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Not decided which type of web hosting you need? Hostwinds does its best to help by offering you every possible option: shared, business, vBulletin, reseller, VPS, dedicated, budget Linux, premium Linux, Windows and more.
The $4.50 (£3.60) a month Basic plan has none of the usual restrictions. You get unlimited bandwidth, disk space, email accounts, databases and subdomains. There's cPanel access, the Trendy Tools site builder, Softaculous one-click installs, nightly backups and a free dedicated IP address. The account only supports one domain, but that's common with baseline plans, and with unlimited disk space we wouldn't expect anything else.
There's no catch with the price, either – quite the opposite. The $4.50 (£3.60) per month pricing highlighted on the comparison page is for a one-year plan. Opt for three years instead and this drops to $3.50 (£2.80), so Hostwinds isn't even advertising the very lowest price. Unusually, monthly billing is available for a very fair $6.50 (£5.20). These are all the standard costs, too: they won't bump up on renewal.
With such a powerful starter plan, there's nowhere for the rest of the shared hosting range to go. The high-end $10 (£8) a month Ultimate business plan adds support for unlimited domains, and places you on a server with fewer accounts, but otherwise it's the same.
Although ‘web application hosting’ is listed on the website, there's no managed WordPress or e-commerce plan, just a link to the standard hosting accounts. The company doesn't advertise a website builder, either, but there is one included.
If you're a more demanding kind of user, VPS packages start from $7.50 (£6) a month for a very basic offering (0.5 cores, 100Mbps transfer speed, unmetered). Dedicated server plans start from $100 (£80) a month, and although there aren't many server types, they're all reasonably customisable.
All products are covered by a 60-day money-back guarantee. That's a big improvement on the industry-standard 30 days, although there are a few hosts which go even further (InMotion Hosting gives you 90 days).
The Hostwinds website doesn't give you much low-level detail on its plans. The main page tells you nothing, and although there's a comparison table available, it’s mostly information experienced users would guess already (namely that if you have cPanel, you'll also get a web-based file manager, AWStats and Webalizer).
There's some confusion, too. The site highlights one of the reasons to upgrade to business hosting as its ‘dedicated IP’, but it also says the regular shared hosting gives you the same feature.
We hit the Buy button anyway, and entered the name of a domain we owned already (you can register a new one, too).
Hostwinds next offered us an Advanced Website Monitoring add-on. This automatically raises a support ticket if your site goes offline or stops loading, and could mean the company can fix any problems before you know about them. That could be valuable with business sites, or anywhere uptime is critical, and it's fairly priced at $1.75 (£1.40) a month.
That was the company's one and only upselling attempt, and the final page offered the standard forms for contact and payment details. Hostwinds supports more payment methods than most – cards, PayPal, Skrill/Moneybookers, Bitcoin – but we opted for PayPal as usual, and handed over our cash in the normal way.
Hostwinds completed the process by displaying an invoice, and we were able to start work immediately – there was no irritating ‘activation’ delay.
Creating a site
The welcome email didn't have as many support and ‘getting started’ links as others we've seen, but it still included plenty of useful low-level details for the more experienced: a direct cPanel link, server name and IP, nameservers, FTP details, POP3 and SMTP servers, and more.
The customer portal is clean and straightforward. There are no banner ads, no marketing at all, just a tabbed interface which gives you easy access to all your features: Services, Domains, Billing, Support, Tickets and more.
The portal doesn't have any direct site management tools, but there is a Login button which takes you to a regular cPanel installation. If you've used cPanel before you'll find your way around immediately. If you're a beginner it'll take longer, but you can learn things bit-by-bit. File Manager and FTP Accounts are two of the icons at the very top of the page, for instance, and both provide ways to help you upload a site you've already built.
We checked the versions of software Hostwinds was using. There was an up-to-date cPanel build, a recent MySQL, but there's a potential issue with PHP. Our server came with PHP 5.6.25, which is perfectly adequate, but unusually there's no way of switching to PHP 7 or anything else (a little more on that below).
Although it's barely mentioned on the site, Hostwinds includes the Trendy Tools site builder. This has multiple templates organised into categories like Business, Photography and Band. You're able to customise text and images, add new content of your own or even set up simple web stores. Some builders offer more control, but this particular offering is easy-to-use, and doesn't have annoying page limits or other restrictions.
The other site building highlight here is Softaculous, one of the best frameworks for finding, easily installing and managing hundreds of applications: WordPress, Joomla, PrestaShop, Drupal and more. You could set up WordPress in a couple of minutes, for instance, just by filling in a form.
No single review is able to reliably tell you how a host will perform over time. What we try to do instead is look more closely at the website, the services, and the kind of support you get. If a host is cutting corners here, that may indicate other problems are likely to crop up in the longer term.
Testing can be as simple as clicking links, and indeed that was enough to uncover some problems with Hostwinds. The company has a Service Status page where it aims to offer "live info on our shared servers", because "we believe in full discolsure of all services issue to the public" – their typos, not ours.
But the page has headings only; there’s no status information whatsoever. We wondered if this was some temporary problem, until we followed another link to view ‘38 resolved network issues’, and found the last one recorded was in 2015. Either Hostwinds has had a perfect record since then, or the website update system has broken and no-one's noticed.
There's more dust and cobwebs around the Downloads section, where we found FileZilla 6.5.3 (released in 2012), and PuTTY 0.62.0 (from 2011), and barely anything else at all.
We noticed a security issue in the customer portal. Normally, if you need to change your cPanel password, you would expect to confirm your existing password first. Not only does Hostwinds allow you to enter the new password only, it also clearly displays your current login username and password in plain text. As a result, anyone who can access your customer account will also get complete access to your server.
Although worrying, this didn't tell us anything about Hostwinds' web hosting abilities. We decided to move on to something more relevant: the web knowledgebase. Would that be better?
First impressions weren't good, due to the notable lack of content. The ‘getting started’ section under shared hosting had only two articles, for instance: ‘Where is my account information?’ and ‘How to install Joomla’.
Running searches didn't help. Searching for ‘import WordPress’ gave us several articles, but none were very useful. Searching on ‘transfer WordPress’ returned zero articles, which indicates a very weak search algorithm. Single keyword searches – permissions, PHP, MySQL – gave us multiple articles, but very few that were directly related. The engine also sorted the results alphabetically, rather than by relevance, which means you'll spend far more time trying to find something useful.
One more try. Would their email client support be up-to-date? No. We found an article about setting up email in Outlook and noticed it didn't mention the versions supported, presumably to avoid giving the date away. The instructions in the text didn't work for our Outlook 2016 installation, although if you know what you're doing you can extract some useful data from the article and set up the account yourself.
We tested the support team directly by raising a ticket, asking how we could change the PHP version on our account. The company responded quickly, with a reply arriving in under 20 minutes. Unfortunately it wasn't much use, telling us "it would be impossible to change [the PHP version] on a shared, business, or reseller hosting service as these changes would affect all clients on the node", and suggesting we would need to upgrade to a VPS.
Changing PHP version on shared hosting might be impossible at Hostwinds, but it's an option regularly available elsewhere. We would have preferred an answer explaining why the company doesn’t offer this capability, rather than suggesting it can't be done.
We completed our tests by running Bitcatcha and other benchmarks on our server. This seemed to be located on the western side of the US, so connections from the UK took fractionally longer. You're unlikely to notice any issues, though, and the performance to the US and the rest of our test locations was good, meaning speeds were above-average overall.
Hostwinds' feature-packed plans seem good value, but the feeble support and website are a concern. The 60-day money-back guarantee might make it worth the risk, but be sure to test the service in-depth.
Wednesday, May 24, 2017 - 14:30