Pros: Site-building tools, wizards, templates and help mean you don't have to be a professional to post your own site.
Cons: You can't control intrusive banner ads and pop-up windows.
Best use: Good for getting a quick Web presence - until you have the budget to do it without ads.
When carving out your own piece of cyberspace, you can either take what your ISP gives you (usually limited to 4MB or 5MB with scant page-building support) or look around for another host. The trouble is, fee-based hosting companies make you register a domain and then they charge you to host it.
If you're simply looking for a place to showcase a hobby or post some photographs, you're better off with a free Web hosting service. Unlike fee-based hosts, services such as Homestead and Freeservers.com provide excellent tools for designing pages and mapping out whole sites. Better yet, you can knock off a small site in about an hour and still have enough extra tools on hand to tinker with it for weeks. And while all free hosts make their money through advertising, not all of them bludgeon your visitors with irksome ads. Homestead and Xoom.com, for example, commandeer little screen real estate for ads and Tripod gives you the choice of having advertisements embedded directly in your Web page or letting visitors view them in a pop-up window that keeps coming back if they close it.
For all-around ease of use, Homestead takes the cake. Its site-building tools work best for novice designers. You click through a wizard-style template picker, changing text and uploading graphics from your hard drive as you go (you can also drag and drop images from Homestead's own art collection). To insert a link, click an element, then click the Link icon and finally enter a Web address. It doesn't get much simpler than that.
The program does equally well at mapping out whole sites. Like any Java-based program running across the Web, Homestead's SiteBuilder can sometimes be slow to load and use. And once ready for viewing, Homestead's sites are quite responsive. On the negative side, we were put off by the ad banner frames the Web host places at the bottom of each page: you can't minimise these, as you can at most other sites.
Furthermore, the company's 12MB space allowance is among the stingiest offered - edging out only Tripod's skimpy 11MB slot. On the other hand, the average casual user won't need even as much as 11MB. If space is an issue for you, you can sign up with a service multiple times, effectively gaining unlimited space.
Homestead's URLs are significantly longer than the ones furnished by Freeservers.com and Tripod, which provide virtual domain names for their users.
At Tripod, that's name.tripod.com; at Freeservers.com, you get a choice of several different domain configurations, including name.bizservers.com, name.freeservers.com and name.8m.com. (If you want an even catchier domain name, try Web.com's service, which will let you sign up for domains at name.web.com. The company plans to offer free domain hosting services by the time this article goes to print.) Like Homestead, Freeservers.com and Tripod both offer robust site-development tools, plus Web-based file uploading and FTP support, making them ideal for uploading sites created offline.
In addition, Freeservers.com throws in a couple of bonuses. It runs a free e-mail forwarding service, redirecting messages sent to any user name at your virtual domain to the e-mail address you used to register with the site. A Freeservers.com spokesperson says that the company also plans to offer instant messaging and free Web-based e-mail in the near future.
Of the other free hosting services we reviewed, Geocities' strengths include a well-established set of Web communities and its Yahoo affiliation, which draws traffic to the site. Geocities also provides 30MB of Web storage and comes with site-building tools that will appeal both to experienced HTML programmers and to novices. The service is chock-full of ads, however, and it forces you to use long Web addresses that incorporate geocities.com into the URL.
Our last contender, Xoom.com, gives you an unlimited amount of space and offers chat rooms, but the graphics-intensive site loads slowly.
As we were going to press with this issue, yet another site that provides free Web hosting - Bootbox.net - launched. This company's array of free offerings includes Web-based e-mail and Internet access. The home page is a portal, complete with a search engine and Yahoo-like categories ranging from Arts and Entertainment to World News. Though we didn't have a chance to review Bootbox.net's Web hosting abilities or its other services, they work much the same as the services of other providers in this story.