What's the best free email service?

Which email service should you use? We've used the biggest providers including Google, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo! Here we reveal the best free email service

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  • Google Gmail
  • Microsoft Outlook.com
  • Yahoo! Mail
  • Apple iCloud
  • GMX Mail
  • AOL Mail
  • Verdict
  • More stories
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Best free email services: Google Gmail

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

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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

Best free email services: Outlook.com

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.

Best free email services: Yahoo! Mail

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.

Best free email services: Apple iCloud

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.

Best free email services: GMX

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.

Best free email services: AOL Mail

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.

Best free email services: Verdict

If you use Windows 8, Microsoft Office, Surface and a Windows phone then Outlook.com 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. 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.

Microsoft and Google offer so many services that it is almost impossible not to have accounts with both of them and the question is which one to use as your main email account. Both have an excellent range of features and it is mostly down to personal preference which one you choose. Some people won’t use Gmail because they think Google spies on them, but other people dislike Outlook for various reasons too.

However, nearly a billion people use Outlook.com and Gmail and that’s because they offer excellent services and great features. Is one better than the other though? The reality is that they are equally good. I’ve had accounts with both since they launched and have rarely had a problem. Both get a Recommended award.

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