Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Free email accounts, when used properly, can be very useful. Google's GMail is the current best of breed, primarily because it can be "used properly".

The fact that I'm recommending a free email service at all will come as a shock to most of my long time readers. I've long ranted against using free email services as the sole repository for your important information. Most people read that as being "against free email", but it's really "against putting all your eggs in someone else's basket and only in someone else's basket".

Free email accounts have a place in your overall email strategy.

And one of the reasons I recommend GMail, Google's free email service is that it allows you to take control of your email in ways that the other services will not. In fact, I can see situations where GMail might be your primary email account.

Just never your only email account.

Forget all the other features you might think of when you look at GMail. There are exactly two that, in my mind, make GMail the free account to use:

  • It explicitly and clearly supports IMAP, POP3 and SMTP access, meaning that you can use GMail from any traditional desktop mail program. For example, I have Thunderbird configured to access my GMail account.

  • It explicitly and clearly allows you to automatically forward your GMail mail to any other email address you might want to.

The reason I consider those GMail's most important features is simple: data portability and the ability to back up.

"Google Mail doesn't try to lock you into its way of doing things."

Every day I get questions and requests from people using other free email services who've lost their email, lost the accounts, lost their contacts or more because of some problem with that other service. The other services make using something other than those services extremely difficult, or lock you into specific programs or ways of doing things. Thus, you're encouraged or even required to keep all your information within those services. If you lose that account, then all the information is gone, often irretrievably.

Not so with Google Mail. Use a POP3 client and you can take and backup your GMail email anywhere. Forward your Google Mail to any other email account, and you have instant and automatic backup of all your messages.

Google Mail doesn't try to lock you into its way of doing things. You can happily use GMail without ever visiting the website after you've set it up. Or you can. It's your choice.

You want more features? Fair enough:

  • Themes is the most recently released feature - you can change the look and feel of GMail to suit your taste, rather than be stuck with the old boring color scheme. I now have a nice pebble and rocks background when I log in to GMail.

  • Spam - or rather the lack there of. GMail appears to have one of the better spam filters out there. In fact, I know of people who have their normal non-Google email address automatically forwarded to GMail simply so that it gets spam filtered, and then have GMail auto forward what's left to another account where they actually access it - GMail is simply the spam filter in the middle.

  • Integration with other Google services such as the instant messaging client Google Talk, a new voice and video chat feature, Google Calendar and many more (be sure to check out the "Labs" tab in GMail's options).

  • Https access. For those of you on the road using open WiFi hotspots or other questionably secure connections, Google Mail's web interface can be instructed to operate only over an encrypted https connection for security.

  • Storage and lots of it. I know many of the other services are finally adding lots of storage as well, but as an example I'm currently showing over 7 gigabytes of available space for my saved email. That's a lot of space.

Google's GMail also appears to be one of the more reliable services as well, which I think also counts for a lot. To me, that means fewer lost accounts, fewer lost contacts and so on.

But I do have to reiterate that you should never use any free email account, even GMail, as the only place you keep important information. Free means exactly that - free. There is no customer service number to call, and support is primarily limited to on-line help information. For example, if you forget your password and the online recovery tools don't work for you, you may lose your account and everything in it. (I get sporadic reports from all the services of people who've been able to recover, but it seems to be a very, very small minority and not something you can count on in the least.)

But again, that's why Google's my service of choice - it's easy to set up a backup plan so that when or if you have a problem accessing your account, the amount of information you might lose can be very, very small.

GMail. Free email I can recommend.

Article C3569 - November 21, 2008 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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18 Comments
Chris
November 21, 2008 8:55 PM

"I now have a nice pebble and rocks background when I log in to GMail."
That's funny cause that was actually my first and only choice this morning.. :)

You also forgot to mention that GMail uses colorful labels instead of folders, but they act just the same with the plus of looking like, just that: labels. Add those to the filters, and you get a nice, colorful, organized inbox like I do.

Also, GMail allows you to attach email accounts to your primary GMail account. By this, I mean you can give gmail the username and password of any of your other email addies and you can now compose or reply to emails, using any of those accounts in the "From:" field! I can reply as my .edu account, my @gmail account, or my @msn account.

Also, my college just transferred all their student email accounts to GMail's email service.. That tells ya something right there about reliability and use.

I still hope that they're backing up all that email somehow, though, outside of GMail.
- Leo
22-Nov-2008
novice
November 22, 2008 8:43 AM

these services never gave me any problem. but last night i couldn't access one old email on hotmail. may be i'd be able to access it again. or may be not. but thanks to Leo's advice i have the email on my hard drive.

Chris
November 22, 2008 10:07 AM

As part of your recommendation, I did start backing up my email from my main gmail account (which is mainly a forwarding hub from all my other free email services), to thunderbird. I still like the classic feel of going to the website to check email, but it doesn't hurt to open up thunderbird every once in a while to update it.

As part of another recommendation, I do backup the backups as well through system backups to my large external :).

J G
November 22, 2008 11:14 AM

Also, there are no ad's if you access gmail from your local e-mail client.

There is one problem that drives me nuts. If you send an e-mail to yourself or to a group which will then remail it to all members including you; gmail will not send that message from the group to your local client. It seems to assume that since you've sent it you don't need to see it again. This, of course prevents you from seeing if the group actually got it. You must wait for someone to reply to your post to see your original post as part of that message.

This seems to be a well known problem which Google has chosen to ignore, or doesn't see as a problem although plenty of others on their forums do. There are some work arounds but they are a nuisance.

Cat Moves
November 25, 2008 9:02 AM

Leo, I use gmail. Have for a long time. The only things that bother me are the TOS and Privacy clauses. I know they are interminably long and written by lawyers (oh my!) but everyone needs to learn to read and analyse the manufacturers statements. They are supposedly protecting themselves when in reality they are screwing the consumer. For instance, did you know that anything you write using Google Blogger belongs to Google? Or anything you send in your email?
I use a program called Eulalyser to run both TOS and Privacy through a QandA analyser. Especially when it's hundreds of words long.
Try it. Google isn't really free. You will pay for using their free services. Even if it's only by advertising. Count on it. And, yeah. I still use them. But not their maps.

Art Dechene
November 25, 2008 10:01 AM

"Cat Moves" complained of Google's maps. I too find them wanting. What is the best map and driving directions site?

Also note that clicking on "Subscribe to the RSS Feed" thingy erases your email message before it is sent.

David Raymond
November 25, 2008 3:56 PM

I've been happily using Gmail with pop3 to Outlook for several years. This year I also established a free email account with GMX.com and have been using it (also with pop3) for several months. I signed up for a gmx account because it is new and I got my name as my email address. GMX seems to work very well. The only problem I've had is that the server for one of my clients seems to bounce all GMX mail. I contacted GMX and they were very good about responding. The problem wasn't solved, but I just send email to that client from my gmail account.

David Irwin
December 1, 2008 1:30 PM

I could never recommend anything GOOGLE due to their advertising and privacy policies. You may want to check out GMX mail. I have been using them for about a year.

DJ
December 2, 2008 5:55 AM

Hello Leo,

I would like your advice on which protocol I should use whenever I configure my Gmailaccount in Outlook (2007). Do you recommend IMAP over POP or the other way around? I have a laptop which I use most of the time but occasionally I check my mails on my desktop, just occasionally that is. I' ve heard a lot off good things on IMAP, and that it outshines POP in a lot of ways, but I've also heard it could make Outlook particulary slow. Right now, I have a sophisticated and very effective way to sync all my laptop files to my desktop, so the syncing should also work for POP to keep my pst-files updated. Or should I go for IMAP? What do you think?
Thanks in advance.

Bob DiGrazia
February 25, 2009 7:35 AM

I used gmail for a few weeks a year ago, but dropped it because I couldn't turn off its spam filter. It turned out that during those few weeks, I failed to see an email I needed urgently, because Google decided to put it into the spam folder, instead of forwarding it to my ISP account. I burst into flames, and fired Google. So there. But I might go back, to use their message-forwarding feature.

connie
June 3, 2010 11:54 AM

how do i have 2 accounts?

Sign out from the first, and create the second/
Leo
05-Jun-2010

Bazz
June 15, 2010 6:56 PM

Note to Connie - I have 4 gmail accounts (1 my wife uses; 1 for my personal mail; and 2 for charitable organisations I do work for. To avoid logging in and out of gmail, I have 4 separate user accounts on my PC. Keeping them separate, makes them easier to manage.

Dave Markley
June 30, 2010 9:28 AM

I just wanted to point out another extremely important feature that Gmail is great for. Even most 'pay' email programs severely limit how many emails you can store and often how many you can even send. Gmail, too, has a limit for storage - roughly an unbelievable seven gigabytes!
Gmail allows you to create an unlimited number of folders, and in one folder alone, I have over 3500 newsletters. Being in the PC repair business, I get an unbelievable amount of Technical newsletters, service bulletins, etc. every day. Gmail allows me to save them so that I may reference them later if I need to.
Also, you can download 'Gmail Drive' that allows you to store up to 7 gb of files, pictures, even music and video right in your email account - just be sure to back it up as with anything, free or not.

hmed elnil
October 17, 2010 10:47 AM

to theservice find

MJ Buttrey
July 5, 2011 9:24 PM

I must be one of the few who were able to recover from being locked out of my gmail account. When checking my email, I got several bouncebacks for emails I hadn't sent--clearly someone had hacked my account. Gmail noticed it at about the same time I did and locked me out. But they gave me an address to go to and answer questions about my account (When did you start using gmail?--Who remembers that?!) After answering a series of questions, they agreed that I was who I said I was and let me back in--with a new and much stronger password. Based on the frequent questions Leo receives from hotmail and other online mail users, I think I dodged a bullet with gmail. And I do back up to Thunderbird!

Charles Tilley
July 20, 2011 9:52 AM

Also, there's another benefit that Leo didn't mention, with GMail, you get to make 100% totally FREE calls within the US & Canada. The only thing you need to do is install the Google Voice & Chat software, that's also free.

And this works with Ubuntu & Linux Mint, as well as Windows XP & up.

One more reason to choose GMail as your email provider. But like Leo says, not your only one.

Charles

Cindy Gioffredi
August 2, 2011 7:12 AM

I use a paid account (AT&T) as my primary e-mail service simply because it holds more than 15 years worth of contact info, communication with many people & groups. Aside from all the data I have tied to that account, I stayed with AT&T (after they no longer provided long distance phone service to my area) cuz they were known as a provider who respected a person's right to privacy & the word was they weren't so quick to turn over records/accout info to the authorities & so on. But they merged with Yahoo & the quality of AT&T (IMHO) is not nearly what it used to be. What used to be a clean website is now full of ads. Many of the really nice features AT&T used to have seem to have disappeared. I now pay for a ReadyNotify account to track my e-mail because when the Yahoo-AT&T thing happened, I lost the ability to set read & delivery receipts on my outgoing mail. & I'm not sure what's happended to their privacy policy. For sure I don't have as much faith in this accout as I used to. Any idea how long it takes to back up 15 years worth data? Way, way, WAY too long. :-) But I've been doing that - archiving everything to my local drive so it's backed up with everything else & I'm going to start using my G-Mail account more. G-mail is way more cell phone friendly then AT&T also. My phone came with a built in link to G-Mail. I can use Web Access to get to AT&T, but to actually "set it up" on my cell I have to input the incoming, outgoing pop servers, bla,bla etc. & of course that info changed when AT&T & Yahoo got married. I work with computers all day & the last thing I want to do is configure a dang phone for an e-mail account at the end of my day when I get home! & AT&T customer service? Puh-lease. When I have to call them, the 1st thing they ask is what state I'm calling from. I tell them & they respond by saying they do not service my state. so then I tell them they DID service my state 15 years ago & that I STILL have a paid e-mail account with them. Round & round. Call this number, that number . . . Last time I contacted them it took 4 hours to get the expire date changed on my credit card cuz the autopay didn't go thru & they threatened to close my account. Yeah, I'm up with G-Mail! Definitely going to spend some time checking it out in detail. I can just see it now (& it's not a pretty picture!) - I call AT&T for assistance setting their account up my cell & the 1st thing they ask is what state I live in . . . HA. I think NOT! AT&T is gettin a thumbs down from me.

Jerri Harris
February 1, 2012 5:53 AM

Leo I'm a little taking aback by your comments about how wonderful Google Gmail is. Do you get paid to endorse Gmail? Why else would you recommend a Email service that half the time you can't even sign on to. Everytime you open a Gmail acount they automatically disable your account after two weeks. You have to send them a email from another email address asking them to restore you gmail account. Makes sense right?? I have talked to at least six other people that have had this BS pulled on them. Now they are harassing me about where I'm signing on from. No mater how good you claim a email service is it's no good to you if can't even sign on. Jerri Harris

No, I'm not paid to endorse Gmail. As long as I've been doing Ask Leo! (8+ years) I've never heard of the problems that you describe more than occasionally, and it almost always resolves to an issue on the persons PC - malware, corrupt browser cache or something else unreleated to Gmail itself. Compared to other free services my experience - including personally as a heavy user, experiences of friends, and the implied experiences of people I hear from asking questions - Gmail is rock solid.
Leo
01-Feb-2012

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