8 best free email service 2016

If you're looking to switch from Gmail or Outlook, then there are plenty of alternatives for your web-based mail. We compare some of the best free email services available in 2016, including Zoho, Apple iCloud, Yahoo, and privacy focused Tutanota

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  • Zoho Mail
  • Google Gmail
  • Microsoft Outlook.com
  • Yahoo! Mail
  • Apple iCloud
  • Tutanota
  • GMX Mail
  • AOL Mail
  • Verdict
  • More stories
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The best free email services 2016

Although Zoho has been around for a few years now, its Mail suite recently underwent a redesign and the results are impressive. While you can happily use Zoho as a standalone web-mail service, the real strength and focus of the suite is teams and small businesses where you collaborate with other users. With this in mind there are several features that make this process easier and cleaner than many of its best free email rivals.

Streams is an interesting addition that brings social media style comments and likes into standard email. By tagging other members of your team, or family and friends, they can respond to the original email without having to send an actual separate reply. This cuts down on the long threads that can often result from multiple people discussing a topic, and avoids the dreaded scenario where emails cross each other and get conversations out of sync.

As you’d expect from a modern email service there are the normal tools of multi-layer folders, labels, flag, and filters that allow you to organise your missives into a semblance of order. You also have the option of sharing an entire folder with a colleague if you so desire.

Free user accounts are entitled to 5GB of storage for a mailbox, plus an additional 5GB for documents. This latter amount is linked to the other big selling point of Zoho - its office suite. Just like Outlook, iCloud, and Gmail, Zoho has a web-based collection of software that allows you to create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, alongside an integrated calendar. These are all very good and certainly hold their own against the competition.

One last thing to consider is that Zoho goes to great lengths to point out that it doesn’t spy on your email or scan its content. This privacy is down to the fact that there are no ads placed in the service, and therefore no need to read your mail to discover keywords. The way the company makes money is by offering premium paid accounts with more advanced features. For instance the free version doesn’t support Google Calendar and is limited to email sizes of 25MB, but if you move up to the £2 a month version you get double the storage, Google Calendar, and 30MB email sizes.

If these few restrictions don’t bother you then Zoho mail is an excellent service with plenty of features, solid security, and a thoughtfully designed interface.

Get Zoho Mail here

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Although Zoho has been around for a few years now, its Mail suite recently underwent a redesign and the results are impressive. While you can happily use Zoho as a standalone web-mail service, the real strength and focus of the suite is teams and small businesses where you collaborate with other users. With this in mind there are several features that make this process easier and cleaner than many of its best free email rivals.

Streams is an interesting addition that brings social media style comments and likes into standard email. By tagging other members of your team, or family and friends, they can respond to the original email without having to send an actual separate reply. This cuts down on the long threads that can often result from multiple people discussing a topic, and avoids the dreaded scenario where emails cross each other and get conversations out of sync.

As you’d expect from a modern email service there are the normal tools of multi-layer folders, labels, flag, and filters that allow you to organise your missives into a semblance of order. You also have the option of sharing an entire folder with a colleague if you so desire.

Free user accounts are entitled to 5GB of storage for a mailbox, plus an additional 5GB for documents. This latter amount is linked to the other big selling point of Zoho - its office suite. Just like Outlook, iCloud, and Gmail, Zoho has a web-based collection of software that allows you to create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, alongside an integrated calendar. These are all very good and certainly hold their own against the competition.

One last thing to consider is that Zoho goes to great lengths to point out that it doesn’t spy on your email or scan its content. This privacy is down to the fact that there are no ads placed in the service, and therefore no need to read your mail to discover keywords. The way the company makes money is by offering premium paid accounts with more advanced features. For instance the free version doesn’t support Google Calendar and is limited to email sizes of 25MB, but if you move up to the £2 a month version you get double the storage, Google Calendar, and 30MB email sizes.

If these few restrictions don’t bother you then Zoho mail is an excellent service with plenty of features, solid security, and a thoughtfully designed interface.

Get Zoho Mail here

The best free email services 2016

Gmail has a lightweight, minimalist design (on a laptop or PC) and most of the screen is taken up by the inbox. At one time you couldn’t view the inbox and an email at the same time, but a new ‘labs’ feature splits the view horizontally or vertically with the inbox in one half and the current email in the other.

Folders for organising messages aren’t supported but instead you attach labels, such as work, personal and family. Clicking a label lists all the messages tagged with it. It’s merely a different way of organising and viewing email, and arguably more effective.

It takes a bit of getting used to, but if you know the right commands to enter into the search box, you can do some clever filtering that isn’t possible with rival services.

There are many different ways to view email and the default shows messages in date order. Priority inbox puts at the top messages Gmail thinks are important, and this works well.

Gmail can automatically sort messages by content into primary, social, promotions, updates and forums and these are accessible on tabs. It’s nice to have lots of different ways of viewing email.

There are interface themes for web browsers, and an option to use any image you like for the background. The interface on Android and iOS is slightly different, but well designed and easy to use.

Some people don’t like the way Google matches ads with email contents and the flood of spam predicted by some when Google+ was integrated never materialised. In fact, Gmail is top notch when it comes to filtering out spam.

Email from other accounts can be collected and contacts imported, so switching to Gmail is painless. There are more configuration options than most services and overall, it’s an excellent service which we highly recommend.

See also: How to search Gmail like a pro and find the emails you need

The best free email services 2016

On the web, Outlook's interface is similar to traditional email clients with a folder list on the left, including inbox, drafts, and sent. Most of the screen lists the contents of the current folder, such as inbox, with the option to show a vertical or horizontal reading pane, enabling you to browse the inbox and read emails at the same time.

Like most email services, folders are used to organise emails and adding new folders is straightforward. Messages can be dragged to folders and rules created to automatically sort incoming mail.

A Quick views section automatically categorises messages to a degree, like Gmail’s tabs, but there are more categories. You can also create rules to assign incoming messages to categories too.

Click a Quick view category and you can see all unread emails, ones with picture or document attachments, flagged messages, bills, social networking updates and so on.

Messages can be archived, which moves them to a folder, or flagged so they appear in quick views rather than the inbox. Sweep moves or deletes all messages from a sender, or all messages older than a certain date. If you get junk mail, Outlook can try to unsubscribe you from the sender.

You can add other POP3 mail accounts, import contacts from Facebook and elsewhere, access it in a browser, Outlook, Windows Live Mail and Windows 8 or Windows 10’s Mail + Calendar app. There are lots of clever features if you dig around, and for many people, it's just as good as Gmail. The only critisicm is that sometimes we've found the service to be a little slow.

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The best free email services 2016

Yahoo! has a modern look and feel, and themes are available with plain or photographic backgrounds. The attractive design is ruined by an advert, but you can go ad-free for £30 a year.

There’s a panel with the inbox, sent, spam, trash and other system folders, and a list of email on the right from whatever folder is selected. A preview pane can be added to enable you to browse folders, such as the inbox, and read messages at the same time.

Tabs are optional and when turned on they enable multiple messages to be opened on different tabs, and new messages to be created on a tab. It makes it easy to switch from reading to writing to browsing the inbox without losing the current view. Menus under the tabs provide access to all the functions for replying, moving, deleting, flagging messages and so on.

Clicking Folders on the left enables you to create extra folders to organise messages. They can be dragged and dropped into folders and there are facilities for creating filters that automatically sort incoming mail into the right folders. Messages can be starred and filters created from them to deal with similar ones.

Other email accounts elsewhere can be added so you can see all your messages in one place, holiday responses are available, extra email addresses can be linked to the account and disposable addresses can be created. Contacts with Facebook, Google and other import options, and a calendar is available. It’s good, but Outlook or Gmail are preferable though.

The best free email services 2016

If you have an Apple device, such as an iPhone or an iPad, you will have an iCloud account and email is a component of that service. The web-based version is a bit disappointing and less functional than the mobile versions.

On the iPhone and iPad, Mail can be set up to access other email accounts, such as Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo!, but at the website you only have access to your iCloud email inbox.

In typical Apple fashion, the service is designed with simplicity and ease of use in mind. It has the commonly used three-pane view with email and folders on the left, the inbox listing all the messages is in the middle and the currently selected email on the right. It’s straightforward, easy to understand and looks very nice, but there are no options to customise it. The reading pane can’t be hidden or displayed below the inbox list as it can with Gmail, Outlook and Yahoo!.

Folders can be created and emails dragged and dropped in them. Rules can also be created to automatically sort messages into folders too. Making a sender a VIP adds their messages to the VIP mailbox, which is useful for ensuring you don’t miss important emails (it's iCloud's best feature in our view), but it doesn’t have the custom views that Gmail and Outlook have.

iCloud is a simple email service and non-technical people will love the attractive and easy-to-use interface. Advanced users will find it too limiting. It’s fine for undemanding users, but less useful if you have lots of email to deal with.

The best free email services 2016

Privacy is becoming an increasingly difficult thing to ensure online. If it isn’t hackers getting into mail servers than it’s the government itself pushing through the Snoopers Charter so that it can read your data whenever it wants. To fight back against these infringements on civil liberties you could always plump for a mail service dedicated to encryption and personal security.

There are a number of secure mail services around at the moment, a few of which offer free accounts. Protonmail is possibly the most famous, but due to high demand there’s currently a waiting list for new users. A good alternative is Tutanota. This German company offers 1GB of mail storage for free, with all emails coming back and forth to your device being encrypted at the server end.

Obviously for the most secure transmissions it would be best for both parties to be using Tutanota accounts, but thanks to the use of access passwords you can still converse with non-Tutanota users with little impact on your security or convenience.

The interface is basic but perfectly usable. You are restricted in a few ways, as the optional €1per month Premium account offers things like aliases and mailbox rules, but if you just want a secure way to talk with friends or colleagues then Tutanota does the job. It might not be pretty, but it could turn out to be quite clever.

Get Tutanota here

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The best free email services 2016

GMX Mail is tiny in popularity compared to Google, Outlook and Yahoo!. This has more to do with marketing and promotion than a lack of features: it’s hard to compete with Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!.

A nice feature is the way it can be configured to import Facebook contacts. GMX can also import from Outlook, CSV files and other sources. It can be configured to fetch email from other accounts, including Outlook, Gmail, and general POP3 accounts. This means that it is fairly easy to switch from your current email and it’s better than iCloud in this respect.

The service has a good interface that makes using web mail very similar to a traditional email client running on your PC. It can be customised with themes and the positioning of the reading pane. There are adverts, but they aren’t too distracting.

There is a folder panel on the left for the inbox, sent, drafts and so on, and you can create additional folders. Messages can be dragged from the inbox and dropped into folders to manually organise them, and filters can be created that automatically sort incoming mail. Below the folders list is a Contacts panel. Most of the screen is occupied by an inbox or folder list and a preview pane. You can quickly view emails and messages can be opened in tabs.

GMX Mail has more features than iCloud, and an unusual one is the ability to insert a photo captured live from the webcam and overlay cartoon shapes. It’s fun, and certainly worth a try.

The best free email services 2016

AOL used to be huge. 20 years ago it was the leading internet service provider. That was when everyone used dial-up access and once broadband took off, people’s interest in AOL waned.

It has struggled since, but it’s still around and it still provides a free email service. Unlike other email services, when you log into AOL most of the screen is taken up by a news feed showing the latest headlines. This is a throwback to the days when it was a content provider too.

The news feed is distracting and you’ll find yourself clicking links and reading stories when you should be dealing with your mail. Another distraction is the theme. There are lots to choose from and nearly all contain cartoon-like artwork and there’s only one you would want to use on a work computer. AOL Mail is clearly designed to entertain home users.

You get the usual folder list on the left that includes inbox, drafts, sent and more, and additional folders can be created to enable you to organise and store messages. They can be dragged from the inbox, moved from the menu, or rules can be created to place incoming mail in the appropriate folders.          

In terms of features, it’s similar to iCloud Mail. All the basic features are present, like spam settings, a holiday message, and filters, but you can’t collect email from another account. It does have contacts, events and to-dos though and it is best for lightweight use by home users.

The best free email services 2016

Choosing which best free email service to adopt comes down to a number of factors. If you use Windows, Microsoft Office, and a Windows phone then Outlook makes sense because everything works well together. In a similar way people with an Android phone or tablet using Google services like Docs, Calendar, Music and others, are better off with Gmail.

Zoho offers similar functionality, with apps for both iOS and Android, and the team focused design could be very useful if you work in a small business. Although Yahoo! and GMX offer good email, they aren’t part of a broader range of internet services in the same way. The two least attractive are iCloud and AOL Mail because of their limited range of features. The same could be said for Tutanota, but its heavy emphasis on privacy should see it appealing to those who want to keep their correspondance secure from prying eyes.

For us it still remains a straight fight between Microsoft's Outlook and Google's Gmail. Both are mature products with excellent features and an extended set of software that bring advantages to productivity. At a push we'd go for Gmail simply because we've never experienced any problems in the years of using it, but many would say the same of Outlook too.

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