Low-cost PHP Web Hosting Providers Tested

July/Aug 2005

For the latest issue of HostLab we've selected four web hosting companies that offer PHP hosting and tested them on 5 different criteria to determine their competency as web hosting providers. The testing included; a pre-sales and a support email which was rated for response time as well as quality of response, the quality of information available to learn the control panel and use the web host's services, the web hosts' support for PHP scripting, a scripted test of the speed of the processor, data base and file system, and the value of the hosting plan for the money based on disk space and monthly bandwidth vs. the price.

The hosts we chose for this month's HostLab were: CHIhost.com (formerly Advacned Network Hosting), PowWeb, W3 Solutions, and Hard Hat Hosting.

1) QUALITY OF ANSWERS AND RESPONSE TIMES FOR PRE-SALES QUESTIONS

CHIhost.com
PowWeb.com
HardHatHosting.com
W3Sol.com

We submitted the following list of questions bright and early at 5am to each hosting provider and then evaluated both speed and quality of responses.

Can I set the folders' permissions myself?
How can I tell if I've exceeded my data transfer limits?
Is it possible to install a custom php module?
Do you offer any pre-installed php scripts?
What kind of customer support do you offer for php scripting?

CHIhost.com was the first to respond to our questions taking just four and a half hours to get back to us. They answered each questions completely and professionally.

PowWeb then got back to us an hour later with their answers to our questions including links to their website where we were able to find more detailed information about PHP although their answers were not quite as specific and thorough as CHIhost.com's answers.

The next host to get back to us was W3 Solutions and their answers were complete and well thought out.

Hard Hat Hosting was the last to get back to us but their answers were adequate.


2) THE CONTROL PANEL AND DOCUMENTATION

CHIhost.com
PowWeb.com
HardHatHosting.com
W3Sol.com

Next we set up the website using the control panel, ran our tests, and looked through the documentation for the control panel and any other documentation the hosts featured and rated them on the ease of use of the control panel and the quality of information and the range of topics they covered.

Using the Cpanel X control panel for the account with Advanced Network Hosting was great. Everything is laid-out on one page which makes it easy to get to. There is such a vast array of things you can manipulate with the control panel it was a bit overwhelming actually but the interface was quite easy to use. With such an extensive amount of control it's a good thing they offer documentation in the form of FLASH tutorials as well as having large and easy to understand written documentation for their tools and setup as well.

PowWeb's control panel takes a little bit more drilling down through menus to get to everything but I was still easily able to do everything I needed to do. PowWeb features a web resource area with links to useful sites as well as a large searchable help section in an FAQ style. They provided documentation on their control panel as well as a lot of third party tools like DreamWeaver and some different FTP applications, etc.

Hard Hat Hosting uses the Sphera Server Director 3.7 control panel. It's a nice looking design but the controls are spread out among different areas and tabs within the panel making it inconvenient to get to things quickly because of the page loads between every little step. The file manager page also gave me a 404 which required a support ticket. Hard Hat's email to me with my account information was the most informative and had everything I needed to know and was a great reference for everything from where to go to get help to setting up FTP to my login information. The site features a knowledge base, FAQ area and a user forum as well. Good documentation.

W3 Solutions uses cPanel for Linux and HELM for Windows. I chose to use HELM. I liked it much better than Sphera but not nearly as much as cPanel X. W3 sends links to some .pdf files with documentation for their control panel, they have an installable browser toolbar that gives you access to the different departments of W3 like billing and support as well as offering pop-up blocking, etc. and they have a searchable knowledge base available from the control panel although it was a bit sparsely populated.


3) CUSTOMER SUPPORT

CHIhost.com
PowWeb.com
HardHatHosting.com
W3Sol.com

To test the hosting providers' customer support we sent an email asking each host how to set up the DNS.

Advanced Host returned the support ticket with everything we needed to know.

PowWeb had the best customer support. They were very friendly and informative throughout the account setup process, pre-sales questions, and they have a 24-7 online chat so they were able to answer the question in detail. Actually, they were almost too good considering the support staff was ready to walk through setting everything up and we weren't actually prepared to really do it!

Hard Hat Hosting also has live chat support although unfortunately they were offline when we needed to use it. They do have email support as well however which returned my ticket to us with the information we needed to know.

W3 Solutions has extremely friendly support and they returned my email quickly with everything we needed to know.


4) SERVER SPEED AND PERFORMANCE

CHIhost.com
PowWeb.com
HardHatHosting.com
W3Sol.com

We uploaded PHP scripts to test the server's performance for each host. The PHP scripts we used performed a number of functions, including mathematic calculations, create/write/delete files and database manipulation. The tests were conducted multiple times to obtain an average.

Our performance test results were interesting with a different hosting provider finishing first for each of the three tests.

CHIhost.com carried away the mathematical calculations test while Hard Hat Hosting featured a blinding fast file system and PowWeb had the fastest database. All of the tests we ran however showed that any of these hosts have more than enough power to run anything a small business enterprise could possibly consider for the price of these hosting plans.


5) OVERALL HOSTING PLAN VALUE

CHIhost.com
PowWeb.com
HardHatHosting.com
W3Sol.com

These ratings come from a cross-reference of disk space, monthly bandwidth transfer and price.

CHIhost.com's MEGA plan features 2,500 MB of disk space and 65 GB of monthly transfer for $6.95 per month.

PowWeb's One Plan offers 5,000 MB of disk space and 300 GB transfer for $7.77.

Hard Hat Hosting's Brochure plan gives you 150 MB of space and 10 GB of transfer for $13.11.

W3 Solutions' WHS 200 plan has 200 MB of disk space and 2 GB of transfer for $3.99 a month.


6) PHP Support

CHIhost.com
PowWeb.com
HardHatHosting.com
W3Sol.com

CHIhost.com allows you to install custom PHP modules on request, offers support for PHP scripts, and has a large number of pre-installed PHP scripts.

PowWeb has a lot of pre-installed PHP scripts and allows custom modules as well.

Hard Hat Hosting runs PHP version 4.3.10 with GD 2.0 installed and will add a custom module for you 'for a small fee'.

W3 Solutions does not allow custom modules on their servers but they have a large library of pre-installed scripts.


7) Overall Score

CHIhost.com
PowWeb.com
HardHatHosting.com
W3Sol.com

After working with all of these hosting providers what sticks out the most are the wonderful control panel that Advanced Network Hosting offers and the genuinely friendly and knowledgeable staff at PowWeb. Not that the other hosts had bad control panels or customer service but that CHIhost.com and PowWeb were really above and beyond what is normally expected in these areas.

On the negative side, the one and only thing we encountered was the irritating control panel Hard Hat Hosting has with pop-up windows going off right and left and the 404 error we got trying to access the file manager.

In conclusion, CHIhost.com really targets PHP technology and and are a great choice for web site that needs a lot of custom PHP work while PowWeb is also a great choice with friendly super service. W3 Solutions is a fine web host but for intensive PHP sites they aren't quite as solid. Hard Hat Hosting is expensive for what you get and there control panel has a feel to it like it was designed by the marketing department rather than the technical staff.


HOW WE TEST

First, we submitted a list of initial queries to providers, and tested their response time and the quality of their responses. Our questions were simple, for example: "Can I use sub domains? Do you offer online control panel demos? Can I set the folders' permissions myself? How can I tell if I've exceeded my data transfer limits?" Some providers responded personally to our slate of questions while some only provided URLS to FAQs, and/or avoided questions altogether.

Next, we signed up for basic packages, then checked quality of online user manuals and instructions. Our next test was to create a list of typical support questions and check response time and the quality of responses to those. For example: "How can I submit a custom PHP module for installation to the server?" and "Where can I find documentation on what PHP modules are currently supported?" Most sites answered the first question and provided URL links for the second question.

The next step was to test server performance, both network and data processing. We uploaded PHP test files to test data processing and used www.visualware.com to test response time from different locations around the world. The PHP test was conducted multiple times to obtain an average. We also calculated a "user-friendliness" factor and evaluated the value-for-money offered by each provider.
The test was done solely by HostSearch.com's experienced team using our criteria and standard. We are not responsible for any uses of information on this page.

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