No doubt you already have an email account. Who hasn’t? The question is, would you be better off switching to an alternative service?  Just as you might switch gas, electric and insurance companies in order to get the best deal, perhaps the time is ripe for you to change your mail provider.

Most email services have been around for years, but if you think you’ve seen it all before, you should take another look. Hotmail is a distant memory: Microsoft has moved its users to Outlook.com, and has worked hard to steal Gmail users with its scroogled campaign (scroogled.com).

Mail is probably Yahoo!’s most successful division and millions of people rely on it for their messaging. Google frequently tweaks Gmail, Outlook.com is integrated into Windows 8, reviewed, Apple has given iCloud (and therefore Mail) an iOS 7 makeover, and there are smaller players including GMX and AOL with solid services.

This is not just a five-minute look at popular services, I’ve been using Outlook (Hotmail) for 15 years, Yahoo! for 10 years, and Gmail for 7 years. I have 10,000+ emails stored on these services and use them all daily.

The question you’re asking is which is best? Are alternative email service providers such GMX, iCloud and AOL Mail better than the big names? You’ll find the answers right here.

Best free email services: Google Gmail

Rating: 5/5

Gmail has a lightweight, minimalist design for speed 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 and 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 email, and arguably more effective.

It takes some 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 more interface themes these days, and an option to use any image you like for the background. It’s never been pretty, but it’s looking better these days.

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.

Email from other POP 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 excellent.

Gmail free email
Gmail looks better than it used to and new features are added regularly

Best free email services: Microsoft Outlook.com

Rating: 4.55/5

Microsoft should stop attacking competitors (Google), and simply tell people how good Outlook.com is because it really does have great features.

The 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’s Mail app. There are lots of clever features if you dig around and the only criticism is that sometimes Outlook.com a bit slow.

Outlook.com free email
Outlook focuses on organising email and keeping the inbox clean

Best free email services: Yahoo! Mail

Rating: 4/5

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.

Yahoo! free email
Yahoo! looks good, and the interface allows for several different views

Next page: iCloud, GMX, AOL Mail and verdict

Here we continue our mini roundup of free email services

Best free email services: Apple iCloud

Rating: 3/5

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 iCloud email.

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, 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.

iCloud free email
iCloud in a browser is like Mail on an iPad and looks like iOS 7

Best free email services: GMX Mail

Rating: 4/5

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.

GMX free email
GMX’s multi-tabbed display makes it easy to browse and compose email

Best free email services: AOL Mail

Rating: 3/5

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.

AOL Mail
AOL Mail’s bright theme and a large advert are visually distracting

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.

Best free email services: comparison table

  Gmail Outlook.com Yahoo! Mail GMX iCloud AOL Mail
URL mail.google.com outlook.com mail.yahoo.com gmx.com icloud.com mail.aol.co.uk
Import POP mail Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
Import contacts Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
Filters Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Email aliases No Yes Yes Yes Yes No
Vacation response Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Conversation view Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
Score 5 5 4 4 3 3