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

People often use free email providers for critical data only to lose everything when a problem occurs. So what do you look for in an email provider?

I get that you strongly recommend against using free email accounts for important stuff. But that, then, begs the question: which paid email providers with full features do you recommend?

A fair question. There are many approaches that I do recommend, depending on your specific situation.

I need to explain what I'm looking for, first. Then it's just possible we'll find that you already have what you need.

What I Look For

I look for three things in an email provider:

  1. Portability - can I take my data to a another provider if I so choose?
  2. Reliability - can I connect, and does it work consistently?
  3. Support - if I have a problem, is there someone to help me?

Portability

"... portability means using a desktop mail client ... to download my mail and use a contact list that I control and maintain on my machine."

Portability is probably the most commonly undervalued, and in my mind, perhaps the most important of the three. To me, portability means using a desktop mail client like Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird or others. This allows me to download my mail and use a contact list that I control and maintain on my machine. This allows me to control how I backup my mail and contacts, and allows me to switch to another provider in the future should I so choose.

In a nutshell, that means my email provider must provide SMTP and POP3 (or IMAP) access to my email. Services that maintain my information only on their servers and are only accessible via their web interface are unacceptable.

In recent years, free email services have improved in this arena. Google's Gmail was one of the first to provide POP/SMTP access, and Hotmail eventually followed. Other free services may, or may not provide this, may only provide it in certain areas, or may only provide this after a paid upgrade.

Reliability

Reliability is fairly obvious to most folks. What good is an email provider if they don't work? This includes not only connectivity, being able to even connect to your email provider, but deliverability as well. If your email provider is preventing you from receiving the email you requested, for example, due to over aggressive spam filtering, that could quickly also become unacceptable.

One of the most common complaints about some free services is email deliverability. This applies in both directions: the inability to receive email that is sent to you, as well as the email you send never making it to its destination. Once again Gmail seems to be in the best position among the free services. Gmail also has, by far, the best spam filtering technology.

Support

Support is by far the biggest issue I have with many of the free providers, but it holds for many paid providers as well. If I have a problem, will you help me? Can I find a person to address my issue? Is there a phone number to call?

Tied in with reliability, this means helping me with connectivity issues that might come up, account recovery from hacking and malware, and of course, dealing with issues related to missing email and spam.

There's a boatload of other "features" one might consider, including a web interface, customizable spam filtering, mobile access, high mailbox quotas, sub accounts, and so on. To me, these all pale in comparison to the Top Three: portability, reliability and support.

Recommendation: your ISP

OK, so what email providers do I recommend?

For the average user, I would start with your ISP. You're already paying good money to someone to connect you to the internet, and by definition they have customer service. (Whether it's good or not is something you'll have to evaluate - and if unacceptable, let them know, and then switch ISPs.)

Most ISPs include at least one, if not several, email accounts with your connectivity package, and they're almost always SMTP/POP3 accounts, and often already include some kind of web interface as well.

If you need more accounts quite often your ISP will provide them for a small additional charge.

In probably about 95% of the situations I hear of here at Ask Leo!, I'd advise first looking to your ISP.

Email Hosting Services

If for some reason you can't use your ISP, then there are many companies that do provide email hosting. A Google search on "email hosting" turns up many providers, typically targeting the small business market.

A Different Recommendation

Many people, after signing up for a free email service - or even using a paid email service such as that from their ISP - are shocked to find out that the email address they've shared with all their friends and contacts ties them to that service forever.

Changing your email provider almost always requires changing your email address. Want to leave Hotmail and move to Gmail? Say goodbye to your old @hotmail.com email address.

There is a solution; it's a solution that I highly recommend for businesses, and even recommend for individuals in search of a more permanent email address that they can continue to use regardless of what email service they choose to use.

Own your own domain.

Instead of having an email address @hotmail.com or @gmail.com - or even @yourisp.net - have one @yourowndomain.com. If you own "yourowndomain.com", then your email address is yours as long as you pay the annual registration fee.

For example, I own "pugetsoundsoftware.com", and I probably will until I'm no longer connected online. I control the email addresses that are available on that domain, and I choose whether to "do" the email service myself, or what email service I choose to use.

I could even run it all through Gmail for no additional charge.

Many domain registrars also provide email hosting services. For example, GoDaddy has several plans, and might be one of the first places I would recommend looking into should you want to go this route.

Particularly if you are running a business I strongly recommend you purchase your own domain name, and then at a minimum use the services of your registrar to establish email accounts (again, via POP3 and SMTP using your desktop mail client) on that domain. That way, even if you change everything else, as long as you own that domain name, the email addresses on that domain need never change.

If You Must: A Free Recommendation

Finally, one of the alternatives that meets most, but not all of my criteria is free, and that's Gmail. Gmail's a valid alternative, if you use it properly and you don't care that your email address is and will always be functional only as long as you have that Gmail account.

What do I mean by "use it properly"? Only two things, actually:

  • Use Gmail's POP3/SMTP interface and use it with your desktop email client. Only use the web interface as a convenience - perhaps when traveling.

  • Along those same lines, don't create or rely on contact information in Gmail's web interface. Use the contact/address book functionality of your email client.

The primary criteria that Gmail doesn't meet is support. Not to say that it isn't there - it is, in the form of an extensive FAQ and user support forum. But you won't find a phone number, and it's unclear just how responsive their on-line support request form will be when you finally do find it. Remember - it's free, and you're getting what you pay for.

Take Responsibility

In all cases, be it your ISP, an email provider, a domain registrar or even when using Gmail "properly" you are taking responsibility for your email. First and foremost that means you need to be backing up your email and contacts yourself, regularly, in case of loss. One might think that the free and on-line services would do this for you, but based on what I see here every day - people regularly losing all of their email, or access to their free email account entirely and permanently - that's clearly not the case.

(This is an update to an article originally published October 30, 2006.)

Article C2824 - August 18, 2010 « »

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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.

Not what you needed?

36 Comments
Mark
October 30, 2006 5:54 PM

Leo,

As a student, and a person not tied down to an ISP,I like your suggestion about GMAIL. But I have a suggestion for people more strongly tied to the net interface (those of us who have a home computer, but live at the school computer labs for example), is to simply use an email client to make the occasional backup on your home machine. You use Thunderbird or what have you, and get a basic copy of all of your email. You then would also simply use the export function to get a separate copy of your contact lists. You work from the web interface, but you still have a decent backup. It's not as clean as simply sticking with an email client, but I think it's an alternative.

Bill Holland
November 3, 2006 6:36 PM

I have been using netaddress.com for over five years now. I've found them to be very reliable and dependable. They have increased their services periodically. Though I don't use all of the services they provide, I like knowing that they're out there, ready for me when I need them.

Zack Martin
December 28, 2006 7:35 AM

I have now been with Bigstring for 2 years and after their recent upgrades its something to check out. They offer email tracking which is huge for my sales job as well as being able to recall, erase, or destruct a message before or after it has been read. I think its pretty cool.

Kasuan
June 8, 2008 3:42 AM

Iam looking for an email addresses where my
correspondence can be secured.

diyer
August 13, 2008 9:54 PM

GoDaddy is NOT a good choice. They do NOT offer IMAP. I know, because all my accounts are with Godaddy, and I noticed this problem recently after trying to set up my Nokia E71 email client.

I am now looking for alternative email hosts (Paid) that offer IMAP support, which is essential when using different devices to access email (PC, Laptop, and mobile phone).

Doug
October 2, 2008 5:49 PM

Thanks for an informative and candid discussion. I'm in the midst of transitioning email accounts and find this to be the best presentation of options I've found anywhere.

Denise
October 7, 2008 5:19 AM

I recently started with a new provider, MyPTSMail. They meet the three standards Leo talked about, Portability,Reliability and Support. They have IMAP and POP access and a Webmail Interface, and the email is filtered, but they have tech support by phone which is what drew me to them. I like to talk to someone if I have an issue.

DAVID WRIGHT
November 26, 2008 3:17 AM

I was happily using Hotmail and blocking the banner ads with Adblock successfully. However since the change to Windows Live, Adblock has become ineffective. I find the banner ads really annoying. Anybody any suggestions?

Tom Collins
November 27, 2008 6:39 AM

Hi,

For the last two years i have been using a company i found during a google search - www.UkMailExchange.com. i can access my email via webmail, Outlook and my mobile phone. But i am aways looking for alteratives so let me know if any one has found anyone better / cheaper.

Andrew
December 1, 2008 3:54 PM

I've been using http://www.fastmail.fm for about eight years now, who also have IMAP and POP access; a webmail interface, with e-mail filering, and good tech support.

Larry
July 17, 2009 8:08 AM

I truly dislike using an ISP for and email account. The problem is portability. When, not if, you chnge your ISP you lose your email account.

MIKAEL MYTOU
January 2, 2010 12:37 AM

http://www.fastmail.fm/

Larry Benster
June 4, 2010 5:41 AM

To the person who wrote:

"I was happily using Hotmail and blocking the banner ads with Adblock successfully. However since the change to Windows Live, Adblock has become ineffective. I find the banner ads really annoying. Anybody any suggestions?

Say, I have used Sponsored Ad Blocker to block all ads from all the email sites, including many others, such as dictionary. Sponsored Ad Blocker if free. However, Super Ad Blocker, is a paid version. Currently I stopped using Sponsored Ad Blocker, due to the fact that I know how to use my hosts file now, in order to manually block out those [edited] advertisers. I have learned more and more about how to manually protect my computer from invaders, and taking the time to respect yourself and learn how to use a computer is important I feel. I feel that atomic bombs and computers are not toys and should not be in the hands of common savages.

So, all regular websites that I go onto now, I have simply researched the "Webpage Privacy Policy...", and determine what I need to see on the page and what I don't, and I simply manually block those [edited] advertisers from ever downloading into my computer in the first place in my hosts file.

So many sites nowadays claim to now be spies, yet they freely allow advertisers on their websites that are spies. Go figure. Nowadays, I view advertisers not only or organized crime, but also they are a detriment to a liberty-based private society in "free nations". Online voluntary surveillance has become the popular norm nowadays with the [anti-]social networks of Fakebook, Twister & MySplat. There may be no hope for anyone on the internet in the near future.

Ken B
August 19, 2010 8:15 AM

It still amazes me how many times someone gives me a business card with their own domain name for a website, and a yahoo.com (or gmail, aol, hotmail, etc.) e-mail address.

Me too. I just shake my head. It's wrong in so many ways. Particularly: Why is using Hotmail for my business such a bad idea?
Leo
19-Aug-2010

Al Simons
August 20, 2010 5:25 AM

Thanks for the great summary, Leo.

Another consideration for choosing a mail provider, which is probably only interesting to the geekier portion of your audience: Does the provider offer you control of the amount of filtering performed before you see the mail? I exchange technical email, much of which can appear similar to spam or phishing attempts. I left GoDaddy for 1and1 to host my domains (websites and email addresses) because GoDaddy had a fixed set of email filters which they do not customize. More accurately, that they did not customize when I left about two years ago; things may have changed. Nor did they offer the ability to whitelist / blacklist email from arbitrary users and domains. For me, this inflexibility made GoDaddy an inappropriate mail host. Other hosting services including but not limited to 1and1 offer filtering, but offer you control of that filtering. My addresses have filtering turned completely off; my wife's address' filtering is turned up fairly high.

Richard K
August 24, 2010 9:13 AM

Over the last few years many universities probably for affinity reasons give graduates an e-mail for life. So if you graduated from "Great University" they may have a program that you can get an e-mail ex. me2006@greatuniversity.edu". These addresses are free, last forever, are portable, have fairly good access and you only have to receive the occasional e-mail from the university.

Reid
August 24, 2010 12:42 PM

I agree with Larry that using your ISP email is a bad idea. My father, brother and others I know have done this, then later got bitten when they switched ISPs, a common occurrence for those looking to save money. They simply lose their email address! They're novices and don't know how to salvage their emails, contacts, etc. when moving to another provider -- that's not novice stuff.

And Leo, advising people to use their ISP email breaks Rule #1, Portability, that you just got done describing in the previous paragraph! Sorry, but this is the first time I've disagreed with you and have to say, bad advice.

Fair enough, but I still refer ISP mail (with support) over free email accounts (without). In either case changing providers - be it email or ISP - you lose your email address. The only way to truly get one you can keep forever is to own your own domain.
Leo
27-Aug-2010

Pete B
August 24, 2010 3:02 PM

Leo,

Great article - thanks.

I have just changed ISPs after many years - what a great inconvenience to update my registrations at numerous (50+) web sites.

I did look at buying my own domain, but couldn't work out how to handle e-mails without paying for hosting as well. So I now have an ISP and a gmail account.

Can you expand on your throw-away comment that with your own domain, e-mail could be run through gmail at no extra charge, as that is the part I though would be an ongoing expense that I was reluctant to pay.

Keep up the good work.

Thanks

That took a new article: How do I route my email through Gmail?
Leo
27-Aug-2010

Chris
August 24, 2010 5:58 PM

Hi Leo,
Excellent article, and for an email junkie such as myself, it's pushing me towards consolidation of my existing email accounts. I used to use AOL Mail for it's functional IMAP access until an enormous glitch prevented me from accessing the account for nearly three days straight, three days in which I could not access my bank account due to the fact that my bank didn't recognize my laptop. (It does this since it did not recognize the IP of the laptop.) Of course, this was "free" AOL Mail, from which I have completely extricated myself. Gmail is okay, too, but I would caution that users use at least 12 characters in their passwords from now on. Additionally, "secret" phrases or answers to questions should be something they only know, nothing that can be sought out in the public domain. Like, for instance, your father was named "Robert" - public knowledge.

Mike
August 25, 2010 12:24 AM

While you may still have to pay for a host server to maintain your own domain's email, there are several that offer a $0 option that's well-served for simply handling email. A search for "free hosting" will turn up many of them.

Michael Horowitz
August 29, 2010 9:46 PM

An important point that was not mentioned is security. POP, IMAP and SMTP all come in secure and insecure versions. Most email providers offer both versions, but I suggest verifying that whatever provider you are considering offers the secure versions of email. You may not care today, but its likely you will care in the future.
Note: this has nothing at all to do with HTTPS, which can be used for secure webmail, but is not an email protocol.

By the way, I have email addresses at *many* different domains and the spam filtering ability offered by different email providers is quite varied.

Bill Mann
August 30, 2010 9:28 AM

Leo gives good advice about using Gmail's POP/IMAP interface with a desktop mail program. If you want to set this up with Outlook as the desktop program, check out these links:

for Outlook 2003 & 2007:

http://www.living-with-outlook.com/gmail-outlook.html

for Outlook 2010:

http://living-with-outlook-2010.com/emailaccounts/2010/08/use-pop3-or-imap-for-your-gmail-outlook-connection/

Robert Cervone
August 30, 2010 10:48 AM

Nice article. I always thought it was strange how people take email for granted, despite its significance. I used to use Hotmail, never again. Spam overload and as someone said their ads are annoying. Also tried GoDaddy, but after a series of messages inexplicably went missing, I left. Been using www.pobox.com for a year and they've been great. Meets all 3 criteria and really like that I have someone to call and interface with.

James
September 8, 2010 3:25 AM

They simply lose their email address!

For going on 20 years, through three ISPs, I've kept my email address by having all email forwarded by ACM, which has a pretty good spam filter. Of course, you have to be a member, but surely there are other such services. I also have a Gmail address, mail sent to which is also forwarded; but I don't use it much.

T. C.
January 21, 2011 8:12 PM

Good article. Everything I read reminds me of what Bluetie email has to offer. This email company is outstanding! Their customer service is the best I have ever dealt with. I will never leave this company!

I have no idea if this is spam or not - I've never heard of BlueTie - but could be ok so I'll leave it. I just find it ironic that the commenter used a gmail.com email address.
Leo
22-Jan-2011

JR"
January 23, 2011 4:18 PM

I would NOT recommend mail.com, now owned by AOL. Was once a great provider; for a low fee of $10 per year could have no spam and ads-free email accounts.

AOL took over in January 2010, with no notice to customers, and deleted all my group contacts and mail sitting in my "trash" folder, which I used as a holding bin and occasionally had a need to reference.Had I known they would delete without warning, I could have filed and saved. Could never help me recreate the group lists. Could not./would not locate the deleted items. Today support is terrible- always with an automated response, which you must respond to in order to have a human read your tech. problem. So it takes 2 emails before a human reads about your issue. Usually then it is still not resolved. No phone support.
Site access is also down occasionally- about 6-7 times last year with no explanation.

Now must also log in on a page that is not always secure-must click EVERY time to get an SSL log-on, even though I pay $20 per year for a "premium" account. And log-in screen often takes several clicks to go, presumably to make you look at the scrolling "news/entertainment" feed which plays on the log-in screen. Premium users used to have a no-add log in page.
Would love a long-term alternative that is not gmail, yahoo, or hotmail. Suggestions?

Email Hosting
May 5, 2011 4:18 PM

I totally agree that support is by far the biggest issue when implementing and using a hosted email system. If your email hosting provider cant offer 24x7 support then you re are putting your business at risk. Since nowadays a day of work lost only based on an email system's technical failure can cost the company a big loss in terms of business and profits..

Hosted Email
May 5, 2011 4:20 PM

If this can help, have a look at this page..

http://www.rackspace.co.uk/email-apps/email-hosting/microsoft-exchange

akhil
May 28, 2011 12:37 AM

I want to receive new mail alert through sms immediately. There are many useful mail landing my yahoo id. Rediffmail has such facility but there is time difference in sms. Yahoo also have such facility but my mobile and sim card is not supported. Can you provide such facility.
A. K. Tamboli

Josh
January 4, 2012 2:22 PM

Recommending to use your ISP email is flat out bad advice. What happens when you would like to use a different ISP, well you likely lose your email account that is what. Use a rock solid free hosting like gmail, or hotmail. Wouldnt use yahoo because AFAIK doesnt support POP/IMAP without premium package...

Based on the questions I get here, I would never ever use the phrase "rock solid" to refer to Hotmail. Never. Gmail is a reasonable approach these days, but it does still suffer from many of the same limitations of free email providers.
Leo
06-Jan-2012
Duncan White
March 17, 2012 3:18 AM

Hi Leo,

What is your opinion of fastmail.fm as a paid email provider?

I wish it could be in Japanese, but apparently not.

Thanks,
Duncan

Rob L
April 10, 2012 1:37 PM

How about this for email heaven:

1. Use your own domain for emails.
2. Host it with Google Apps, so you get Gmail, Calendar and Docs free
3. Use Gmail to fetch email from your old email accounts at Hotmail, Yahoo, ISP, etc, heck you can even still use them through the Gmail interface using the 'send mail as'. I have my 5 domains and 5 Hotmail/Yahoo/AOL accounts this way, and everything works perfect. No need to tell people my new email address if I don't want to.

Job done.
Of course, some of us are weary about Google, thats fine, but if you want something remotely resembling free Google Apps, you would have to pay $$$$ or (££££)

Kurt M.
May 30, 2012 11:45 PM

@Duncan regarding FastMail...

I've used FastMail for a number of years now and I would highly recommend the service. However, I would wait and see if the rumor of Facebook buying Opera Software, the parent company of FastMail, is true or not. If Facebook buys out Opera Software, I'm seriously considering switching to HushMail.

Martin
February 4, 2013 11:56 AM

After being a solid gmail user, I now use thexyz.com and have never been more pleased with my email service. I get my email instantly pushed to me, even on iphone and they are reliable. I was not sure about paying the $3 a month but really worth it.

Kurt Stryker
February 16, 2013 5:12 PM

I use a paid service, $20 yearly, called usermail.com. I have had my email with them for ten years and their email offering is perfect if you are a light-to-moderate email user.

1GB free storage, 50MB attachments, modern web-based access or client-based access, IMAP and POP access (both over secured SSL), inbound mail scanned for viruses, mobile access, and NO ads.

I think in a decade there was a total of about three outages, one of which was related to an upgrade and that was expected. Otherwise, the service is always available when I need it.

The best two features are support and spam filtering. Support requests are personal, in English, and helpful. Spam filtering, server-side is very good, but they also offer an interface for intermediate and advanced users to customize spam filters using many, many levels of criteria.

I do believe they will be offering tiered storage plans for extra storage for heavier/pack rats.

The great part is I have changed ISPs about four times and my Usermail.com address followed with me; no changing emails or notifying contacts of a change.

bob D.
March 19, 2013 3:05 PM

Leo is talking about freebies as he lists them,
i agree as to all of them being bad news most of the time, and or too convoluted to use effectively, except yahoo

yahoo still has admin and management probs but no tech probs to speak of altho their problem solving is done via a program which to use you have to be an outer space cowboy..... but if you stick with their tech solution progr, eventually it gives you what you seek.......
i dont like hotmail because their folks are rude,
nor google because you have to be an astro-nut to use their signup progr and then are wide open for they snooping into your acct, windows itself is nice but their email etc is too convoluted and ought be a simple method to use but is not
---- so with whatever adverts come with yahoo i am happy as a duck, if the email i send is worth saving i put cc: to my acct or to a second acct and there i put that cc into a file where it is not subject to the inbox fooling around by hackers
--- altho i hate to argue with Leo i bet those fancy domains where you pay them for zilch are not foolproof either and equal to e.g. even bad news hotmail as to glitches etc.....and i bet i get better protection from yahoo than from any of those for hire
---- me? am gonna stick with yahoo until they turn to mush......................

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