You may remember that earlier this year, for reasons weakly linked to my change of employer, I have been looking to change my email provider. After many years using Gmail via what is now called Google Workspace, the complete disconnection to consumer features including Google One got to me, and I looked for an alternative.
At the time I considered both ProtonMail and FastMail as valid options — the former having been touted all over the place for their security features and privacy. After trying them both, and originally choosing the former, I found out that it would just not scale for the amount of email I had in Gmail, and instead switched over to FastMail, that seemed to fit much better for my needs.
Now it’s over nine months later, and I thought it’s a good time to check-in with my choice, and provide an update for the next person looking to choose an email provider. But before I get into the details, I think it’s also important to qualify that this year has been anything but “business as usual” — not just because of the lockdown, but also because me and my wife ended up moving to a new apartment, and oh, yeah I changed jobs. This means that my email usage pattern changed considerably, and that changed which features and values of FastMail I stressed on.
So let’s start with the elephant in the room, that is the offline availability — one of the things I noted earlier on is that the default Android app of FastMail is not much more than a WebView on a portable web app. It might not be technically precise, but I still feel it’s a good description for it. It does have some offline features, but you can’t “sync offline” a whole folder of email to have access to without a network connection. This would have probably been a much bigger, if not even deal-breaker, problem… if we had been traveling, or if I had been commuting two hours a day every day. But given the lockdown, this part is not really affecting me, nearly at all.
I guess that if this is a significant enough feature you need, using a “proper” client on the phone would be a good option — and that might have been something I’d have tried in different circumstances. As far as I can tell, FastMail does not implement OAuth2-based IMAP login flows, so you still need application-specific passwords for this to work, which I’m not really fond of — if they did, and they also supported U2F from phones (why is it not supported is not clear to me), that would be a total non-issue. As it is, it’s very low in my priorities though, so I’m not complaining.
Let’s segue that into security — as I said I’m still not sure why U2F is not supported on phones, and why I had to enable SMS 2FA to login on my Android phone. But on the other hand, it works fine on computers, so there’s that going on for us. FastMail is also the first provided that I see taking Application-Specific Passwords to the letter: when you create the password you can decide which scopes to attach to it, so if you want a send-only password, you can. And that makes life easier, and not just for developers needing to send kernel patches out.
So there’s space for improvement (OAuth2 and U2F, folks?), but otherwise I’m feeling confident that FastMail knows what they are doing and are taking compromises intentionally, rather than by coincidence.
On the Web UI side, things may be a bit bumpy — the UI feels “less fresh” than Gmail or Inbox, but that’s not entirely bad: it’s definitely lighter to use, and it makes searches work nicely. I think what I am missing from it is a more “native feeling” — I miss the contextual menu to archive or delete threads. The drag-and-drop works great though, so there’s that about it. Some of the choices of where to find actions (such as report spam/report non-spam) are a bit confusing, but otherwise it’s all very serviceable, and very customizable, too! The (optional) Gravatar integration is also fairly handy when talking with people in the FLOSS community, although I wish more services decided to provide a “service identity”.
If anything, there are two features I really miss from Gmail: the first is something that FastMail appears to have tried, and then given up on (for now), and that is the portable web app mode on desktop. For a while I had a FastMail window rather than a tab, and that was easier to handle for me. Having notifications running in the background without needing to have the tab open in my browser just make my flow easier (which is why I do that with Twitter, Home Assistant, and Google Maps among the others), and FastMail would be an obvious option there.
The second feature is the composer “pop up”. When having to deal with the horrible old property management company for the flat we lived in, I often had to go and refer back to previous threads, because they rarely would follow-up in writing, and the reference person changed all the time. I ended up having to open a second (or sometimes third) window open with the various searches, while composing a long message in the first one.
But otherwise? I haven’t been missing Gmail at all, despite the significantly higher amount of email I had to read and write due to the work and flat changes. Filters work fine, the self-deleting folders (or labels, you can choose which version you want!) are an awesome tool to keep the sheer amount of email under control.
Okay, sure, the “Smart Mail” features that I never had would have been nice at times — fill in the calendar with events just by receiving them! But as it turns out, GSuite/Google Workspace never got that feature in for their users. It’s long been a consumers-only feature, and so I never got into the habit of relying on it. And even when I had access to it, the fact that it required explicit enrolling of the providers by Google, it meant that only those services that had enough critical mass, or were used by a Googler, would be covered. It would be so much better if instead there would be better support for providers to attach, say, ICS files when they send you time-based information, such as expected delivery (for groceries, online shopping), or appointments (for hospitals and so on — although this is unlikely to happen: while NHS is very happy to remind me of all appointments in full by SMS, email messages only contains a “Please click here and put some obvious information about you to see the medical letter with the appointment”, alas.)
So, I clearly am a happy customer; even more so now that I have experience Outlook 365 (I can’t make heads or tails of that interface!) And I would say that, if you’re looking for an email-only provider, FastMail is the best option I have seen. Depending on what you’re looking for, Google Workspace might still a better value for money (with the whole collaboration suite), but I have a couple of former customers that I would probably have signed up on FastMail rather than Google, if they asked right now.
To close up, yes, there’s a referral programme nowadays — if you’re interested, this is my affiliate link. You’re welcome to use it, but it’s not the reason why I’m suggesting to use FastMail. I’m suggesting it because it is a terrific service.
FWIW, my GAFYD gmail account does get some of the smart mail things like auto creating and deleting calendar entries when i make reservations (and later cancel them). I don’t try to keep track of how or why, but this has been available on my account for years and I do not believe I’m opted into anything special. GAFYD/GSuite/GWorkplace is still otherwise as frustrating as ever for a non-corporate-entity individual/family user.
I created a new consumer account specifically for Stadia and YouTubeTV.
Thank you. Appreciate the detailed and objective review. I’m considering Fast Mail for my clients and all the points you hit on were just what I needed 🙂 –Chris Hart
Thanks for this interesting write-up. I was a ~14-year Gmail user (for personal use) and switched to Fastmail about eight months ago — partly to get out of Google’s clutches by using my own domain name, and for privacy reasons.
I have mixed feelings about Fastmail, and in many ways, I regret the switch. While the web app is snappy, it’s somewhat clunky. Actions are not where you’d expect them to be. This is doubly true for the Android app, which is a real mess (e.g., no quick way to see names of all addressees on an e-mail without going into menus).
Seemingly basic features, like “only add a signature to new e-mails, not replies”, are missing. I would love to have a rule that automatically removes particular addresses from Reply-All (i.e., to prevent reply-all loops from auto-forwarded e-mail addresses) The lack of a Compose pop-up is also annoying, and Search seems incomplete.
I also found the lack of a document preview for Word file attachments to be an unexpected frustration (it’s logical that they wouldn’t have it, but man, do I ever miss it)
Fastmail has a dedicated but small team, and it seems that most feature suggestions that get sent their way are met with a “we’ll look into it” response.
I may be expecting too much, but at the same time, I can’t really point to any real improvements that have been made to the service since I joined (other than the burner e-mail feature, which is available from other providers as well).
I would be curious about your thoughts on this.
Thank you for your writeup! I recently switched to Fastmail from Google. I was on the Google Workplace Legacy Free plan since forever, and I just could not stomach giving Google my money for this. I’d much rather pay a smaller business like Fastmail. Not to mention, this was a great opportunity to get out of Google’s clutches from a privacy standpoint.
I have to say, I LOVE Fastmail so far. The migration process was seamless. Similar to you, I had a massive amount of email (been using the same email account for 20 years), but it seemed to migrate it no problem, and the UI isn’t slowed down at all by how much old email I have. I was concerned about Spam filtering, because I get a lot of spam due to how long I’ve had this address…but, so far so good, it seems really smart with Spam.
They have some really slick advanced features, like customizable catchall emails, “plus” addresses (E,g.: email@example.com), multiple domains pointed to the same user, and masked emails (disposable emails) you can reply from.
I will concur that the native interface on desktop and mobile could really use a refresh. I’m not a huge fan. I’ve actually decided to use a 3rd party IMAP client, which I know removes a few of the native features, but is much prettier to look at. I hope they are working on a desktop/mobile app refresh behind the scenes, it could really use it.
All in all I’m extremely happy, and your review was part of what pushed me that way, so thank you!