3 Great Gmail Alternatives

Jacco Blankenspoor

Introduction

Gmail is probably one of the most popular email services around. But it has some major drawbacks: the most obvious being that the webmail client shows targeted ads around your mail. Even more important, you can’t use your own domain unless you are willing to pay $49.95 a year.

What I do like about Gmail is how easy it is to setup on your mobile phone. It doesn’t matter if it’s an iPhone, or an Android (duh). Just hit the Gmail icon on your phone and within seconds you’re good to go. And you can use Gmail Calendar to sync your appointments across all of your devices.

It also has an excellent spam filter, allows for both POP and IMAP access, has tons of filter options (including the dreadful tabs) and a very stable connection.

But this all doesn’t make up for the fact that you can’t use your own custom domain. Any professional company should not be using a ‘mycompany@gmail.com’ email address. But $49,95 a year is a lot, especially when you are using multiple email addresses (because yes, this price is per account!).

So let’s look at some Gmail alternatives. Preferably free or low priced, and definitely allowing for a custom domain. IMAP access should be standard, same goes for webmail. And it would be nice it you could use an integrated calendar.

Outlook.com used to be a great alternative to Gmail: No ads, practically unlimited storage and email accounts all with your own domain. But they canceled the custom domain service, in favor of their paid Office365 product.

After wading through dozens of email providers, I came up with this final selection: Zoho Mail (the only free alternative), Rackspace Email and plain old regular hosting. Turns out the combination of free/low pricing and a custom domain is a rare one.

The free alternative: Zoho Mail

Zoho's inbox

Let me start by saying that if you don’t plan on needing more than 10 user accounts (or 25 if you refer 3 other customers), Zoho Mail will be your best choice.

I just love Zoho apps. I’ve reviewed their CRM and accounting products before, and they all have the same business model: tons of features with a generous free plan, and even more features for the (quite cheap) paid accounts.

Zoho Mail comes with 5 GB of storage per account, offers an integrated calendar, tasks and notes apps and even comes with 5 GB of shared docs storage. It has a webmail interface that’s nothing special, but easy to use with a number of basic setting. You will also have to specify an admin account, which you can use to select some overall settings.

Zoho's settings page

You can use IMAP and POP use filters based on email addresses, content or priority along with unlimited email aliases.

Setting up is easy, just point your MX records to Zoho Mail, add a SPF record and you’re done. Zoho even checks if you did it correctly so no mail is lost. You then just fill in their POP or IMAP server details on your devices

It’s only downside is the spam filter. I am using Zoho for a number of clients, but a decent amount of spam is still coming through. You can’t change anything in the filter itself (like raising the threshold). Your only option is blacklisting domains, which is a tedious and useless task.

The feature set for their free plan is very extensive, sufficient for small business and freelancers. It even comes with support, along with excellent support documentation.

Basically the only reason to upgrade is when you need more than 25 user accounts, or more storage. At $2.50 a month per user it’s still a steal compared to most paid providers though.

The paid alternative: RackSpace Email

RackSpace won’t be the first or even the second company you think of when it comes to hosted email. But they built a pretty decent Gmail alternative. It’s not free, but it’s not as expensive as you might think either.

RackSpace Email is priced at $2 a user per month, and comes with 25 GB of storage. But to be honest, that’s not really a special feature.

What is special is their 24x7x365 support, especially since you can get an instant response by phone or chat. And they provide an 100% uptime guarantee (compared to Gmail’s 99.9%), which at least ensures maximum effort to keep your email coming in.

RackSpace's email inbox

RackSpace Email offers both POP and IMAP access, and offers a simple webmail interface (you could also call it easy to use). It offers the same filtering option as Zoho Mail. Nothing fancy but it gets the job done.

The real surprise is in the Contacts and Calendar screens. If you don’t mind using webmail, you can have access to shared calendars and contacts.

RackSpace's shared calendar

Shared calendars are not common with hosted email providers, but they’re very important to have if you are running a sales or support team with leads or tickets to follow up.

These features, combined with excellent reliability and support, make RackSpace Email an excellent alternative. If you want to go really fancy you can even get Hosted Exchange for $10 a user per month. But the regular email product will do the trick for most of us.

The Do-It-Yourself alternative: Good ‘ol web hosting

Most people think of regular web hosting when it comes to hosting email addresses. But with some very advanced webmail clients nowadays you can practically build your own Gmail alternative for a few dollars a month. In most cases you can use as many domains and email addresses as you like.

While most hosting companies offer POP, IMAP and webmail in their default packages, this doesn’t mean you can just sign up where ever you want.

Truth is many hosting companies don’t really like hosting email, since it’s quite easy to have your IP range labeled as spammy if you attract the wrong customers.

There’s also a difference between secure (SSL, which is prefered) or non-secure IMAP/POP access, and basic or advanced webmail clients.

So you have to do a bit of research. But when you do, you can find some very interesting options.

For example for one client I wanted to use server side filtering of emails. While this might seem easy (most hosted email providers offer it), this isn’t the case with the most popular webmail apps.

Squirrel inbox

Popular webmail clients like Horde and Squirrelmail require a plugin to perform this task. This means a web host has to support it, and most of them don’t.

This seems like a trivial feature. But if this is what your client is looking for, you just might end up moving the whole domain to a different provider if you current one doesn’t support it.

The only downside is that most webmail clients don’t offer any type of calendar functionality. Some of them offer plugins for this, though, but again your host has to support it.

All I am saying is that you need to be sure that you get what you need before signing up. But when you do, I hope you agree with me that using regular web hosting is a pretty good Gmail alternative, at very low cost.

Conclusion

With this article I wanted to present you with three very different Gmail alternatives. Zoho Mail seems the most obvious one, and probably is the best alternative if you need just a few accounts.

RackSpace Email is a very cost-effective alternative. RackSpace has an excellent reputation when it comes to support and reliability, and its pricing is very competitive.

Doing it yourself by using regular web hosting is a very viable and cheap alternative, as long as you use a decent hosting company. Just make sure you do your research first.

Let me know in the comments which option your prefer, or what you consider the best Gmail alternative.

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  • http://amitgupta.in/ Amit Gupta

    > Even more important, you can’t use your own domain unless you are willing to pay $49.95 a year.

    I think the price varies from region to region. I just checked & it shows me ~$25/user/year on Google apps.

    > Popular webmail clients like Horde and Squirrelmail require a plugin to perform this task.
    > This means a web host has to support it, and most of them don’t.

    VPSes have become quite cheap these days. You can easily head over to Digital Ocean & spin up a 512MB RAM 20GB VPS for $5/month and then install whatever you want on it. For those looking to host their own email solution on the cheap, Zimbra has a community edition which is free & its UI is quite good & it has calendar features etc as well. Not sure about its anti-spam filters but I think it should have above avg quality plugins.

    • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

      Hi Amit,

      that’s quite a lower price for Google Apps. I couldn’t find anything lower than $49,95. Which region are you checking?

      Regarding VPS: Yes, that’s indeed a low cost alternative. Self hosting can go many ways, and Zimbra is quite a good alternative.

      • http://amitgupta.in/ Amit Gupta

        > Which region are you checking?

        India

        • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

          That’s a nice discount :-)

  • Pierre Gambarotto

    Good product for self hosting : SOGo http://www.sogo.nu/
    It is a great solution for shared calendars

    • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

      That’s what I love about these article, it always generates tons of useful comments. Thanks!

  • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

    Hi, me too :-) But, they did change this indeed, but no for current users.

  • Jude Aakjaer

    This changed in 2012 – http://googleenterprise.blogspot.com.au/2012/12/changes-to-google-apps-for-businesses.html Glad I’ve still got a few free ones floating around!

    • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

      Yep, that’s it. No mention of losing the custom domain functionality though. Their reasons to make this chance aren’t really valid either. They list some benefits of their paid accounts, but none of these warrant the loss of using custom domains. In other words, they made it the primary reason to switch, but covered it up with some other extras.

  • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

    Hi, it’s definitely a work-around, thanks. I wonder though if this doesn’t make your Spam rating go up too much, since changing the “from” field to a different domain should give you some negative points.

  • http://dada.theblogbowl.in/ Shaumik Daityari

    Hi Jacco,

    As usual, a nice one :)

    What I do for The Blog Bowl is slightly different. GMail allows you add aliases to your account, which let you send email as some other email. Basically, I set the custom domain emails on Zoho, set a forwarding to GMail and whenever required (with a filter and tag to sort it), I reply through my alias.

    Although it’s through Zoho, I open only my primary GMail ID every morning!

    • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

      Hi Shaumik,

      thanks! I believe you are using the same route as Andrew described below, only with Zoho instead of custom hosting. Just curious, if you’re already using Zoho too, why go the Gmail route? Do you like it thát much?

      • http://dada.theblogbowl.in/ Shaumik Daityari

        I was already accustomed with GMail. Just didn’t want to use a different one for business. Thankfully, Zoho has an efficient forwarding.

        I do agree that Zoho apps are wonderful to use with loads of features in the free account.

        • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

          I see! Zoho had indeed some nice management features to get this working. Thanks!

  • Chris Frost

    I’ve been using FastMail for a few years with my own domain, it’s been great. I have multiple address and they all get filtered to wherever I want them to go. Loads of options for configuring it how ever you like. I was surprised not to see it in this blog post. They don’t have support for calenders though, was cool to see that from Rackspace.

    • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

      Hi Chris, Fastmail was considered, but I choose RackSpace instead. I found their pricing too high for the same amount of storage (+ RackSpace has the calendar functionality). But good to see you are that pleased with Fastmail, thanks!

  • http://www.downloadcrunch.com/ Sainik Biswas

    I use ZOHO Mail for all my clients who will need at least 10 accounts. One of the biggest advantages I have is that although I am running a small web company, I can stilll guarantee my customers mail as good as close to gmail on their custom domains for free upto 10 users. But ZOHO too becomes very costly when upgrading to paid plans. Other than ZOHO I like the OX Mail by OpenXchange.

    • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

      What I really don’t like about their pricing is that when you add account nummer 26, all your previous 25 accounts become paid instead of staying and paying only for additional accounts.

      OX looks cool, but pricey as well. Is it still for small businesses?

  • http://www.ericlin.me Eric Lin

    Zoho is great, but I am lucky enough to get my personal email address hosted on Gmail before they decided to charge for fees.

    • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

      I agree, it’s perfect solution if you got in on time. Would even pay a few dollars a year for the custom domain functionality :-)

  • John Thomas

    Im using this theme for Zoho Mail.. Very cool.. http://userstyles.org/styles/100076/new-zoho-mail

    • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

      Yep, looks a lit like Gmail :-)

  • Mincă Daniel Andrei

    I didn’t saw anything in here about Thunderbird, which is a great tool for managing multiple emails, I got 5 emails connected on it and it’s working perfectly. Plus, I’ve added an addon to minimize to system tray, and I’m getting my emails while working.

    • http://www.trivial.ly/ Nic Johnson

      Thunderbird is a client, not a host. It is excellent though.

      • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

        Yep, thanks for clarifying!

    • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

      When it comes to client, I prefer Outlook. Used Thunderbird in the past, but never liked the layout (or I was too lazy to change it ;-)

  • Ryan Hellyer

    I have my own domain name and don’t pay a cent for it on gMail. I simply set it up with a forwarder from my domain host, and all of my email lists my new domains as the “from” address. Problem solved.

    Technically I’m not hosting my own email, but in practical terms, it doesn’t seem to make any difference.

    • Andrew Evans

      Exactly what I do. The only disadvantage I can see is that some recipients see ‘via myusername@gmail.com‘ after my preferred sending address.

      • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

        Hi! Do you notice that some receivers see that as well, and still mail you on your Gmail account itself?

      • Andrew Wasson

        I also setup my mail client to use GMail’s SMTP and my email address is registered in my GMail account as an alias address. I haven’t experienced that issue.

        • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

          Maybe it’s only in the header if you know where to find it?

    • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

      Yep, this has been suggested a few times, should be a workable alternative. I guess the spam filters works properly as well this way?

      • Ryan Hellyer

        I’ve been doing it for many years now, and never noticed any problems with spam filters. It all seems to work as expected.

        • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

          Perfect! So this route combines alternative #3 (own hosting) and Gmail itself, thanks!

          • http://wakinggirl.com Gertie Kawleweski

            Except that Google just discontinued this option. HELP!

    • Eric Nord

      Unfortunately, this isn’t always a reliable solution. I think it depends on what domain host you are using. I’ve been having problems forwarding from Dreamhost. In general, it works well, but often there are long delivery delays and when that happens there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

  • Ezra Sharp

    A small note that Rackspace email requires a minimum of 5 mailboxes, so that takes it from $2/month to $10/month

    • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

      Thank you for adding this, since I didn’t mention it in the article. But you are totally right, it appears when signing up for a new account.

    • Roman

      And so the price for this “low cost” alternative is $120 per year, which doesn’t compare well with Gmail’s $50.

      • Ezra Sharp

        Of course the difference there is that with Zoho you get 5 separate email addresses you can send and receive from. With Gmail, you only get 1 with unlimited aliases, but you can still only send emails on 1 email address.

        • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

          Hi Ezra, someone did mention that it’s possible to send under different aliases, so you’re not stuck to choosing one of them. But I could be wrong in this, never used it myself this way.

  • http://www.trivial.ly/ Nic Johnson

    Spam filtration is a big deal for me and Gmail rocks at it. My vote still goes to Gmail.

    • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

      Yeah, the spam engine is excellent, almost no false negatives and it’s pretty up-to-date.

  • CTN

    I will never abandon gmail, no matter how many articles you write.

    • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

      Hi, this is not written to encourage you to abandon Gmail. It’s a great product, but if you’re a new user and want to use a custom domain, Gmail is rather expensive.

      • Roman

        $50 a year is expensive?! Perhaps, one should just switch to delivering pizza.

        • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

          Compared to what you’re getting (and considering the cheaper or free alternatives), Gmail is expensive.

          • Roman

            Cheaper than your “low-cost” Rackspace mail, as someone has pointed out.

        • Roman Jakobsun

          I assume that for some startups it is. And for non-profits (Google Apps are offered for free only in USA, UK)

  • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

    I thought I replied, but I can’t seem to find my comment. Yandex looks nice too, thank you for the tutorial.

  • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

    Office 365 is competitively priced, but can be a bit over-kill for just hosting email with your own domain. Great product though!

  • Roman Jakobsun

    Hi, I’m on Mac and I’m still using mail client Sparrow, unfortunately it doesn’t get Junk directory. As I’ve found out lots of “good emails” went to “junk folder” on Outlook, you can check Microsoft support forum, there are lots of complaints (of course it is hard enough to setup your own mail server, but it doesn’t matter just because Gmail can handle easily with such problems: the same letter goes to Junk on Outlook and passes on Gmail). So as you mentioned before, yes, due to Junk folder auto cleanup I’ve lost some emails.

    • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

      Ai, that’s just wrong. Strange they don’t fix it, it’s not that they’re now to this game… Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

    Hi, Gmail sure has an excellent spam filter. I guess there’s a difference between the “real” Gmail app, and setting up Gmail as an email account on your phone (the latter allowing for custom sender). But great to see this added benefit!

    Regarding the pricing, yes, it seems a lower pricing would be more appropriate.

  • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

    Unfortunately I didn’t use RackSpace as a customer, only for testing purposes so no feedback on their spam filter. But maybe a reader can chime in?

    • http://www.sundco.com Mark Sund

      Next time we have a Google Apps-averse client, we’ll set them up with Rackspace email. It might be a couple months – hopefully I will not have forgotten this discussion and will report back on Rackspace’s spam filtering.

      I see a bunch of other comments here about the good spam filtering with Google Apps – that has definitely been our experience.

      • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

        Hi, would be great, hope the comments are still open then :-) Gmail has perfect spam filtering indeed, very up-to-date.

  • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

    Thank you for sharing the Resello link and I sure hope Zoho is reading this :-)

  • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

    Hi, you are right if you put it this way. But what if you run a site and you want to have a sales@, info@, customerservice@ and maybe even a jacco@ email address? That’s 4 x $50 a year for mailboxes that won’t even come near 1 GB storage, let alone 30 GB each. There are ways to work around this (with aliases), but even considering all the benefits it’s still expensive given the fact you are using less than 1% of it. I’m not saying it isn’t worth the money, but these can be costs you might want to avoid.

    • http://wakinggirl.com Gertie Kawleweski

      Totally! Or, if you’re a web designer with over 100 clients who each has 1-100 email addresses! Then $50 is a lot! :)

  • https://zoho.com Bala Ganesh

    Hi Jacco, I am Bala from Zoho. Nice review and thank you for your recommendation :-)

    Regarding the Spam emails, I believe that the Organization Spam processing may be disabled for your account. You will have to activate it to avoid spam mails coming through. You will find the option in Control Panel >> Org Settings >> Turn ON Organization Spam Processing.

    • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

      Hi Bala, you’re welcome.

      Regarding the Spam filter, I was pretty sure I turned it on, but I made sure it is now. But shouldn’t it be turned at default when someone signs up, to be sure?

      • https://zoho.com Bala Ganesh

        By default, the Spam filter will be enabled. It will be turned off only if the Admin disables it.

        • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

          Hmm… Don’t know why it was off then. Anyway, thanks for responding, it seems to be working properly now :-)

  • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

    Hi Matt,

    you’re right about Roundcube, it’s better looking and it the 3rd option along Horde and Squirrelmail most of the times.

    Zimbra is a great tool, but may be a bit over the top for just mail :-) I heard of Atmail before, seems to be a great alternative so thanks for adding!

    The route you mention for Gmail is the one costing money nowadays, by using custom domains. It has indeed a great webmail solution.

    Thanks!

    Jacco

  • Camilo

    Thanks for the recommendations. Started using Zoho today and it looks pretty good, it was also very easy to set up (lot’s of steps, but for someone with no technical skills it was fairly easy).

  • NealDisqus

    Hi Jacco,

    Thanks for a very well written article.

    Based on the comment from the Zoho rep (where you realized that your spam filter was inadvertently turned off) has that changed your opinion of Rackspace vs. Zoho spam filtering?