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What's the best free email service? We compare the top 6 providers

Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo, iCloud, AOL and GMX compared

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

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