1st Domains offers an exciting unlimited hosting plan…but it’s not as good as it looks at first glance. Performance was great when I tested it, but it’s not that easy to use, and there are some serious issues with support.
Can This Domain Registrar Compete In the Hosting Market?
1st Domains is primarily a domain registrarthat offers web hosting on the side. It handles 10% of all new .nz registrations and has been in business for 20 years. For people who actually want to do something with their domains, it has just one hosting plan, marketed as “No Limits” web hosting.
Sounds real good, right? It is… in theory.
All customer websites are hosted from a data centre in New Zealand, so you would expect good loading times for local visitors. But there’s more to a good host than page loading speed.
I set up a real website with 1st Domains to find out how its hosting and support perform, as part of a project to test all major hosting providers in Australasia. On the surface, there’s a lot to like. It’s fairly reliable and cheap, and there are some features you’ll love if you use WordPress.
But do not sign up until you’ve read this review. I’ve reviewed hundreds of hosts, and this company has some seriously weird terms and conditions that I’ve never seen with any other host.
Cool Features and Missing Bits Make For a Weird Plan
As I mentioned at the top, 1st Domains only has one hosting plan: the No Limits Hosting Plan. No limits? Cool! On the face of it, this plan should blow the competition out of the water. Unlimited bandwidth, unlimited disk space, unlimited databases. What’s the catch?
Well, this is a single site plan. So you won’t have a chance to actually use much of that ‘unlimited’ plan because you can only make one website on it.
1st Domains could have had a killer plan here, but the fact that it’s limited to just one site really makes it a basic hosting plan. You’ll never use more than a few GBs of disk space or bandwidth on one typical WordPress site, so the “unlimited” resources don’t mean much in practice.
I normally don’t go over Terms of Service with a fine-tooth comb, but when companies start throwing words like “unlimited” around, you have to. Once I’ve reminded you that I am not a lawyer (there you go), let’s have a look at some of those oddities:
Using domain or hosting services for your business apparently means you cannot exercise your rights under New Zealand’s Consumer Guarantees Act 1993 (which is intended to guarantee a certain level of service from all New Zealand businesses).As far as I can tell, this means all CGA-guaranteed warranties are invalid the moment you decide to sell your dog’s autobiography online.
It is specified that when 1st Domains updates its servers, you are responsible to update your own code so it stays compatible with the new server technologies. (If you’re a regular user on, say, WordPress, this should not be an issue).
It is also specified that 1st Domains’ hosting is not intended for enterprise use. Sorry, Amazon.
I feel like that second point has a story behind it. The sad story of a lawsuit.
There’s also another odd clause in the terms and conditions: 1st Domains appears to seriously limit FTP use:
The maximum file size you can upload is 128MB.
The maximum you can upload each day is 2GB.
This is a weird clause that’s going to make it difficult to utilise much of these “unlimited” resources.
I’m going to look at some really good features in a second. But before I do, I need to be clear. There are a lot of missing features on this plan:
There are no backups available to customers. 1st Domains just makes internal backups in case their data centre explodes or they overwrite your files by accident. If you mess up a file or get hacked, you can’t access the backups, so they may as well not exist. You’ll need to set up your own backup solution using something like Vaultpress, and you’ll need to factor in the cost of that.
There’s no CDN integration. Content Delivery Networks basically copy your site to their servers in order to speed up loading times around the world. Depending on where your visitors are, you may not need one. If you do, you could use a third-party CDN, but it might be a bit tricker to set up, and cost more.
There’s no website builder. If you plan on setting up a WordPress site straight away, this doesn’t matter. But if you wanted to create a simple site first, you might miss having a quick website creation tool.
1st Domains doesn’t offer migration services. You’ll have to transfer data from your old host yourself. 1st Domains uses Plesk as its control panel, if you’re coming from a host with the more popular cPanel, you could be in for a headache.
I would like clear information about server-side security and caching, but 1st Domains doesn’t provide any information on either of these.
This is quite a big list of omissions. Okay, I admit that not all of them are essential, and no host ticks every single box on my list. But no backups? No migration help? Hmm.
It’s not all bad. Let’s lighten the mood a little with some features to look forward to.
WordPress is pretty secure when it’s run with default settings, but there are ways to ‘harden’ its security to prevent opportunistic hacks. You’ll usually have to read through blogs and tutorials to find these features.
But hey – what’s this? Tucked away in the control panel, 1st Domains has a site security checker for WordPress that gathers tons of these features in one handy panel. It’s fantastic to be able to see all of these security controls at once and tweak them all in the same place, and this could be a real bonus for all WordPress users. I don’t understand why 1st Domains doesn’t shout about this feature, because I would.
WordPress is just that popular, and this feature speaks to the company’s focus on the average hosting consumer.
Free SSL Certificate
Free SSL is included, which is another big plus. SSL keeps your visitors’ browsing private by encrypting traffic between the server and the user’s browser, and is becoming something of a prerequisite for a decent Google ranking.
Not all hosts will include a free SSL certificate at a low price point, so finding this feature hidden away in the control panel was a nice surprise.
One-Click Software Installation
You can install WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, and Concrete5 using the one-click installer in the Plesk panel. If you’ve used Softaculous on cPanel, you’ll do fine: it’s basically the same. If you haven’t used any hosting control panels, you’ll still be fine. The process is typically explained as you go along.
Ease of use
Seriously Weird Domain Name Rules Could Be a Headache
There are a few more important issues that make 1st Domains more challenging to use than it should be. Where competitors like VPS City and Webslicescored very highly in my ease of use testing, 1st Domains… well, didn’t.
Domain Name Restrictions
There are three pretty weird terms in the T&Cs that severely limit flexibility on this hosting plan:
You can’t use a domain at a different registrar. You can only use the hosting if 1st Domains is the registrar, which means you either buy a domain, or you transfer an existing one to 1st Domains. Transferring your domain is free, but you’ll pay 1st Domains when it’s time to renew, so compare its fees before you do this.
If you transfer your domain name away to another registrar, your hosting will be cancelled.
Once your hosting is set up with a particular domain name, you cannot change your domain name.
If I wanted to rebrand the site for my dog’s autobiography and change its domain, I’d have to move the whole thing to another host. That’s not user-friendly at all, and my fictional dog Woofles the 2nd would be very disappointed with the delay.
Essentially, your domain and hosting cannot be separated. Consider whether this is going to make 1st Domains difficult to use, or increase your recurring costs.
The 1st Domains website isn’t mobile-responsive and doesn’t adapt to a small screen, making it more difficult to navigate than it should be. This, and that late-’90s-chic-low-contrast colour scheme, could present a problem for users with accessibility needs.
The navigation is also challenging. Much of the content and dashboard management is about domain names, making the hosting information difficult to find. The knowledge base looks like a help file straight out of Windows 95.
1st Domains’ late-’90s-early-to-noughties vibe does not inspire confidence.
Creating a New Account and Choosing a Domain
So, back to the good news. Choosing a plan couldn’t really be easier. There’s one plan. Click it.
Then, click the Order Now button to start the order process. You’ll need to create a new account by clicking one of the links on the right under “New Customer”.
1st Domains doesn’t give you a free domain when you sign up for hosting. To be fair, its main competitors don’t either. However, it’s ironic that it won’t give you any freebies given this company is one of the biggest registrars in New Zealand. Share the love, 1st Domains.
So, as I said, you can register a domain name, or transfer a domain name. I bought a new domain with my hosting, so I’ll show you how that works.
Connecting a Domain
The second step in the order process is the domain selection screen. This is simple enough. Just search for the name you want.
(Don’t worry about the bulk registrations tab. You can only create one site at a time, so you only need one domain, unless you’re going to park additional domains on top of your primary one.)
Once you’ve found an available name, provide the required personal information and your billing details to complete sign-up. This is standard stuff that has plagued been with us online shoppers since the beginning, and it’s not going anywhere.
You’ll then need to log in to the dashboard and find the link to Plesk, the hosting control panel.
Once you’re in Plesk, things get a bit easier. You’ll need to find the application installer to get started.
The one-click installer at 1st Domains is the same as at any other host you might have used before. Just click the install button, fill in the form, and WordPress will be installed for you.
(I didn’t end up using this as I asked support if they would help me install WordPress, and they wound up installing it for me. I’ll talk about that more in the support section below.)
And Now For the Good News
My 1st Domains website was live for about three months, and during that time, I ran a number of tests using GTmetrix, the Sucuri Load Time Tester, and UptimeRobot. In this section, I’ll show you the results and explain how it compares with other hosts in New Zealand.
To give 1st Domains a fair shot, I first asked for optimisation tips for my website. Tom’s response was helpful, and provided a number of ideas that I could implement.
Many hosts just tell you to hire a developer, so I appreciate the fact that Tom actually addressed my question. Good for you, Tom. I like you platonically.
Okay, onto the tests.
My site was located at www.autonomous-shoes-nz-k.com. If you’re interested, you can read about the testing methods I used. I’ve closed down the hosting account now so that the host can’t make any retroactive changes that might influence future testing.
The fastest loading time I measured in this test was 1.3s. That’s really good.
The average was 1.7. Two of the nine tests came in at over two seconds, but the rest were comfortably below the important two-second barrier. (In testing, two seconds is about the maximum amount of time that a visitor will wait before bouncing back to search results.)
To put this in context, 1st Domains is a shade faster than VPS City; they’re in the same ballpark, but it just edged out the better score. 1st Domains achieved much better speeds in this test than Webslice.
Some compression has been applied here to help with loading time. My original homepage is about 1.4MB in size, and GTmetrix reports a final page size of just under 1MB.
Sucuri Load Time Tester
The average global loading time was around 4s, which is not great.
Singapore consistently reported good loading times, with 1.45s being the fastest I measured in all nine tests. Page loading times from North America and Europe were less impressive, with full load times in France and Canada coming in at over 6 seconds in some tests.
This screenshot shows a fairly typical spread of results:
It’s a shame that the Australian data centre didn’t report any results, but this does seem to be a common problem with Sucuri, and shouldn’t be seen as an issue with 1st Domains.
If you intend to host a site with lots of international visitors, you may want to sign up for a CDN, like I mentioned before. Otherwise, 1st Domains is best used for local sites.
All of the hosts in New Zealand that I’ve tested have done well when I tracked their uptime, but 1st Domains is the only one that experienced no downtime at all. A site that’s up all the time sells more stuff, so that’s exactly what you want.
No Live Chat or Weekend Support
So now we move to support, and two things really bug me about this.
Support is very limited. 1st Domains does not offer 24/7 support. In fact, there’s no support on weekends. Yep, you read that correctly. The office is open Monday to Friday, from 8 am to 6 pm, and that’s your lot.
Access to support is a problem. There’s no live chat. And the estimated wait time for a response to a ticket is one working day.
Now, you can contact support on the phone if it’s urgent, but only if the office is actually open. This is a really big sign that hosting is a secondary service at 1st Domains. Its support is miles behind the other hosts I’ve used.
It’s just not enough. When you’re running a business, a lack of support can cost you money, and plenty of it.
So: do you really have to wait a full day for an answer? I tested out the email support a couple of times to see how long it really takes.
Here’s the response to a pre-sales question. This is a polite, detailed, reply. But I waited 10 hours for a reply that could have been provided on live chat in a few minutes.
Here’s another example. I said I was having trouble with installing WordPress, and Andre set up WordPress for me, which is great.
But he forgot to tell me what the login details were, which is less great.
I had to send in another ticket to get the username and password. It took more than three hours for the reply to come back.
Three hours is within acceptable limits as tickets go, and it’s better than the expected wait time of a full day. But plenty of other hosts would have had the right tools in place to resolve this more efficiently.
Cheap and Cheerful, but Don’t Expect a Loyalty Kickback
1st Domains is cheap. That’s its most redeeming feature. And the low price makes that one-website-limit easier to handle. It should be noted that prices on the site exclude GSD, so it’s best to keep that in mind if you’re comparing it with other hosts.
You can pay for your hosting with VISA, Mastercard, or American Express. That’s it. No modern payment gateways.
And there are also no discounts. The price you see is the price you pay. And while you can choose to be billed monthly or annually, there are no price breaks for committing long-term.
There’s also no free trial, and no money-back guarantee. I would suggest paying monthly, because all the risk of a long-term plan is yours to bear. There’s no point in putting a ring on it, so to speak.
Cancelling 1st Domains Hosting
There’s no automated cancellation facility on the 1st Domains control panel, so you have to cancel your hosting by sending a ticket. It’s not the most graceful way to cancel a plan, but it worked fine, and my account was closed down within 24 hours.
Hosting with 1st Domains is a real mixed bag. With no migration, no website builder, no user-accessible backups, no live chat, it lags behind competing hosts in many areas. I dislike the fact that you have to transfer your domain to 1st Domains to use its hosting, and you’d lose the hosting if you moved the domain away. There are no money-back guarantees or discounts to sweeten the deal. I could go on.But there are some nice features hidden behind that dreary website, like the WordPress security checker. And I can’t fault the loading times and uptime. Both scored higher than the other hosts I used from New Zealand. I’d say the performance is this host’s main redeeming feature.If you want to save yourself some trouble, VPS City came very close to 1st Domains in GTmetrix testing, and would be my recommendation if you’re looking for a more modern local host. If your main target audience is in the US or Western Europe, you should check out InterServer– it’s low-priced with a broader range of features.
Based in Melbourne, Jack is a long-time web developer and WordPress enthusiast, always interested not only in how things work, but how he can make them work better. You’ll typically find him glued to his computer screen at all hours of the day and night, but he does go outside every once in a while – mainly to play squash or do some surfing (or at least pretend to).
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Security scan picked up malware others missed
I've used their domain service for many years. It's excellent and easy to use. I've got a few clients who host with them, and the sites are usually trouble-free (though easy access to some backups would be nice). A new client migrated their site to 1st domains a few months back. It had been scanned by several malware scanners before the transfer. Only the 1st domains scanner picked up a relatively new malware infection. That was pretty impressive. In the end, we used Malcare to clean the site.