it for your own good without being sold anything. However, you also don’t have any options to enhance it further.
W3 Total Cache vs WP Super Cache – The Verdict
In search for website speed, WordPress users can take advantage of several high-quality caching plugins. Yet, the two we looked at in this article are by far the most popular ones in the directory.
For good reason. Both of them offer ample features to shave precious seconds off your website’s loading time and obviously do a good job in their department. Otherwise they wouldn’t be trusted by millions of websites.
So, is there a winner? To answer this, you need to take into account that the plugins cater to very different target groups.
W3 Total Cache is a God given if you want to take full control over every detail of your caching needs. You can configure dozens of option and, if the guarantee of the plugin makers holds true, achieve great effects. You only need to be willing to put in the time to learn the ropes.
WP Super Cache, on the other hand, is more suitable for casual users who don’t want to dive too deeply. It comes with minimal options, but everything matters. Great if you just want caching on your site but not think about it too much.
Consequently, in order to pick a winner, you need to make a choice which user group you belong to. This will determine which plugin is the right one for you.
However, we would also like to factor in actual user experience and for that we want to hear from you.
Have you used either of the caching plugins in this article (or both of them)? If so, please let us know about your experience and what tips you would have for other users. Thanks!
Article thumbnail image by iDesign / shutterstock.com
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