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.
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Most email services have been around for years, but if you think you have seen it all before, you should take another look. Microsoft recently morphed the dated Hotmail into the modern Outlook.com and added several new features. Yahoo! Mail underwent a redesign not long ago and now looks newer and smarter.
Google frequently makes tweaks to Gmail, Apple has iCloud and there are smaller players like GMX with a solid service. Let’s take a look at these services and see how easy it is to switch and whether it's worth it.
Best free email provider: Google Gmail
Gmail has a lightweight, minimalist design for speed and most of the screen is taken up by the inbox. Unlike the other email services, you cannot view the inbox and an email at the same time, which some people don’t like.
Another 'Marmite' feature is the lack of folders. Instead, you can create labels, such as work, personal and family, and then manually attach them to messages or create filters to apply them automatically. Clicking a label lists the messages tagged with it.
If you know the right commands to enter into the search box, and they aren’t obvious, you can do some clever filtering not possible with rival services. For example you can search for "email@example.com has:attachment" to see all messages from Jim with attachments.
There are several inbox types and Classic just shows messages in date order. Gmail automatically places messages into Priority and Important categories and either of these can be made the default inbox, with 'Everything else' below. It's a good system which works well.
Labs (which you'll find in Settings) provides add-ons, such as the ability to preview addresses which appear in emails as Google Maps and there are many Chrome extensions for Gmail, too, so there's an incentive to use Google's web browser as well.
Recent updates to Gmail include a new Compose editor that enables you to simultaneously browse and write emails, adding Calendar events from emails, and quick action buttons.
Menus, emails and adverts all merge into one. Choosing a theme besides the default helps, but Gmail isn't about looking pretty. Some people don’t like the way Google targets ads by looking at email content, which is fair enough, so Gmail may not be your first choice if you're really concerned about privacy.
Mail from other POP-based email accounts can be forwarded and contacts imported, so switching to Gmail is painless. Google's free email may be harder to learn than rivals, but it's worth the effort.
It’s hard to make Gmail look good, but it has lots of great features
Best free email provider: Microsoft Outlook.com
Outlook is the new Hotmail and it has a smart, modern look. It uses a traditional three-pane display (like the Outlook application) and on the left are folders including Inbox, Drafts and Sent. You can create your own folders for storing work emails, newsletters and so on.
Most of the screen is taken up by the inbox and preview pane. You rarely need to open an email because messages can be selected in the inbox list and the preview pane shows the contents. Some people prefer this way of working to Gmail’s.
There are several ways to organise emails and keep your inbox clean. One is to drag messages to folders. Another is to define filters that automatically sort incoming mail. There are quick views that list all the unread emails, those with picture or document attachments, flagged messages, bills and several other categories.
Messages can be archived, which moves them to a folder, or flagged so they appear in quick views rather than the inbox. You can move or deletes all messages from a sender, or all messages older than a certain date using 'sweep'.
If you get junk mail, Outlook can try to unsubscribe you from the sender. Usually it's best not to reply to any junk email as this flags your address to the sender as a 'live' account that's in use.
Outlook is bang up to date and is packed with features. You can add other POP-based mail accounts and import contacts from Facebook and elsewhere, which makes it easy to switch. You can work online in a browser, the Office Outlook application and Windows Live Mail, and there are Windows 8 apps, live tiles and notifications.
Outlook focuses on organising email and keeping the inbox clean
Best free email provider: Yahoo! Mail
This email service has been around longer than most and is regularly updated. The latest design is clean and simple. There are adverts, of course, but then you'll be hard-pushed to find a free email service without them.
There are three tabs for the inbox, contacts and calendar. More tabs open when you read or write emails. As with multi-tabbed web browsing, it can be useful to have multiple tabs when using email too, so you can compose a message while looking up information in another or searching your inbox.
A traditional three-pane display is used and on the left are folders including Inbox, Sent, Drafts and more. Below the standard folders is space to add your own so you can organise messages into categories such as work, sales, personal, eBay and so on.
Most of the screen is used to display the inbox or currently selected folder and below this is a preview pane. When you click on an email it is shown in the preview, so there’s usually no need to go to the full view. Messages 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 messages. Menus under the tabs provide access to all the functions.
Other email accounts can be added and contacts imported from Facebook, Google and CSV files. This makes it easy to switch to Yahoo! Mail.
We like Yahoo! Mail, but Google and Outlook.com offer more.
Yahoo! is good, but others offer more and it struggles to compete
Next page: iCloud, GMX and verdict