4.5 Alternatives to Gmail If You Are Sick of Being Tracked and Served Ads in Your Email
16 min read

4.5 Alternatives to Gmail If You Are Sick of Being Tracked and Served Ads in Your Email

I've had it with Gmail. In an effort to get the last Google product out of my life, I have found 4 (and a half) great alternatives that you can consider to finally rid yourself of Gmail, and Google, forever. Seriously, these are good alternatives.
4.5 Alternatives to Gmail If You Are Sick of Being Tracked and Served Ads in Your Email

Gmail has always been my favorite email client. They were the first "web app" that really convinced me that a webpage-based experience could rival a native app experience. I loved the power that Gmail gave me and the spam protection they provided.

I could go on and on about everything I loved about Gmail when it first launched. No other company offering email was even close to competing with Gmail. Best of all, it was free! Why wouldn't you use it?

Well, have my perspectives changed. Let me give you a short list why you might not want to use gmail:

  1. They read your emails to enhance their advertising profile of you (they actually stopped this in 2017)
  2. They scan your emails to improve their AI knowledge (this is still true in 2021)
  3. They track everything about you (see recent 2021 Apple privacy label)
  4. They put their ads in your inbox!
  5. Can you say "feature bloat". Because if you can, they have a lot of it. How many do you actually use? I don't want to use your todos.
  6. Gmail seems to be more designed for recieving email (and stockpiling it) than sending it
  7. Gmail assumes and expects that you are also using other Google services (which I have slowly stopped using over time)

I wanted to quickly highlight the fact that in 2021, Google was required by Apple to provide privacy statements for all of their apps. They dragged their feet for over two months, but Apple finally pulled their arm and got them to comply. You may or may not be surprised to find out that gmail tracks... basically everything it can about its users.

Gmail tracking details provided by apple
Google tracks everyhing about its users // Screenshot from Apple App Store Gmail App

This isn't to completely shit on Gmail. It is actually a really good product. There is a reason that I was able to purge most Google products from my life so easily for over a year, yet still use gmail daily. Gmail is probably Google's best product and there haven't seemed like any other good alternatives. But I scrounged up 4 (+ one bonus) privacy favoring, ad-free alternatives to Google's Gmail so you can finally get Google out of your life once and for all.

My 4 Best Alternatives to Gmail

Before we get started, I want to clarify what I am looking for in an email client and how I built this list. There are a lot of alternatives to gmail lists out there, but most of them simply suggest switching to Yahoo! Mail or Outlook.com. To me, this isn't a valid tradeoff. Sure you get rid of Google, but you are still getting a free service that tracks you and displays ads. Plus in both of these cases you also are getting a worse experience. So you will not find these types of products on this list.

This list consists of products that:

  1. Are 100% Ad-Free: I don't want ads in my email. It is my email. I am not against advertising in general, but advertising during my private emails is not the time nor the place.
  2. Privacy Focused: This generally means no personal tracking. Most free email clients are free because they collect information about you and sell it to advertisers. Email is so incredibly private that I do not want any tracking.
  3. Paying is Ok: I recognize that I might be in a fortunate position in my life to be able to ignore this issue. But I am completely fine with paying for a service. In fact, I sort of expect to have to pay. If I refuse to offer personal information about myself and refuse to be served ads, then it makes sense that I will probably expect to pay for my email.
  4. Focused on Personal Email: I am looking for a personal email solution, not a business email solution. This completely changes the whole landscape. In another post I might round up the business email solutions, but for right now I am focused on personal email needs.

This is the criteria for this list and this significantly cuts down on the number of alternatives that exist. So spoiler alert: Yahoo, Outlook, or AOL mail on here. We are looking for ad-free, privacy focused, premium email providers that might require a subscription.

1) iCloud Mail

I started off by saying that I wasn't going to list Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL on here because they are too similar to Gmail in how they operate. So Apple's iCloud email might seem like I screwed up or am playing favorites, but this is actually a legit alternative that you should consider.

iCloud email is ad-free, so you don't have to worrry about seeing ads in your email. They also do not track you and respect your privacy.

Of all the items on the list, this is the only free alternative too. As long as you have an Apple or iOS device (iPhone, iPad, or Mac) then you can get an iCloud email for free. They issue email addresses at username@icloud.com which also looks really clean and professional.

iCloud does have a web experience, so you can check email from any brower at icloud.com. Unfortunately I will admit that this is very simple. You have inbox, some basic labeling, spam, and trash. There isn't a ton more to explore. But the interface is clean and standard gray/white Apple pallette with lots of whitespace.

Of course, I would recommend that you set up an IMAP email client anyway. I am personally a fan of Spark Mail. But you could even use the built in mail.app from Apple. These other apps add features to your mailing like sorting, better search, reply later, and remind me features (depending on the app). But iCloud really is a great alternative for most people, especially if you don't want to pay. They offer a great baseline of features that will work in any mail client and is ad-free and private.

On the note of "free", I should clarify that it will use your iCloud storage. By default iCloud users get 5Gb for free and must pay for additional storage. So it is possible that you end up needing additional storage, which costs a small fee, even if you aren't technically paying for email specifically. These costs vary based on country and space, but they start at $0.99 /mo for 50Gb which is extremely fair. I pay $2.99 /mo for 200Gb.

2) HEY

HEY is a new email service that just jumped onto the scene in 2020. Because of this they aren't written about much, but they did get a bunch of press when Apple refused to put their app in the app store until they added a way to pay via Apple's payment. This eventually got worked out and HEY is now in the App Store.

The Experience Using HEY is Unreal. It Doesn't Feel Like Email. It Feels Like Reading a Personal RSS Feeder of Private Blog Posts Written Specifically for You. Oh... did I mention it doesn't track and/or serve you ads?

HEY is an email service that tries to re-think email in a more personal way. How do you normally get email and how does the current workflow of email interfere with the personal way that you want to use it.

Email sucked for years. Not anymore — we fixed it. HEY’s fresh approach transforms email into something you want to use, not something you’re forced to deal with.

For example, HEY screens every new email sender and allows you to thumbs-up or thumbs-down their email the first time you get them. This means that your inbox is only emails that you specifically screened and have whitelisted. You can also further sort mail into your Imbox [sic], Paper Trail, and The Feed. The Imbox is for your personal emails back and forth with real humans. The Paper Trail is designed to be reciepts and confirmations that you want a running record of. Finally, The Feed is like a long newsfeed of newsletters and automated updates.

What I like most about HEY is how simple and clean it is. No, not in an iCloud way. iCloud still feels like email, with a sidebar, a spam box, a preview window, a header, etc. But HEY feels like a blogging platform. Reading an email is almost like reading a private blog post that someone sent you. I really like it. The main inbox screen is a center-justified list of conversations. No sidebars, no ads, no crap.

This isn't your grandma's email service. It is clean, has no sidebars, and focuses on email first

The entire service is privacy focused. They do not scan your emails for any purpose and you are in full control of what you see. Better yet, they go even further than any other provider on this list by also blocking tracking pixels (or "spy pixels") in emails from senders who want to see if you opened up an email. So not only does HEY not track you, but they make sure that your senders don't track you either.

HEY is a huge departure from standard email. I'll be honest, I was turned off at first because I wasn't ready for change. But after using it just a little bit, I am already falling in love. Change is good. Because of this change you are sort of stuck with the official HEY apps for web, Mac, Windows, Linux, Android, and iOS. They have you covered, but it means that you won't be able to choose the myriad of email clients like Spark.

Some other features I love is "notes to self" on emails that are attached to an email but the sender will never see. You can also create "clips" for things like confirmation numbers, addresses, phone numbers, and stuff like that. You can also fix bad subject lines by renaming them yourself. So if someone sends you an email with the subject "So, About today..." and then the thread turns into this long multi-week saga back-and-forth, you can change the subject for yourself that says "David complaining about his in-laws" or whatever you want. The sender never sees this, it just makes your life much easier.

HEY is a premium service. They do not serve ads and do not track you, so they need someone to pay the bills. That's where you come in. HEY costs $99 /yr. You will get a cool username@hey.com email address too! There is a 14 day free trial (which doesn't ask for a credit card) so you can see what you think about HEY. If you decide NOT to subscribe at the end of your trial, then your username will go back into circulation. But if you pay just one year of subscription, then you can guarantee to keep your username and @hey.com email for life, even if you don't renew for year #2. They will forward your email to anywhere you want after that. So you need to purchase at least 1 year of service to lock in the username.

HEY is also available for teams in a work setting. They call it HEY for Work (catchy, I know) and costs $12 /user/mo and allows you to use a custom domain. They also include some team-specific features for managing Threads dynamically instead of CCing or BCCing people, plus private team comments, and email aliases (like support@, sales@, etc that go to multiple people).

3) FastMail

While HEY is awesome and turns everything you know about email upside-down, FastMail is a premium alternative to the classic email experience. It was built for speed, hence the name "FastMail" and it combines contacts and calendars to a great email experience.

Like many other email providers, you can create a VIP list so that you only get major notifications of those emails, while other emails are filed away for when you have time to deal with them.

The overall app experience with FastMail is good, but maybe not great. It probably looked good about 5 years ago, but is starting to show some dust on the shelves.

All of FastMail is privacy-first and does not track you, nor do they serve any ads. In general, I would say that FastMail is the most "Gmail-like" experience for people who want to get rid of Gmail. Unlike iCloud Mail, FastMail supports a lot more of the advanced features you are used to in Gmail, without any of the bloated ones. This makes FastMail exceptionally quick to load and use and is clean and ad-free.

Since FastMail offers you a service without selling you to advertisers, that means it has a subscription cost associated with it. They split this into 3 different plans: Basic, Standard, and Professional. Most personal users will want to go with the Standard plan which costs $5 /mo or $50 /yr if you go annual. This is half the cost of HEY. With the Standard plan you will replace all the core features of Gmail and add a few others. You have the ability to use a custom-domain and you can set up as many email aliases as you want. You will also have full contact support and calendar support included with that cost which makes it attractive.

There is a cheaper plan, the Basic plan, which costs $3 /mo or $30 /yr. For this savings you will not be able to use a custom domain (you get an username@fastmail.com email instead), snooze, calendar features, and external apps. The last one is a bit strange, it seems to imply that you won't have standard IMAP capabilities to tie into a normal mail application like mail.app, Spark Mail, Thunderbird, and so on. I find this last point really shocking for a paying subscription.

It is also worth noting that the Standard Plan comes with 30Gb for attachments, email, contacts, and calendars. But the Basic Plan only has 2Gb of storage. This makes it less than half what iCloud Mail provides (5Gb). Again, a bit surprising for a premium service. But I think they are expecting most people to get the Standard Plan, and only certain users subscribing to Basic if they really just want email.

I have heard good things about FastMail from someone that uses it for his small business. He connects a custom domain and uses aliases for his support@ and sales@ emails. He said it is fast and really easy to use. He prefers the experience to Gmail and doesn't plan to ever switch.

4) ProtonMail

ProtonMail is an email provider that is focused on privacy at its core. Based out of Switzerland, they promise that their datacenters are 100% secure. It even offers "encrypted email" which means that nobody can intercept the email message unless they have the key that you provide them through other means.

While the encrypted email is a cool idea in concept, it actually falls apart quickly in practice. Essentially the recipient will get a standard email (that isn't encrypted) that contains a basic message with a URL that loads up a ProtonMail page in the browser. From there, the user can type in the password to decrypt the message.

This seems hokey and I don't really see when I would use it. I suppose if you were sending state secrets over email it might be necessary, but even private mortgage and tax documents are generally safe enough over standard SMTP email (what every service is built on) and a secure password with 2FA on it. In fact I could argue that it might be more secure than a link with a single memorable password that unlocks the message and is viewable outside the mail client. ProtonMail does encrypt messages among its own users though, so if you were frequently communicating with someone and want it to be encrypted, then both using ProtonMail would be the way to go. But your bank isn't going to be doing that.

While encrypted messages are ProtonMail's claim to fame, they also work as a standard email client. The security is passed along as being privacy-focused and again, ad-free.

There is a "Bridge" that you can use to use email clients on your computer with Proton mail. This is essentially a background script that intercepts emails into and out of the email app and encrypts/decrypts them magically. This bridge is limited to desktop users (mobile users must use ProtonMail apps), and is only available for premium (paying) users.

ProtonMail does offer a free version, without tracking or ads. This is a pretty awesome deal. However, the free version is very limited. A maximum of 150 emails per day, only 3 folders/labels, only 0.5 Gb of space, with no autoresponders, no email filters, and no catch-alls. You also do not get access to the IMAP/SMTP bridge, meaning you can only use Proton's app to send and recieve email. But if you want to try encrypted email, the free plan might be a good way to go.

Premium versions of ProtonMail cost $48 per year (or $5 /mo) and provide 5 Gb of storage, access to the bridge script for using desktop email clients, custom domain, autoresponders, email filters, up to 200 folders or labels, and up to 1,000 emails per day. For $75 per year (or $8 /mo) you can remove the limits on emails per day and folders or labels.

This isn't a huge deal, but I also don't like that the email addresses provided are username@protonmail.com. The email comes across as long, and I am afraid I would need to spell it out to most people over the phone if I gave out my email. If you had a 6 character username (which is very short) then your whole email becomes 23 characters total.

I talked to a friend who used ProtonMail for a while and he shared a similar experience to my own (I have used it occassionally over the past few years). The interface is clunky and feels very dated. Neither of us really enjoyed using it or looking at it. Aside from the encryption, there is very little functionality that it offers for power users. And because of the encryption you can't expect to supplement that power with other apps or scripts.

4.5 [BONUS]: Google Workspace

I promised you 4.5 options. Why the extra half? Because this bonus option almost felt like a cop-out. Did you know that if you love Gmail so much, but simply don't want ads or tracking (kinda), you can actually pay for Gmail?

Yes, lots of companies actually use Gmail for their business email. In fact every company I have worked for has used it and so did my university. This used to be called "Google for Business" but was then renamed "G-Suite", only to be renamed again last year to "Google Workspace". Workspace offers business email, calendar, video conferencing (Meet), contacts, online documents, drive, and more. Basically all the stuff you are used to using within the Google ecosystem is also available for business.

The difference between what businesses get and what personal free users get is that Google tracks its free users and gives them ads. But the paying business user's don't have ads and are not tracked. It is worth noting however that G-Suite for Education (which you can't buy, but many universities are using) does track users to share "with Google's Partners and Affiliates". So just keep that in mind if you are using G-Suite in your college or school.

Also worth mentioning is that Workspace does allows your company administrator to track you, but Google itself tracks you very minimally (anonymized usage data). And there are no ads to speak of.

In many ways this seems perfect for people that love the products Google offers and are willing to pay to make Google mind its own business. Workspace is designed for business, but I have been using it for my own business emails for about 5 years now as a sole proprietor. The experience is literally identical to the Gmail experience and it even works with the Gmail app if you want to keep using that. It also recognizes the email as a Gmail account, so any mail client that supports Gmail (all of them) will support Workspace just the same. All-in-all it is essentially gmail that you pay for.

The Same Gmail Experience You Are Used To

The only difference is that it does expect that you have a custom domain. So you would need to get one if you don't already have one. You could keep a standard gmail account open and forward its email to your Workspace.

Google Workspace costs $6 /mo for the "Business Starter" plan, which offers everything you need and more as a personal user. The higher plans really are designed for large businesses.

Conclusion

I have been working to banish Google from my life for a long time now. Removing the search engine, documents, photos, and other products was very easy. But I kept sticking with Gmail because it is such a great product. Feature for feature it really beats out the competition.

But there are other great alternatives that can let you finally rid yourself of the Google giant once and for all. Every option on this list is ad-free and privacy respecting.

iCloud Mail is a free alternative for anyone with an Apple product in their life. Despite being free, it will never serve you ads and it respects your privacy. Plus, it works with other client apps (which seems to be considered a "premium feature" to other services).

HEY is an innovative email client that tries to reinvent email for 2020 and beyond. It offers the simpliest and cleanest interface of them all. It even blocks spy tracking pixels so that not only does HEY not track you, but it won't let your senders track you either.

You can also check out FastMail and ProtonMail. FastMail is a great Gmail alternative that most closely resembles Gmail for personal users. ProtonMail is best for those that want the absolute highest level of privacy with encryption.

Lastly, for those that just love the email filters, labels, features, and bloatedness of Gmail, you can get Google Workspaces for the premium version of Gmail that doesn't track you. Designed for business, but it works great as a personal email service with your own domain and as many aliases as you can dream of.

I have been playing around with all of these and I have decided to go all-in on HEY for a few months to see how it goes. I am really optimistic about the new workflows it enables and the fact that it extends privacy the furthest, even blocking sender's tracking pixels. The $99 cost is steep for personal email, but I think it is worth it. What are you going to use to get away from the Google beast?

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