DreamHost

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After 20 years in the business you’d expect DreamHost to know what they’re doing, and first impressions of the website don’t disappoint. The company offers shared, WordPress, web, VPS and dedicated hosting with stacks of custom and unusual features, all presented in a distinctive and appealing style.

There’s none of the hard-sell gimmickry you’ll get elsewhere. No special offer or ‘buy now!’ banners, in fact there’s no upfront mention of prices at all. Instead the company leads on what it thinks are key selling points: 100% uptime guarantee, unlimited 24/7 support via email and Twitter, SSD drives for speed and – wow – a 97-day money-back guarantee (30 days is more typical elsewhere, and indeed some companies offer less than that).

The plan details look good. You get unlimited storage, bandwidth, databases and domains. There’s a free domain for the first year, and free Let’s Encrypt SSL (Comodo-verified SSL starts from $15 – £12 – a year), along with an unrestricted drag-and-drop website builder, plus one-click install of WordPress, Joomla, ZenCart and other apps (18 in total).

DreamHost’s pricing seems fair, and it’s presented very honestly and clearly. Unlike just about everyone else, it leads on the most expensive monthly term, which is still reasonable at $11 (£8.80). It then quotes the effective rate over one year – $10 (£8 a month – and three years – $8 (£6.40 a month) – then displays the total figure in each case. That’s a huge improvement on most of the competition, where typically you won’t see any totals until you reach the payment page.

If shared hosting isn’t enough, basic VPN plans start at $15 (£12). Dedicated servers look more expensive than some with a starting price of $149 (£119) a month, but that’s partly because they’re so highly specified. If power’s more important than price, be sure to check them out.

Account setup

The DreamHost signup process starts with the company asking you to choose a domain name – but there’s much more flexibility here than usual. You can register a new name or specify one you own already, but unusually you can also opt to start with a free sub-domain, or ignore all this entirely for now and set it up later.

Next, we were offered some add-ons. Malware Remover seemed expensive at $4.50 (£3.60) a month, others were more unusual – boost performance by placing a MySQL database on a dedicated VPS server, for $15 (£12) a month – and there was an option to have WordPress pre-installed with the account. You could do this later anyway, but if you’re a hosting newbie it’ll still save you a little time and effort.

DreamHost didn’t try to be ‘helpful’ by selecting any of these add-ons by default, unlike some other hosts, so we could quickly skip ahead to the payment page. There was no PayPal option, just credit cards, but otherwise you’re asked for the regular details – name, address, phone number – and the payment works as usual.

On completion the website allows immediate login to your control panel, and a welcome email arrived with our FTP and shell login details only five minutes later.

Creating a site

Log in to DreamHost for the first time and it displays a newbie-friendly greeting: “This is our web control panel. From here you can manage your account, add and configure services, and install and use all kinds of awesome web apps and tools.”

The site then points you to the right area to carry out various common tasks: ‘Install WordPress or another app’, ‘Add or manage websites’, ‘Set up some email’ and more. It’s a simple opening which quickly points you in the right direction, and once you understand the basics you can turn the suggestions off with a click.

We still prefer cPanel overall. It’s more familiar, has more features and add-ons, and its icon-based approach makes it a little easier for novices to find what they’re looking for. But DreamHost’s panel isn’t bad at all, and if you don’t mind a brief initial learning curve you’ll probably find it has more than enough power to manage all your hosting tasks.

If you’re more interested in building a website than tinkering with low-level technicalities you’ll appreciate DreamHost’s Remixer, a drag-and-drop website builder. It’s an in-house product, not a rebadged version of Weebly or anything else, which means no stupid page or other limits to try and get you to upgrade. Functionality is good – media can be imported from social networks, you can embed content like videos, contact forms and maps – and there’s a huge library of graphics and photos to help dress the site.

Remixer doesn’t have the range of themes you might get elsewhere – just a dozen or so – but these look good, and with 70+ content layouts there’s plenty of scope for creating something of your own. It also feels more capable and up-to-date than the usual web-based editors; basically, it seems more like a polished desktop application. If you’re interested, the website intro video gives you a very quick introduction (barely a minute long).

One-click installation is also handled by a custom DreamHost system. This ‘only’ offers 18 apps, far less than Softaculous and other frameworks, but they’re well chosen. The list is MediaWiki, WordPress, concrete5, dotProject, GetSimple, Joomla, MICO, MODx Evolution, Omeka, Open Web Analytics, OpenVBX, phpBB, Piwigo, Pligg, Textpattern, Web Calendar, XODA and Xen Cart.

We tried the service with WordPress and were hugely impressed. An opening screen described the product, gave us a user rating, along with links to its own and the DreamHost support page. The installer gave us a choice of domain and installation folder, and an unusual option to select a database to use. By default it even installs a few extra themes and popular plugins (Akismet, JetPack etc).

If there’s a small catch it’s that the installation doesn’t happen instantly, as we’ve seen elsewhere. Instead the site warns that this might take 10 minutes and we’d have to wait for an email. But our email arrived in around five minutes – not a big deal, and it included so many helpful extra setup details that it probably still saved us time overall.

Performance

We’re always keen to see how a web host’s support system performs, and DreamHost’s website got the company off to a good start. You can enter a keyword at any time in the control panel search box to pull up relevant articles, and a Help menu gives you links to all your web-based support options: knowledgebase, community forum, live chat and email.

The knowledgebase tramples all over most of the competition. Our usual ‘import WordPress’ search returned a large number of relevant articles, with clear opening summaries in the list of search hits. These were individually very helpful, with plenty of screen grabs and step-by-step guidance, and advice on dealing with potential problems (what to try if PHP times out during a lengthy upload, for example).

We also ran searches for single keywords like PHP, MySQL or Apache, which can give a more general feel for the depth of a knowledgebase and the way search results are ordered. There were a huge number of documents, mostly very helpful, and although some were short that’s usually because they point you to the best resources elsewhere (the official php.ini directives list at php.net, for instance).

We checked out DreamHost’s community forum, too. This was fairly busy, and there are some DreamHost staff who occasionally answer questions. But as with most other community forums, customers are usually too busy with their own issues to spend time helping you with yours, and many questions don’t get any response.

We moved on to the live chat and found it didn’t work at first, apparently with some odd authentication error. A perfect chance to test out the support ticket system, we thought, so we raised this as an issue. And then waited for around three days until a response arrived. This was apologetic and offered some good general advice, and if this had been a real emergency we’d have raised another ticket or emailed (the other option), but that’s still a very long delay.

It wasn’t all bad news – the live chat started working on its own and we used it to get some relatively speedy and reliable help – but any support delay which runs into days is obviously a concern. If you try out DreamHost for yourself, make sure you test the support service thoroughly.

There were no issues with our performance tests. We checked out DreamHost with Bitcatcha and a few other benchmarks and found our site appeared to be hosted on the east side of the US. Speeds were good from US connections, average to the UK, and very acceptable overall.

Final verdict

DreamHost could be a smart choice for demanding home users who need to host multiple domains. Slow ticket response times are a concern, though, and if your needs are basic there are cheaper hosts around.

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