The Four Best Free Email Services

Email used to be the sole domain of the earthbound office worker, a boring and beige evolution of the fax and the sticky note. These days, email is still pretty boring (hey, we’re not going to lie to you), but it’s also an essential part of online life for anyone with an Internet connection.

Free, browser-based mail is the default delayed communication protocol for most of the planet…but even so, you shouldn’t settle for the first one you come across. Here are four free email services worth considering.

Gmail: The Gold Standard

Come on, you knew this one was coming. Through diligent and tireless evolution, Google has made its default email system the most popular on the web. The service’s internal tools are the equal of older desktop-based programs like Outlook, and its associated Google account will get you into everything from YouTube to Blogger. You probably already have a Gmail account somewhere, even if it’s not your go-to service.

I’m personally a big fan of Gmail’s more esoteric tools. Thanks to its ability to import and manage mail from other POP3 and IMAP servers, and the way it can handle your work account if your company uses Google’s paid apps platform for management, it can be an all-in-one destination for more or less any email you receive. The web interface isn’t the best looking one around, but it includes theme options (plus a custom background), and the multiple inbox feature lets you see multiple accounts and tags at a glance.

The free version of Gmail includes 15GB of online storage at the time of writing, shared with your personal Google Drive and Docs/Sheets/Slides accounts. Extra space can be purchased, if needed, through Drive.

Mail.com: The Dark Horse Alternative

If you’re not enthused by Gmail or the similar offerings from Yahoo and Microsoft, you may be interested in Mail.com. This independent company based out of Germany offers the same free, ad-supported model as most of the other big boys, but a few unique features helps it stand out. Surprisingly, one of these is a lack of personal information required to set up a new account: those who want to keep their digital lives separate from their personal ones will appreciate the option.

Mail.com also offers a variety of domain options, even for free users. This means that instead of MichaelCrider@mail.com, you could choose something like Michael@columnist.com or Michael@writeme.com (or my personal favorite, Michael@elvisfan.com). The web interface is easy to use and mobile apps are offered on Android and iOS, but in order to import mail from external POP3 and IMAP servers, you’ll have to sign up for the ad-free service at $20 a year.

Outlook.com: Built for Windows Users

If you use Windows for your primary computer, like most of the world, you’ll appreciate the tight integration that the OS has with Microsoft’s Outlook.com service, which replaced the popular Hotmail website in 2013. In addition to access on the web and all major mobile platforms, Outlook.com integrates with the free Mail app in Windows 10 and, naturally, the commercial Outlook email management software. On the web, Outlook.com closely mirrors the desktop software, but a recent beta has upgraded to to a cleaner “Metro” interface that’s quite fetching.

The interface includes a “Focused” filter for important messages, document sharing with OneDrive, Dropbox, and Google Drive, and built-in VOIP communication with Microsoft’s Skype service. Outlook’s web interface is ad-supported—a premium option formerly offered from Microsoft is now only available to Office 365 subscribers. These include a storage boost from 15 to 50GB, anti-malware and phishing tools, and an ad-free interface. Office 365 Personal, which includes access to online and offline Office programs, starts at $7 a month.

ProtonMail: For the Privacy Enthusiast

ProtonMail is one of the only free web email services that offers encryption on all messages, standard. Your emails are decrypted in the browser or the mobile app, not on ProtonMail’s servers, which is a huge boon to anyone who’s concerned with snooping from increasingly abusive government agencies and less-than-scrupulous third parties. Email accounts can be created without surrendering any private information at all.

The interface for ProtonMail lags behind some of the more modern designs a bit, but it’s more than serviceable, and apps are offered on Android and iOS. ProtonMail is free and open-source, but its free tier offers only 500MB of storage, which heavy email users will blow through quickly. You’ll also have to pay to use custom domains. Premium plans start at 5 Euro (a little less than $6 USD) a month.

Image credit: Alternativeto.net

Michael Crider has been covering technology on the web since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order. He wrote a novel called Good Intentions: A Supervillain Story, and it's available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.