123 Reg started life as a domain registrar way back in 2000, but these days it has packages for all web needs: personal or business hosting, web design, e-commerce, virtual or dedicated servers, SSL certificates, SEO, marketing and more.
The hosting range starts with the Essentials plan. It's unusually restricted in some ways – only one website allowed, 10GB web space, a single MySQL database, no one-click WordPress install, no website backup/restore, no SSL – but that's not the whole story. The plan gives you a hundred 5GB mailboxes while other plans stop at just one, there are no limits on bandwidth, and the price is a very reasonable £2.49 a month (that's ‘forever’, it won't double after year one).
The Business plan (£3 a month for year one, £5 a month afterwards) scores for including two domains and 500GB mailboxes, and adding one-click support for installing WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, MediaWiki and osCommerce. But web space is limited to 100GB and there's still no SSL – you can get unlimited space and a certificate with 1&1's similarly priced Basic plan.
Upgrading to the Unlimited plan (£7 a month for year one, £10 a month afterwards) gets you a far better product. There's unlimited web space, bandwidth, databases and 5GB mailboxes, SSL is finally included, and you get three domains thrown in. The plan still ‘only’ supports up to 10 websites when 1&1 has no limits at all, but this is still a capable package for demanding business and personal users.
Elsewhere, 123 Reg offers managed Drupal and Joomla hosting as well as WordPress, with a low starter price of £3 a month initially, £5 a month after the first year.
E-commerce pricing ranges from £180 to £600 a year, though beware, the cheapest package is seriously restricted (10 products, 2 payment gateways only, few management tools). GoDaddy's online stores aren't quite as powerful, but they cover you for the basics, have fewer restrictions and are reasonably priced at a flat £240 a year.
Whatever you're doing, 123 Reg offers you a 14-day money-back guarantee for your hosting fees (as usual, domain costs aren't covered). This isn't automatic – you must call to get it – but the website says you're covered "if you decide that the package you’ve bought isn’t right for you for any reason", so it seems unlikely that you'll have any problems.
123 Reg offers a bewildering array of plans and products, but the website does a reasonable job of organising them all, and helping you find the one you need. The ‘Buy’ section of the Hosting page lists all four products side-by-side, for instance, and the complete set of features and costs are only ever a click or two away.
Payment terms vary according to the plan. The Essentials plan is displayed as its monthly £2.50 equivalent, but can only be billed annually. The Business and Unlimited plans are chargeable per quarter or year, both based on the same monthly price (no discount for paying per year), and some high-end plans are available monthly.
We opted for the Business plan, but the shopping cart still allowed us to review and directly change both the plan and payment term (no need to delete one option and start again). Unusually, we were also able to select either Linux or Windows hosting from the cart. We like the choice, but hosting novices might like more guidance on making this decision upfront, rather than burying it inside the order process.
Once everything was decided, we were presented with the usual PayPal or card payment options. Once we'd handed over our cash the website asked us to wait, and around five minutes later an email arrived with a link to the 123 Reg Control Panel.
We expected a standard page with our hosting package displayed upfront, but 123 Reg forced us to scroll through most of its other services first: Domains, Email, Create your website (that's the website builder, not hosting), Marketing, Security, and – oh yes, here we are – Web hosting.
Finally, you must associate your hosting account with a domain (there's no option to continue without doing that). And that's it, you're done. Bookmark the control panel directly to avoid future navigation hassles and you're ready to go.
123 Reg shared Linux hosting accounts are managed by the company's own custom frontend. This isn't particularly beginner-friendly, but experienced users will notice some familiar names – Webalizer, AWStats, phpMyAdmin – and everyone else will find their way around quickly enough.
Site creation still has its issues, because standard 123 Reg hosting accounts don't come with any website builder (that's £5 a month, and not really worth it). The feature lists claim you get ‘100 pro website templates’ but don't expect too much. They're typically just one HTML file, one CSS and a few placeholder images, so you'll need a separate web design tool and plenty of experience to produce anything useful.
The Free Software section was even more of a disappointment. Linking to useful software could help beginners, but the files on offer here include Adobe Acrobat Reader 8.1.2, first released back in 2008, and IrfanView 3.98 from 2005. No, not 2015 – 2005. Has no-one at 123 Reg really thought to check this in over a decade?
You do at least get a CGI Scripts section for speedy installation of WordPress, phpBB, MediaWiki, SugarCRM, Drupal and more. We tried setting up WordPress, and the process was more awkward than usual. At one point we were asked to choose a link to set our default URL, for instance, and got repeated 404 errors. We don't know why, and it worked eventually, but other hosts usually offer a smoother experience.
Support is important when you run into problems, and the 123 Reg Support Centre has some issues. Clicking Frequently Asked Questions told us ‘1427 answers found’, and definitely didn't list them in order of importance (question #3 was: How do I set up Outlook Express with POP3?).
Searching didn't always help as you'll get so many hits on common keywords, and as we suspected from the Outlook Express reference, some of the documents are old. We came across a WordPress Migration Guide from 2013, for example. Although it was still usable, some of the steps look a little different now, and there are other signs of age (a recommendation to download a 123 Reg email guide which is now a broken link).
It was a different story with the support agents. We raised a support ticket (much more convenient than the phone-only support offered by some other hosts), asking what software they would recommend we use to edit their HTML templates. That's an easy question, but 123 Reg still did well, giving us a polite and useful reply within six minutes. (The response was: "You can edit them with NotePad++, but it would be much easier to use WordPress, and there are some tutorials you can look at here...")
Phone response times seem excellent, too, with our test call being answered within 90 seconds – including 60 seconds to navigate the voice menu. The support agent couldn't begin to answer our question about the server's relatively old MySQL and PHP versions (5.5.36, 5.3.28), but did get us a sensible reply later.
Our final performance tests were more mixed, with Bitcatcha in particular giving us a wide range of results, but overall our test server showed above-average speeds – a fair result for a standard shared hosting account.
Some plans can be expensive, and the hosting interface needs a major overhaul. But the speedy support is a major plus, and overall 123 Reg needs to be on your web host shortlist.