Overview of six of the best free e-mail providers

Two billion e-mails are sent everyday around the world – a truly remarkable amount of electronic post. Even in the current era of instant messaging, social media and video calls, it is hard to imagine e-mail not being the go-to mode of communication for everyday business. Given the continuing success of e-mail, it is no real surprise that there are countless numbers of free e-mail providers out there. Sending and receiving e-mails should not have to cost anything, and free e-mail providers are particularly popular among private users. Where to get the most free storage space and the highest security standards, as well as what other features are offered by these six providers, can be read here in our overview.

Gmail

When it was launched in 2004, the e-mail service from Google shook up the whole industry: For the first time in history of free e-mail, a provider offered users an inbox size of 1 GB. This marked the beginning of a head-to-head race between free e-mail providers as to who could offer the most storage space; a race that still continues today. In line with this, the launch of Gmail, has also seen storage space become a decisive factor in this competition. The result of this is that more free e-mail providers, along with larger inboxes, are also offering cloud services when it comes to file storage. This means that Google can now offer a total storage capacity of 15 GB across all the connected Google services, including Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Photos. The maximum size of e-mail attachments has also increased in proportion to this growth, and now stands at 25 MB.

In terms of layout and ease of use, Gmail has an interface with a very similar orientation to other e-mail providers like Outlook and Thunderbird. This has been the case since its origin, despite it being browser-based. Back in 2004, this was seen as quite revolutionary. Now it is possible to individualise the interface; for example, it can be designed with personal photos. In addition to this, tabs can be adjusted as required. Even the size of different elements can be set up as preferred.

A further advantage of Gmail is its perfect integration into the Google universe: along with both Google Drive and Google+, Google Hangouts is also very handy. With this you can chat with friends within Gmail and have video conversations with up to ten people – and this across multiple devices as well. Furthermore, there are also apps for use with Android and iOS devices. Additionally, it is also possible to access your inbox via the POP3 as well as the IMAP protocol.

One of the main downsides of Gmail is data protection. Google is often criticised when it comes to data protection, due to the alleged blurring or even softening of their own guidelines. Google currently scans the contents of e-mails received and sent via Gmail. Through this it can help them to deliver target advertising to Gmail users. Google claims that this scanning also helps to identify and sort spam mail. But it is also the case that, according to the company, a SSL/TLS encryption, will protect e-mails better in the transfer between a browser and the Gmail servers. However, this does not mean that your e-mails will be encrypted end-to-end, just as the content of the mails will not be protected – but only during its transit to the server. This is fairly normal for the listed free e-mail providers.

Pros Cons
15 GB storage space Data protection policies vague
Integration into the Google universe Server locations unclear
Many possibilities re. settings and personalisation  
Clear and well-organised user interface  
Apps for Android and iOS  

Yahoo Mail

Just like with Gmail, Yahoo Mail is another free e-mail provider with huge amounts of storage space – a record-breaking 1000 GB (i.e. 1 TB). This has meant that deleting e-mails is very much a thing of the past. The flip side, though, is that there is no cloud storage service offered. Occasionally it is possible to use a corresponding save function as part of Dropbox, but doing this requires a separate Dropbox account. This then must be linked with the Yahoo account.

In addition to this, Yahoo Mail offers many options when it comes to personalisation: layout, order, and the mail preview function can all be adjusted, as well as the design of the inbox. Alongside features like a messenger, and apps for both iOS and Android, there are also POP3 and IMAP protocols, as well as an ‘adaptable’ spam filter. According to Yahoo, this filter blocks more than 15 billion spam e-mails daily. On top of this, this free e-mail option allows you to implement a so-called ‘disposable’ e-mail address. This is basically an anti-spam mail measure, which you can use to register with the likes of online stores, mailing lists, forums, etc. without having to disclose your actual e-mail address. Once this e-mail address is no longer required it can be easily deleted. This feature means that the amount of undesirable e-mails received is substantially decreased.

In terms of data protection, Yahoo Mail has similar shortcomings to Gmail. According to the privacy policy, all communication (e.g. e-mail and messenger content including IM and SMS messages) will be analysed, with the aim of creating advertisements that are tailored to individuals. For the transfer of mails between the browser and the Yahoo server, the free e-mail provider uses a SSL/TLS encryption

Pros Cons
1 TB storage space for e-mails Cloud storage only available via Dropbox
Easy implementation of a ‘disposable’ e-mail address Content of e-mails analysed for advertising purposes
Integrated spam filter Locations of servers unclear
Apps for Android and iOS  

Outlook.com

For a long time, ‘Outlook’ was the name of the Personal Information Manager (PIM) developed by Microsoft. It is part of the whole Microsoft Office package. But since early 2013, the very similar sounding web e-mail service ‘Outlook.com’ has replaced Microsoft’s previous free e-mail software ‘Hotmail’. With Outlook.com, Microsoft now provides serious competition to the free e-mail providers such as Yahoo and Google.

The first and most important advantage is its perfect integration into the Microsoft universe. By simply registering on Outlook.com, you will have access to other services offered by Microsoft. These include the video call and chat service Skype, the cloud storage service OneDrive, Office Online, and OneNote. Thanks to the presence of office interfaces, Outlook.com is also suitable for more complex work environments, and even comes with a similarly intuitive and trustworthy user interface. With regards to storage space, Outlook.com is on a similar level to Google’s Gmail service: With over 15 GB, there is more than enough space for all e-mails. A further 15 GB is available for files of a different kind with Microsoft’s integrated cloud storage solution OneDrive, which is available for free. And if you link your files via OneDrive, a further 10 GB will also become available.

Another handy feature is that Outlook.com – just like Gmail and Yahoo Mail – offers both POP3 and IMAP protocols for the retrieval of e-mails. This means, for example, that inboxes can be synchronised, even on mobile devices. Apps for all common mobile devices, including Windows tablets and smartphones, are also available.

All of this is free on Outlook.com. However, there is also the possibility of switching to a fee-based premium version. In this version, the advertisements usually seen in the user interface are no longer visible. Also on the topic of advertisements – according to Microsoft’s privacy policy, these advertisements that do appear are not personalised based on the content of mails. Instead, the software uses data like your location or your internet surfing habits based on cookies. In relation to the privacy policy the Microsoft website states: “Some of Microsoft’s services are supported by advertising. To show ads you’re more likely to be interested in, we use data like your location, Bing web searches, Microsoft or advertiser web pages you view, demographics, and things you’ve favourited. We don’t use what you say in e-mail, chat, video calls or voice mail, or your documents, photos or other personal files to target ads to you.”

Something that is still unknown, however, is the server location. Similar to the previous two free e-mail providers outlined above, Microsoft maintains its server worldwide. This means that the exact location of the files is as unclear as with Google and Yahoo.

Pros Cons
15 GB e-mail storage space Microsoft based mainly in the USA – all data protection subject to American laws
15 GB cloud storage space with OneDrive Server location unknown
Clear and accessible design  
MS Office interface – perfect integration into the Microsoft universe  
Apps for Android, iOS and Windows  

GMX

GMX mail has two domains: GMX.net is the German version, while GMX.com is for English, French, and Spanish speaking users. GMX is not as well-known as the free e-mail providers discussed above, but still conveniently manages to meet all your basic e-mail requirements. One of the biggest selling points for GMX is its unlimited storage space – indeed, the software has come a long way since its offering of only 5 GB. Another major upside of GMX is its integration with Facebook. This feature means that GMX can attain contact data from Facebook, so that all your friends’ e-mails (provided that they are publicly listed) can be added to your contact list automatically. This has the potential to save quite a bit of time.

GMX is an ad-based e-mail service. This means that the interface features advertisements for products and/or services. But it must also be noted that the inbox itself only features one advertising widget. And according to the GMX privacy policy: ‘GMX may use the personally identifiable information collected by GMX to contact customers regarding products and services offered by GMX and, to the extent the user has agreed to it, by its trusted affiliates, independent contractors and business partners. We may also use this information for research purposes regarding the effectiveness of our website services, marketing, advertising and sales efforts. Except as outlined below, GMX will not in any way share this information with a third party unless you specifically authorize such disclosures.’ In terms of security, GMX is slightly different to the other major well-known e-mail providers, in that it does not provide its users with the option of using a multi-factor authentication. This leaves an account vulnerable to the danger of logins from unauthorised devices – if the user’s password somehow finds its way into the wrong hands.

GMX has both POP3 and IMAP4 support, and it is possible to read e-mails from other e-mail accounts (e.g. Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Outlook.com, etc.). As with the other free e-mail providers, GMX has an integrated spam filter and provides its users with an app for both Android and iOS. The simplicity and basic interface are one of the main positives of the GMX e-mail provider – and this does not affect the speed or security of the e-mail service, as it has been shown to process e-mails as efficiently and as securely as its highly-ranked competition.

Pros Cons
Facebook integration Not two-factor authentication (2FA)
Unlimited storage space Slightly unclear user interface – also features advertisements
Apps for Android and iOS  
Access to other e-mail accounts through this one  

AOL Mail

Many years ago, America Online was one of the biggest e-mail programmes, but it has since slipped down the ranks and is no longer one of the most prominent e-mail services. However, this does not mean that it isn’t an adequate free e-mail provider.

A while back, AOL realised the need for it to offer more. This lead to it releasing AIM (American Instant Messaging). AIM offered 2 GB of free storage, which was seen as a huge amount of space at the time. Today, the web portal offers unlimited storage space.

AOL Mail gives you the option of choosing the strictness level of your spam filter: Low, Medium, or High. AOL themselves recommend setting it to ‘Medium’, as they find that that is the right level of security without the risk of losing any important mails to your spam folder.

Another very notable feature of AOL mail is the ‘My Address’ feature, which allows users to choose their own domain name instead of just having your e-mail address as example@aol.com. What this means is that if you have your own domain, you can set it so that your AOL mail is then routed through this address (e.g. example@yourpersonaldomain.com). Additionally, it is possible to add up to 100 people to this domain, meaning that your colleagues, employees, etc. can also all use this domain as their address, too.

AOL offer an app for both iOS and Android, but it must be noted that this app is not specific to e-mail. Instead, it brands itself as ‘AOL: Mail, News, Weather & Video’, meaning that alongside your e-mail inbox, you also will have access to the day’s headlines, weather, and trending videos. This free e-mail provider also supports both POP and IMAP protocols. Unfortunately, AOL mail does not offer the function of importing contacts from social media accounts.

Pros Cons
Personalised e-mail addresses – and add up to 100 people to your domain No importing contacts from social media
Unlimited storage space App not specific to e-mail
Apps for Android and iOS  
Choose level of spam filter – Low, Medium, or High  

Zoho

Zoho is an e-mail service aimed at both private users and businesses. The free package is therefore aimed at individual users, and while being quite basic, still manages to cover all the major criteria that you might look for in a free e-mail provider.

Zoho, similarly to Microsoft, offers a whole range of software programmes. Alongside e-mail, they also offer instant messaging, a writer, calendar, document sharing, as well as several other features. Together these are known as the ‘Zoho Workplace’. The fee-based packages start at less than £2 a month with the Standard package up to the Enterprise package which costs around £6. Between these two is the £4 a month Pro package, which according to Zoho, is actually the most popular package. In a nutshell; the more money that you spend on a package, the more storage space you get and the more MBs your attachments can be. Outside of this, you will also have access to additional features as part of the Zoho Workplace.    

One major upside of Zoho is that it is completely ad-free. The software seems to pride itself on this fact, stating in the ‘Features’ section of its website that: “this means total respect for user privacy as your messages are not scanned for keywords to feed you ads. However, freedom from annoying ads is not the stand-out feature in Zoho Mail.” This in turn provides a certain peace of mind when it comes to security and privacy policy.

In terms of storage space it offers 5 GB space and a maximum e-mail attachment of 20 MB. The storage is all cloud-based and there is also the option of Dropbox integration. Security wise, the software requires two-factor authentication. Fundamentally this is a free e-mail provider, but given that it also has a range of fee-based services, the basic, free of charge version will be restricted in certain ways. Unfortunately, none of the packages offer the possibility of automatically integrating contacts from a social media account or accounts. This must be done manually.

Pros Cons
Access to whole Zoho workplace Limited storage space – free version
Two-factor authentication Contact list – no social media integration
No advertisments displayed  
No scanning of e-mail content  
App for Android and iOS  

E-mail encryption

When comparing these free e-mail providers it becomes quite obvious that high security standards are pretty high on the list of priorities. At the same time, SSL/TLS encryptions are part and parcel of such providers. Anyone looking to secure their communication even further should also consider installing the e-mail encryption from PGP. This will also protect the content of e-mails. With the help of browser add-ons (e.g. Mailvelope), it is possible to achieve end-to-end encryption    

Provider Gmail Yahoo Mail Outlook.com GMX AOL Mail ZOHO
Inbox size 15 GB incl. Cloud 1.000 GB 15 GB Unlimited Unlimited 5 GB (all Cloud)
Cloud storage 15 GB incl. Inbox Only via Dropbox Further 15 GB 10 GB 10 GB See above
Max. size of attachments 25 MB 25 MB 25 MB 20 MB 25 MB 20 MB
POP3
IMAP X
Server location Worldwide Worldwide Worldwide Germany USA Worldwide
Apps Android Android Android Android Android Android
iOS iOS iOS iOS iOS iOS  
Windows Windows Windows Windows