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Small-business owners who want to sell products on the Web should take a serious look at Homestead, a pricey but beginner-friendly Web host that provides a series of simple yet powerful Web-building tools. With the help of Homestead's WYSIWYG editor and StoreFront shopping engine, even those with little Web-building experience can set up their own online stores in a matter of hours. That said, Homestead's services don't come cheap (you'll pay $10 to $130 per month, with no free accounts), and experienced coders who use Macs or their own FTP/HTML tools will find themselves high and dry. For them, either Yahoo's or EarthLink's Web hosting service remains the better bet.
Setting up Homestead is simple. First, choose whether you want to use one of the for-pay QuickSite templates or design your own site from scratch. If you opt for the template, you can browse a 76-page catalog of thumbnailed, subcategorized template pages until you find the one you want. The more than 600 templates run the gamut from real-estate listings and restaurant menus to personal and hobby pages. The templates aren't cheap, though: you'll pay $50 to a whopping $300 each, depending on the template's complexity. If you'd rather build your own site from scratch (or DIY, in Homestead parlance), you jump directly to the personal-info and payment page. If you're not sure about committing to Homestead, the company offers a seven-day free trial of its services. Once your account is set up, you arrive at the main page, where you can view your new site, access your account info and settings, check your site traffic, or launch one of Homestead's two building tools: the easy-to-use fill-in-the-blanks QuickSite Editor or the WYSIWYG QuickSite Builder.
|DIY Silver||DIY Gold||DIY Platinum||StoreFront Standard|
|Domain registration included||No||1||3||1|
|POP e-mail accounts||0||1||8||1|
|Data transfer per month||15GB||15GB||15GB||15GB|
|Phone and e-mail support||30 days free phone, then $10 a call or $5 a month; e-mail||30 days free phone, then $10 a call or $5 a month; e-mail||30 days free phone, then $10 a call or $5 a month; e-mail||30 days free phone, then $10 a call or $5 a month; e-mail|
Homestead's site-building tools are among the best we've seen in a Web hosting service, although they're available only for Windows (limited Mac support will come later in 2005, according to a Homestead rep). The QuickSite Editor lets you tweak the prebuilt QuickSite templates; just click the placeholder text and enter your own or replace the stock images with the ones you want. The QuickSite Editor lets you add or delete subpages from the template or change the font and formatting of the text, but you can't move or edit the actual page elements; for that, you'll need to grab Homestead's impressive QuickSite Builder tool (an 8MB download), a combination WYSIWYG site editor and FTP client.
The QuickSite Builder lets you drag and drop any page or QuickSite template element and add interactive forms (such as check boxes, drop-down menus, list boxes, text boxes, and radio buttons), images, movies, and sound files. Homestead makes it easy to add other features, such as current-weather modules, time and date stamps, hit counters, calendars, MapQuest maps, stock tickers, Java chat rooms, and even RSS feeds for your favorite blogs. A handy right-column pane displays adjustable properties for any element you click, while a series of tabs across the top lets you jump from one site page to another. If you want to upload files or check out your file structure, just click File Manager in the left-hand column: a three-paned interface appears with a site tree, a folder inspector, and file/folder properties. Looking to sell products or services over the Web? Homestead's StoreFront packages (which run $30 to $130 per month) let you build and stock e-commerce sites with SKU-ed products, shopping carts, PayPal and credit card payments, and order processing.
Homestead makes for an attractive host if you're willing to embrace QuickSite Editor and Builder, but those who want to use their own FTP clients and HTML tools will run into trouble. Unfortunately, Homestead converts your files into a proprietary file format, which means you can't dig into the files for manual coding (although Builder will let you add some HTML to your pages via a special form). And while you can upload files to Homestead using your favorite FTP client, such as WS_FTP Professional 2006, you won't be able to download them to your local drive, and there's no direct support for HTML editors such as Microsoft FrontPage. There's little to no support for advanced protocols such as MySQL, PHP, and Perl, although some third parties offer Homestead-supported modules with advanced Web functionality. We were also disappointed by Homestead's stingy disk space for its pricier accounts: just 200MB for the $40-per-month plan, compared with 10GB for Yahoo's $40-per-month service. Back on the plus side, we liked Homestead's detailed reporting tool, which lets you track your visitors' activities and IP addresses. We also appreciated how the service takes regular snapshots of your Web pages, allowing you to roll back your site in case problems arise.
Homestead offers 30 days of toll-free phone support from the time you sign up (Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday from 8 a.m. to noon PT). After that, you'll have to pony up $10 per incident or pay $5 per month for unlimited phone service--not bad, but other services (such as Yahoo's) offer 24/7 toll-free phone support for the life of your service. Unlimited e-mail support is also available, but it's slow; it took us more than 24 hours to get a reply. Homestead boasts generous documentation for its Builder and Editor apps.