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March 20th 2014 12:49 am

Sending Gmail to the Spam Folder

Of all the Google services I am kicking to the curb, I actually expected Gmail to be the most painful before starting this experiment (see the meta article for the back story on this series of articles - www.engadget.com­/discuss­/leaving­-google­-eternal­-an...). Surprisingly, though, it has turned out to be the least painful. In fact, I am even liking my new scenario for mail even better than the old "Gmail everywhere" strategy.

The reason I dreaded this shift the most was because I had painful memories of life before Gmail. Back in those days, most of my mail accounts only supported POP, which meant I was stuck checking my mail on only one computer or device unless I wanted a sync disaster. Of course, the solution in those days was to have multiple mail accounts, one for each device, in addition to the "real" account. When Gmail arrived and offered free IMAP support and lots of storage, it was a breath of fresh air. To top it off, the web client wasn't horrible. It wasn't long after setting up my Gmail account that all my other accounts got shut down or rolled into it using the ability to pull mail from other addresses into Gmail.

Having all that already in place before the smartphone revolution happened made the transition to the iPhone, then Android, quite painless. Every new Android phone I bought made me love Gmail even more as I simply entered my username and password and watched everything appear in the Gmail client with no work on my part. The ease of all this made me stick with Gmail, even during its most annoying experiments with user interfaces and features.

Trouble in Paradise

Speaking of annoying experiments, Gmail has been rubbing me the wrong way for the last year or so. Routine changes to the design of the web client and Android client, really quirky means of accessing mail in labels in the web client, this new separation of the Inbox, and the rapidly declining accuracy in Spam filtering have all been like grains of sand in the swim trunks. So, I was already primed for a change before Google started buying up every info gathering company it could find. Although the changes to Gmail weren't part of the reason I left, it reduced my attachment just enough that I was finally willing to do it when the other reasons finally got to me.

At first, I was dreading the move away, thinking again of those bad old days. I started looking at the options, though, and realized that there were at least a few that I could live with in my new drive to be free of companies that used their users as their product rather than the services they provide. I quickly narrowed down to three options, then to two almost immediately thereafter.

Options Worth Considering

I wanted to use my own domain for my email in the future so that I would have portability and never again have to give out a new email address (or, worse, change email addresses in tons of online accounts as I am still doing now). That limited my choices, but there were still a surprising number through which I could do that. After weeding out the companies that I didn't really trust, and looking and asking around, I came down to a final decision between three options: using the mail server included with my web hosting, using mykolab.com so that I would have all the features Gmail offered with a good suite of Linux clients, or fastmail.fm for the known reliability.

Using the mail server included with my web hosting... oh right, never mind: For just a few minutes, I actually thought about using my own since I am on a server hosted at LiquidWeb, and they have good reliability. Then, I remembered my days of running the mail domain at work in Zimbra on our own servers and thought about how much fun it is when your domain gets blacklisted by some other domain. Trying to get your mail domain off a blacklist is not fun. It's even possible to get on one without realizing it, so that your emails to anyone in that domain just disappear with no explanation. This was precisely what drove me to move our mail domain at work to Google Apps for Your Domain in the first place. And while I may be moving my personal mail out of Google, there is no way I am going back to that hell with a domain of several hundred email addresses. So, yeah, strike this option.

Using my domain on top of MyKolab: To be honest, I really wanted to go this route because Kolab looks awesome and integrates with Kontact, a suite of Linux KDE PIM apps that I was planning to use on my computer to handle email and contacts. Plus, there is a sync client available for Android that will run in the AOSP version without needing Google services. I came extremely close to going this route, but the only two factors that gave me pause were that I did not know anyone else with any experience using it (not a good one, I know) and that it would guarantee that the agencies would capture all my traffic to the server since it is overseas. Granted, I have nothing to fear, but I am philosophically opposed to the surveillance mentality. Using an overseas server assures that they will be storing my traffic. Maybe they won't ever be able to decrypt it anyway, but I just don't like being watched... on any level. Ask my wife about how I clam up when we go out to eat. The thought of people around us possibly listening to me just bothers me. Sorry for being Aspberger's. :P

Using my domain on FastMail: The decision between fastmail.fm and mykolab.com was so close that I went back and forth for about a day before just deciding to setup FastMail. Now that I have been using it for more than a month, I have some feedback on it. It is definitely not perfect, but it is really good in a lot of ways, and may just be the best option for most people looking to get out of other mail services so long as they aren't put off by paying for the service to avoid being sold by the service.

FastMail Cons:
  • Quirks with using your own domain: When you set up your own domain, it is aliased on top of their domain, and sending email shows their domain in the header. This means that there is a higher percentage chance that your mail might get flagged as spam. As long as the DNS for your domain is set up properly, it should be fine, but you do need to at least keep this in the back of your mind. To be honest, if I had fully understood this before signing up, I probably would have gone with mykolab.com after all.
  • Your email address is an alias: When you set up me@mydomain when using your own domain, it is actually just an alias to accountname@fastmail.fm (or one of the other domains they let you pick from when you sign up). Because of this, you really have to pay attention to the way you set the settings in your account and the settings for the account in every client you use if you want to be absolutely sure that your mail comes and goes as me@mydomain. So far, it hasn't been an issue, but it could trip up average users.
  • Address book grants access through one-way LDAP access, not syncing: I thought it would be fine that I could only pull the address book from FastMail to my clients... it would only be a minor inconvenience to use the web interface to update contacts and let that push to clients the next time they sync. Unfortunately, my attempts to get the CyanogenMod Contacts app synced to it wasn't working and I gave up after a few tries. I really wish they offered CardDAV instead since there are more options for that. There may be a way to get it working, but there aren't many LDAP options in the Amazon App Store or f­-droid.org (remember, I am leaving Google, so I am avoiding the Play Store). I will try again when I have more time. For now, exporting the address book from the web interface and importing into Contacts is the less convenient, but working, option.
  • No clients for the Notes feature: I am reasonably sure that people using Opera Link were having their Notes synced to the MyOpera email service which was provided by FastMail before MyOpera mail got shut down. So, it would have been nice of them to offer syncing to Opera at least. As it stands, the Notes feature can only be used in the web interface, which is fine if you are using the web interface for mail, but it's not a compelling enough feature to make you use the web interface only for the Notes if you are using a mail client for mail. It seems like it wouldn't be that hard for them to whip up some quick apps for iOS and Android at least, but this isn't a deal-breaker.
  • No secure FTP access to the file storage: Okay, admittedly, this one is a little picky, but it means you should not upload files through the provided FTP access unless you are on a trusted network and by no means should you ever use it on open or WEP-encrypted wifi. You CAN use secure WebDAV or the web interface (which uses SSL) to upload files, and they both work fine. Just keep in mind that you should not plan to use your favorite FTP client. It's not a big deal since there are enough WebDAV client options for each OS, but it is something to keep in mind.
FastMail Pros:
  • Fabulous web client: To be honest, I wasn't expecting much in this department since Google was the only webmail I ever cared much for, but I have found that I like the FastMail web client a lot more than the Gmail web client. On top of that, the web interface in mobile browsers is so good that I would probably just use that instead of a mail client if I took the time to find a simple app to just give me notifications when new mail arrives. The web client even works really well for the Address Book and Notes features. If you care more about simplicity and functionality than fluff, you will love it too. It's not ugly, either, so Apple users can even tolerate it. ;)
  • Great IMAP support: When I first started using it, it was with KMail to move mail from Gmail to FastMail using IMAP with both accounts. I kept running into weird slowdowns and thought maybe FastMail didn't live up to its name. Once the move was over, though, it became apparent pretty quickly that the slow one was Gmail, not FastMail. On the CyanogenMod devices I am currently using, I first set the account up in the default mail client. It was working, but I wasn't very happy with it. Having to set sync intervals for checking mail felt like going back to 2005. I started dreaming of a way to have a widget or app that wasn't a full mail client to check more frequently and give me notifications so I could use the web interface instead. Then I discovered K-9 Mail on f­-droid.org. It said it had IMAP Idle support, which I was not familiar with (I haven't had to keep up with this stuff much thanks to Gmail). Well, it doesn't use sync intervals, it functions like Push, which is marvelous. And FastMail supports it fully, because I get new mail more properly in-sync than I did even with Gmail. I will be in the web client, see a new mail appear, and hear the notifications go off on my tablet and phone at precisely the same moment. With Gmail, they would appear everywhere, but sometimes not exactly simultaneously. It works the other way too. If I delete a message on my phone, it immediately disappears in the web client. On my Gmail account for work, I often find myself having to click Refresh in the web client after deleting messages on my work phone. So, FastMail in a proper IMAP client like K-9 is the best email experience I have had in a while. K-9 gets a little geeky on the options in settings, but I like that. The ability to have it partially download messages by setting a size limit is great and you can click a button to download the rest of the message if you want.
  • File storage: I have already mentioned the one downside of the file storage, but it is still great that they offer this feature at all. One advantage is that, when composing email in the web client, you can choose a file from storage as an attachment without having to upload it again. This comes in handy if you have some files that you routinely email to people. While its lack of a dedicated client means it's not exactly a Dropbox replacement, you can still get a lot of use out of it by way of web, FTP, or WebDAV. And speaking of getting good use out of it...
  • Host your website: Yeah, one of the cool features of the file storage is that you can publish a folder publicly, and even point a domain at it. Granted, it only supports flat file hosting without any support for databases or dynamic pages, so your site has to be built in just HTML/CSS/JavaScript, but it works great if that's all you need. I decided to host this site this way to see how it goes and I have not had any problems yet.
  • Notes: Despite my minor complaint that there is no way to sync Notes to any client, the feature is actually pretty useful and even supports Rich Text formatting if you want that in your Notes. While it isn't a ground-breaking feature, it is a really convenient way to quickly save some info before you lose it or to pass something from one computer to another without cluttering up your Inbox with more temporary emails.
  • Pricing: If you want to use your own domain, you need the Enhanced edition, which equates to $40 per YEAR! That's nothing. That's like skipping one stop at Starbucks or one trip across town and back per month. And if you decide to just use one of the many domains they offer a choice from instead, it's even less. Heck, if you have a website that could be hosted in their file storage, it probably pays for itself by shutting down your hosting and moving the site over to FastMail. Either way, $40 for a year of not being treated as a product and constantly advertised to is well worth the investment. Heck, if you can't even afford that, you can use the referral program to get a few people to sign up to really cut your cost. [Speaking of which, use the name groovechicken at their domain name if you want to thank me for sharing all this info if you decide to try it out. :) ]
Mission Accomplished

So, to sum up, getting yourself out of the corporate grasp of being treated as a product to be bought and sold is not that difficult or expensive, and you just may find yourself liking your new service better anyway. If your needs are more complex than what I have described above, or if you really do need a calendar that syncs between multiple devices and want it integrated to your account, then MyKolab is probably a better option for you and you should check them out. If what you want is primarily email, FastMail is a great solution and their pricing tiers can cover almost any scenario you plan to use it for. I still intend to set up a domain at MyKolab and give it a proper trial when I have time, and I may end up moving my main domain there in the end after all, but FastMail is serving me well for email and site hosting... enough so that I have not missed the features I lose by leaving Google. And even though I am not using Gmail for my real email anymore, I am keeping the account around to cover any mail that gets sent there from people who haven't updated their address books and for marketing email which I don't want cluttering up my primary account. Yes, I am now treating my Gmail account as the one I use in cases where I expect to get spammed by the site or service I am signing up for... so I guess you can say I have sent Gmail to the Spam folder, which is fitting since they lately seem to want to put a fair bit of my legitimate mail in the Spam folder despite constantly being told the mail is not Spam. Hooray for... progress?

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2 replies

Thanks for the interesting read about your journey. Personally, I don't have any intentions of leaving GMail, but it's good to know that there are good real alternatives. When I first signed up for my GMail, it was because nothing came even close to it.
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Glad to see you made the move over to Fastmail! I have barely scratched the surface of what I can do with it, but the one thing that is intriguing me a bit is leveraging it for photo galleries and such. I just haven't had the need yet to venture into that realm. I also wish I could somehow hook their Notepad feature into my Simplenote account.

My only qualm with them is they don't have two-factor services that are free beyond Google Authenticator. I would prefer to use SMS, but at $0.12 a credit that can get costly. This is less to do with Google, and more to do with I prefer SMS to software based options. When my phone broke last May I realized relying on software based 2-factor can be a real PITA. Since then I've been using SMS only.
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