PlanetHippo

PlanetHippo's website caught our eye immediately with an ad for its ‘One Account’. With this you get 1GB of web space, 1 website hosted, 1 database and 1 email address, for – you guessed it – only £1 excluding VAT ($1.25) a month.

While this is certainly basic web hosting, it could be enough for many people. 1GB of space is sufficient for simple sites, you could run WordPress with your single database, and there are no bandwidth limits to get in your way. The single email address could be annoying, but if you can live with that, too, it seems like a bargain.

The £2.50 ($3.15) per month Pro account gives you more room to grow, with 100GB of web space, 25 email accounts and 5 databases. You get one free domain, can host up to two sites, and there's full 24/7 support (the One account is ticket-only).

After that, the £4 ($5) Unlimited plan is Pro with the limits dropped, and the £5.50 ($6.90) Unlimited + SSL plan gets you an SSL certificate into the bargain. The second is particularly good value, as similar business-oriented plans with other hosts can cost twice as much, or more.

There isn't even a hidden catch with the prices, surprisingly. Click the buy button with other hosts and you'll often find those headline figures only apply if you take a three-year plan, and after that there's a massive price hike. Here, the quoted monthly price is for a one-year term only, and it's not a one-off deal – you'll pay just the same on renewal (unless the company bumps up its prices for everyone, anyway).

If there's an issue here, it's the lack of detail on the plans. There's no low-level information on, say, the maximum size of a database, and the site doesn't tell you if there's one-click install for WordPress, or which installer it uses. 

The site has live chat for sales talk, so we tried this out with both of the aforementioned questions. The initial answers were vague – "yes, you can install WordPress like so" – before the agent rushed on to ask us what we wanted to buy, but when we repeated the questions we got real answers (there's one-click install via Softaculous, there are no database size limits beyond disk space).

If you're looking for more power, UK-based VPS hosting starts at £12 ($15) a month. That's for very basic specs – 50GB SSD space, 1 core, 1GB RAM – but there's unlimited bandwidth, free setup and no minimum contract. There are quite a few high-end shared hosting accounts that will cost you more.

Account setup

The PlanetHippo website provides only the bare minimum of information on its various plans, but once you've figured out what you want, the purchase process seems relatively straightforward. Enter a domain, your contact and payment details – it’s all very simple? Not quite.

Our first issue was the lack of a PayPal option, which is doubly annoying when there's a PayPal logo by the ‘Payments we accept’ label at the bottom of the page. If you're using PayPal to draw in customers, it really needs to be available when it's time to hand over your cash.

We opted for a card payment instead, but the PlanetHippo site complained that our card had been declined and asked us to re-enter the details. Some of these were clearly incorrect and we were reasonably sure we hadn't entered them like that, but anyone can make a mistake, so we tried again.

Second time around the site displayed the ‘transaction will be verified by your bank’ message, which usually gets refreshed in a few seconds, but in our case just froze. We left it for 10 minutes before giving up. 

The consequences of this were a little odd. When we logged in to the website it told us the invoice was paid, but the only email we received told us payment had failed, and we needed to resubmit it manually. This didn't appear to be a big deal – presumably it just meant we were missing a ‘thanks for your payment’ email notification – but it still left us wondering how robust PlanetHippo's procedures might be.

There was a security issue, too. As with most hosts, PlanetHippo asked us to create a password for our account. We generated something lengthy and cryptic, before tucking it away in a password manager. We thought that would be it, but no such luck, because PlanetHippo included the account password in our welcome email. It's normal for the control panel logon password to be sent via email, but other companies typically don't do it with the master account password, and we don't see why it's necessary here.

Creating a site

Logging on to PlanetHippo for the first time took us to a very well-designed control panel. There are no banner ads, no pointless graphics filling up space, and you're not forced to go hunting around the screen looking for the information you need.

Instead a clean and largely text-based interface shows you all the key service areas at a glance: your hosting account, contact details, system status alerts, a search box for the support knowledgebase, a space to enter and manage support tickets, and more. It's simple, straightforward, and vastly more usable than most of the competition.

Clicking the link to our hosting package took us to a custom starting page. Beginners will find shortcuts to cPanel's File Manager, backup tools, Awstats visitor reports and more, and there's a simple web form to create an email address in three steps: enter a name, a password and click Create. It's well thought out and even a total novice will get useful work done in their very first visit.

If you're more experienced, tapping a Login link takes you directly to cPanel. This comes with all the usual site management tools, neatly presented via the Paper Lantern theme. Hosting newbies will take a while to find their feet, but there's a lot of help around, and if you've used cPanel before you'll feel at home right away.

PlanetHippo doesn't have a website builder, so the only quick site creation option is cPanel's standard Site Publisher. This isn't a full editor, just a small set of customisable one-page templates, but it does allow you to get something basic online in minutes.

Fortunately, PlanetHippo also provides a top-notch industrial-strength alternative in Softaculous. This is an excellent installation framework which allows exploring a host of apps (WordPress, Joomla, PrestaShop, Drupal, phpBB and more), complete with descriptions and reviews, plus demos, and it allows you to get these set up with a minimum of hassle. If you need a capable blog, say, the system will install WordPress for you in moments.

cPanel also includes all the tools you need to upload your site manually, via its File Manager, FTP modules and more. If you're an expert you'll find everything works as usual; if you're a novice, it shouldn't take long to master the basics.

Performance

A good support system is vital when you need to solve a tricky hosting problem. Is PlanetHippo's website up to the task? In a word – no.

Tapping Support > Knowledgebase revealed some major issues. A guide to cPanel 11.32, dated 2012; a whole category for Outlook 2010 issues; a Shared Hosting category with information on products that no longer exist (the website builder, the Home Pro account).

The content isn't just dated. Many of these articles are only available in video form, sometimes only Flash SWF, hardly convenient for step-by-step guides. When we checked ‘Configuring a POP email account in Windows Live Mail’ it offered a Read Article link, but this didn't display anything. It's strictly video-only.

We might forgive the ancient rubbish if there was at least some useful up-to-date content, but the site falls down here, too. Searching for WordPress scored a single irrelevant hit. Searching for MySQL gave us what looked like a useful page on ‘How to create a MySQL database’, but turned out to be a minute-long ‘click this, click that’ video based on an old version of cPanel. Searching for ‘PHP version’ gave us nothing; searching for Apache gave us nothing. 

Even the Network Status page doesn't work as expected. We found links to display PHP Info on various PlanetHippo servers, but one of these displayed the site of a travel agent, and the others showed us blank pages only.

It won't take long to exhaust the website, then, but PlanetHippo does have other options. As we saw earlier, it's possible to talk to agents on live chat fairly quickly, and although they weren't immediately helpful, once we pressed them we obtained helpful and accurate answers.

The other major option is a support ticket system. We prefer this to telephone support for anything complicated – it's easier to provide lots of technical information, review answers and see the history of any issue – but would it work here? 

We raised a ticket asking if we could import an existing WordPress site into a fresh PlanetHippo installation. It's unfair to expect any host to give you in-depth support with third-party products, but this is a relatively simple question which most companies make some attempt to answer. And encouragingly, we had a helpful reply within 15 minutes. 

The agent explained that migrating sites was possible, explained the first step (we'd need to back up the existing site), and asked for more information so they could help us with the next step. That's an ideal response to a newbie question, as they weren't overwhelming us with information or fobbing us off with ‘go away and look at this link’. Instead we got the basic answer we needed and a clear offer to walk us through the rest of the process.

As a final test, we checked our allocated server with Bitcatcha and other performance benchmarks. The server seemed to be in the UK, but our checks indicated connections from the UK had slower than normal response times. On the plus side, connections from the US were faster than usual, and overall speeds were around average.

Final verdict

PlanetHippo is terrible in some areas (the web knowledgebase) but scores where it matters, offering great value, a well-designed hosting panel and speedy, helpful support. This is one provider for your shortlist.

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