Some of us wake up to and go to sleep from our email accounts. They are both a blessing and a curse. Others (far more, we're sure) do the same with texting. Except in specific circumstances, we'd rather not be tied to texting, preferring a phone call if it is important to chat. We talk much faster than we text and we can actually look around at the world while we talk, but in texting you re glued to the device the whole time. But we digress. What we want from an email service is security, reliability, ease of access, a minimum number of features (this differs for most of us), customizability, storage capacity (if we save emails, which most people do to some extent), and so forth. Some folks want it accessible by cell phone while others have no need for this. Some want POP3 access while others want IMAP andd still others want both. In other words, there is a huge universe of wants out there, and luckily there is a large variety of providers to choose from.
The listing below is not at all close to being definitive. We know of several dozen other email providers that offer free versions. But in evaluating these we have to suscribe and use them for a while in order to describe them. All listed below offer a free service, but most also offer paid service(s) with more bells and whistles.
We began evaluating these over four years ago, so some of the descriptions may be dated (although we try to update them as we can). What we wrote below was true when we wrote it, but programs and technologies change and in some cases profoundly. For example, four years ago we rated gmail above Hotmail by a hefty margin. Today Hotmail is Outlook.com and it far exceeds what gmail currently offers. So things change.
One thing we can say for sure is that there are many free email choices. Below are some of them, and the list is growing.
AOL email has come a long way, tied for third place behind Gmail and Inbox for security, features and user friendliness. You no longer have to have an expensive AOL ISP account to get AOL mail. AOL now supports AOL, AIM and customized domain name addresses, unlimited storage space, 25 MB attachments, both spam and virus protection, spell checker (boy, is THAT needed!), transfer your address book and emails from your old email account, calendar, notes, AIM integration, WYSIWYG HTML composer, games, and all the expected features of a quality email provider.
Systems: All browsers, most email programs
DCemail is a basic webmail service with 1 GB of storage, 25 MB file attachment limitations, basic spamming and virus protection, personal calendar and address book, and registered email. Inbox folders and message filing is just like Outlook, but saved messages are deleted after 60 days of inactivity. Email interface includes limited, non-intrusive advertisements.
Systems: All popular browsers
FastMail is an Australian commercial email service with a free option which provides a limited but adequate subset of their services. They provide both encrypted and normal email, basic spam and virus filters, collection of your mail from other POP3 email boxes as well as Outlook.com, customized "From" address, and extremely fast loading pages. They are comparatively weak in several areas, foremost from our viewpoint are very light spam, malware and virus protection, no black/white lists, the inability to import adress books, no calendar, RSS reader or notifier, and limiting storage to 25 MB and attachments to 10 MB. There are advertisements on the interface and occasional ads in email, but these have been minimized. The account is free in perpetuity unless you do not log-in every 45 days. FastMail was recently acquired by Opera Software and we expect improvements.
Systems: All popular browsers
The folks at Google know how to do many things right, and we rated their Gmail as the second best of the free email services. Gmail provides about 8 GB of disk space (this increases frequently) and allows 20 MB attachments. You can access your account either with a browser, a POP3 email client or a mobile device, create folders and custom filters, create or import an address book, search mail, set an auto reply, set personal signatures, view emails in a conversationally linked window, and topically sort mail. The program has spam, virus and phishing protecton, black/white lists, image blocking, restricted automatic downloads, a WYSIWYG HTML composer, plain text editor, spell checker, calendar, notifier, customizable home page, instant messenger, and RSS reader. Gmail is ad-supported, and ads are context-relevant to the email you are reading. We find this preferrable to the senseless ads pushed by some services. Currently, graphical ads are not allowed, which is also a blessing.
Systems: Internet Explorer 7+, Firefox 2+, Google Chrome, Safari 3+, Opera 9.5; there is limited functionality with Internet Explorer 5.5+, Netscape 7.1+, Mozilla 1.4+, Firefox 0.8, Safari 1.3 and some other browsers.
Outlook.com / Hotmail
Outlook.com, formerly Hotmail, is one of the most subscribed to webmail services in the world and is supported by Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Oper, and Android-based browsers; we are not sure about other browsers.
The conversion of Hotmail into Outlook.com is long, complex, and well beyond the scope of this description, but worth reading about if one so desires to know such things. However, the final result that we see today is by far the most well-endowed and versatile webmail program in the world as far as features go. It gives one a mini-Office Outlook with some of Office's most useful programs accessible to any user without having to carry it all as resident programming. Being cloud-based, Office Online opens essential features of Microsoft Word, Excell and Powerpoint documents attached to email to the recipient, and when we say "opens" we mean not just reading but editing abilities too. Further, Skype integration is fully implemented in some countries and is expanding as we write this. But that is just a part of what Outlook.com permits. Online storage, photo and image editing and sharing, social media sharing, and so much more make Outlook.com the best webmail experience out there.
But at its core it is still a webmail program, with IMAP, POP3, some SMTP, DeltaSync, Microsoft Exchange support. Possessing most of the features of Office's Outlook is just the begining. Outlook.com offers conversation threading, active quick-view, one-click filters, inbox sweeping, up to 10 alias addresses, labeling categories of messages or senders, instant hover actions, huge attachments, and much more..
Where Hotmail had some serious security issues in the past, Outlook.com has had few. And Microsoft has a privacy code that leaves gMail in the dust---it does not scan emails or attachments for advertising information and personal conversations are entirely ad-free (paid version).
In summation, we now rate Outlook.com as the best webmail choice, bar none. If you want to read more about it and its features, there are many sources but Wikipedia's "Outlook.com" article is a good starting place.
Systems: Just about everything (but not sure about Safari)
Hushmail is based in Vancouver, British Columbia and well-known for offering PGP-encrypted email and storage and SSL access, although the free storage is only 2 MB. Web access is by desktop, laptop, notebook, iPhone, Blackberry or other mobile device. Spam and virus protection combined with white/black lists are standard, but hidden IP addresses in the message headers are a bonus. The main draw to the service is privacy. The small storage allotment encourages you to upgrade to a paid plan, but the free allotment might be manageable.
Inbox is a mighty surprising email service. Since we had never heard of it before we started hunting down, signing up for and evaluation email services, we were completely taken aback by this entry. It starts with 5 GB of email storage (2 GB outside the US, UK and Canada) plus 5 GB of online storage, up to 30 MB attachments, absolutely stellar spam blocking, antivirus, notifier, conversational message viewing, and archival search engine. It comes with applications for changing the viewer's skin, reading the news, playing games, downloading screensavers, sending e-cards, managing a photo album, and HTML and plain text composers. Of course you can create folders for your email, but you can populate them based on sorting your email by the from, to, subject, message body and attachment fields. Finally (we are sure we left out a dozen features!), you can program your from address to appear as if it originated from another email account you own (Outlook.com, Yahoo) and all replies will be addressed to that email addy but will be delivered to your Inbox.com account. Very cool. It doesn't have everything but it sure has an awful lot. Specifically, it lacks mobile access and an instant messenger, both of which we could live without, but we do wish it had an RSS reader and built-in protection against phishing emails. But best of all, it doesn't assault us with ads -- especially graphic ads -- and that just fills us with amazement.
Systems: Internet Explorer 6+ for Windows, Firefox 1+ (any OS), Netscape, Mozilla, AOL, Camino, and other Gecko-based browsers (any OS), Opera 8+ (any OS); partial support for many others (see website)
We have had a Lycos email account for about 16 years and have always considered it to be bare bones email, and yet we like the service because we accept it for what it is. It provides 5 GB of mail storage, adequate spam and virus protection, address and domain blocking, image display blocking, restricted automatic downloads, basic folders without filters, and little else. But (and this is important), it comes without ads, and for that we keep it as one of our several accounts.
Systems: Just about everything
Would you like an email address of (yn = yourname) firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or any one of 245 other domain names? Mail.com offers these and unlimited storage, basic spam and virus protection, address blocking, organizing folders, contacts transfer from other services, address book importing, auto replies, spell check, calendar, notes, and games. Naturally, this free service is ad supported.
Systems: All browsers
Mail2World offers a wopping 2,000 domain names to personalize your identity and over 500 internet themes and skins to personalize your email experience. It offers unlimited storage space, bookmark and contacts importing, calendar, notifier, and support for very large (40 MB) attachments. Security features are impressive: full spam and virus protection, customizable filters, and secure, online storage of your contacts. The service is ad supported, both in the inteface and in messages. You must check in every 30 days to keep the account.
Systems: Just about everything