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.
I look for three things in an email provider:
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)