Founded some 20 years ago, Berlin-based Strato is a mammoth web hosting company which now manages 4,000,000 domains on more than 60,000 servers.
Exploring Strato’s plans is tricky, as they vary considerably between different countries, but we decided to ignore the relatively expensive UK-specific website and check out Strato.com instead.
The headline prices caught our attention right away. Hosting plans start at $0.49 (£0.38) a month for the first six months, and a guaranteed $0.99 (£0.77) a month after that.
There's no obvious catch, either. You get a free domain, 15GB web space, a single database, a single FTP account and up to 500 email addresses. Bandwidth is unlimited, you only have to sign up for a year, and the price doesn't leap on renewal. Yes, there are limits here, but nothing critical, and the account will be adequate for many people.
Strato’s other hosting plans have no extra features, and are just about lifting those limits. The Hosting Plus account, for instance, is $0.79 (£0.61) a month for the first year, $3.99 (£3.10) after that. This gets you 100GB of web space, 25 databases, 25 FTP accounts and up to 2,000 email addresses.
All the plans support multiple domains, which is unusual, and everyone gets access to the same SSL certificate deal, too: the first six months are free, then it’s $4.90 (£3.80) a month. The closest to a disappointment was the relatively short 14-day refund period, but when you can get a full year of hosting for $8.88 (£6.90) plus tax, that doesn't seem too big a deal.
Strato has many other products. Some are underwhelming: the WordPress plan is largely pointless, and the website builder is underpowered and overpriced (from $4.99 – £3.90 – a month renewal fee for a maximum of five pages). But if you're aiming higher, VPS plans start from $10 (£7.70) a month and dedicated servers are priced from $39 (£30).
Strato’s website looks good at first, but start exploring and you'll quickly spot issues. The shared hosting page is crammed with information and not very well organised, so expect to spend some time scrolling up and down.
Even Strato seems to have problems keeping track of all this data. A ‘Which is the right hosting product for me?’ section referenced products and features which didn't match what we were looking at on the page. We'd guess the company has updated its range at some point and ‘forgot’ to do the same with the site content.
On the plus side, if you like to see the low-level specs of a plan – how many subdomains are supported, how many email aliases – you'll appreciate Strato's detailed table. It's good to see a company make pricing details clear upfront, too, rather than hiding the figures until you reach the payment page.
We made our product choice and were asked to choose a domain. You can register a new domain for free, or transfer one you own already, but there's no option to leave the domain with its current manager. That's unusually inflexible, and could be a real problem for some.
Next up, the site offered us various add-ons, including SiteLock malware scanning, SSL certificates and cloud storage. A few of these offers looked amazing – ‘SSL Wildcard (+$0/month)’ – but that's only because Strato has forgotten to add the little numbers pointing to the disclaimers at the bottom of the page. We ignored these and clicked Continue.
Strato’s cart page listed our choice of products clearly, and gave us precise details on what we'd be paying now, and the renewal fees. The company gave us the option of manual repayments, too, which is handy if you want complete control over when – and if – you pay for renewal.
We made our choice and the payment was processed as usual. There's no instant activation, unfortunately, but the website gave us an order reference number and explained we'd be getting an email soon with more instructions.
Creating a site
Most hosts activate your account within a few minutes of payment. It took close to two hours before we had a welcome email from Strato, but as the site only says accounts will be activated within 24 hours, we should probably be grateful.
The company handles security well. You're given a customer number as a username, making it much more difficult to guess (other hosts often use your email or domain name). Passwords are entered separately from the purchase process, an accurate ‘strength’ meter shows you how secure they are, and they're never emailed to you.
Login took us to Strato’s hosting panel. The company's shared Linux hosting doesn't use cPanel, vDeck or anything standard, instead opting for its own custom creation. In our experience that's never good news, and Strato did nothing to change our mind.
The panel design looks good at first glance, being clean and largely text-based, but it's poorly organised. For example, when we accessed the console it highlighted six areas at the top of the page, but these either related to products we didn't have, or functions we'd only use occasionally. If you're looking for something important, like the file manager, you'll have to browse to Databases and WebSpace in the sidebar, and recognise that WebFTP is a type of file manager.
Support options are well hidden, too. There's no ‘Search for features’ box, no prominent Help menu or anything similar. Instead you have to scroll to the very bottom of the page, click the Support link to open the support site in a new tab, and finally search for advice.
There's no template-based Site Builder in the standard shared hosting packages. You do get speedy install of WordPress and some other applications via the company's AppWizard. This doesn't support as many apps as the best of the competition, but it'll set them up without difficulty, and if you just need a WordPress site at speed it'll do the job as well as anyone else.
Manual site management is also possible via FTP or a simple WebFTP file manager. Again, this isn't as straightforward or capable as the cPanel equivalents you'll get elsewhere, but it gets the main tasks done; and if your site is basic you probably won't use these modules much anyway.
We like to spend plenty of time testing a host's support services, but Strato doesn't have much to try out. There’s no live chat (not even sales), no formal support tickets, just an awkward ‘email’ link that eventually resolved to a web form, and a web knowledgebase.
This was partly because we had opted to purchase a product from the provider’s low-priced www.strato.com site. Buy from www.strato-hosting.co.uk and you do get access to an 0800 phone number, but the first year UK base price is more than six times higher, and even then, phone support is only available for business hours on weekdays.
We checked out the support website anyway, and found a straightforward and familiar interface. There are buttons to access articles on particular topics (Email, Databases, Server), clicking any of these displays a tree of subtopics and some direct links to popular articles, and there's also a search box to look for keywords directly.
One obvious problem is that the site doesn't have much content. Browsing to the Databases category showed us six articles; searching for MySQL gave us 14 references in total. The individual content wasn't bad, but it's mostly about setup and management. There's very little to help you with identifying or solving problems, so for example running a search on the keyword Permissions gave us no hits at all.
We tried other searches with equally unimpressive results. ‘Import WordPress’ gave us one article on installing WordPress using Strato’s SiteWizard. Apache returned a single minor hit, whereas searching for PHP gave us some useful articles, but others just highlighted the basic control panel. The ‘How can I check the PHP and/or MySQL version?’ article suggests creating a PHP file, uploading it via FTP and opening it from your browser, for instance (cPanel usually displays it in a sidebar).
Email support is available, at least in theory. We worked our way through the system, specified our topic, entered a question, submitted it, and… an error page displayed: 409 Conflict. When you need support to use the support system, you know you're in trouble.
Tired of the website, we moved on to our final server performance tests, and they turned out to be much better. Our allocated server was in Berlin, had good response times from the UK, was even better with US connections, and a little above average overall. Whatever Strato is doing to cut costs, it doesn't seem to involve the hardware or network, which is always good to know.
Strato offers a cheap way to get a basic site online, but try to do anything more advanced and you'll pay a price in terms of the poor support, underpowered hosting panel and more.