Criteria for evaluating mail service providers

by bandali on

I’ve been running my own mail servers for personal emails for my family and I for several years now. I’ve enjoyed the flexibility and control over my email it’s given me, and I don’t intend to stop any time soon, but the topic of email providers and which to choose seems to be a recurring one in various circles, and I found it an interesting exercise to try to formulate more concretely the main criteria I would use to evaluate email providers based on.

Here are the ones I came up with.

Evaluation criteria

Can I use my own domains?

I manage email accounts across several domains, and it’s crucial that I be able to continue using them and not be forced to use the domain(s) provided by the provider.

Do they have a sane spam filter?

Besides being decent at rejecting spam, it’s equally — if not more — important that it does not reject legitimate messages.

Can I access my emails without using nonfree software?

If they offer webmail, is it free/libre software? If not, can I at least use it without running nonfree software (i.e. nonfree JavaScript)?

Can I access my emails via standard protocols?

Pretty self-explanatory. Can I fetch my mail over IMAP or POP3, and send mail over SMTP? Especially crucial if the only other access method is through a nonfree (-dependent) webmail.

In what jurisdiction are the provider and their servers located?

With regional or country-specific surveillance and data privacy laws in mind.

What level of support is offered?

I’d prefer to be able to talk to a human (and not some useless automated chat bot) if I’m having trouble sending/receiving messages to/from a particular host.

What kind of reputation does the provider have?

Could I trust them or feel comfortable with them handling my email? Also, do they play nice with everyone else, in terms of accepting legitimate emails from standards-compliant servers? Or are they notorious for their awful practices or spam filters that reject legitimate messages?

Concluding thoughts and remarks

The above criteria exclude the likes of Google and Microsoft and many other large or small providers, hopefully for good reason.

It might be useful to quickly view one or two frequently-mentioned providers through the lens of these criteria. No hard feelings, or recommendations, of course.

Some folks like Fastmail, but they don’t meet my free webmail and jurisdiction criteria, so I personally wouldn’t use them.

I’ve heard good things about Migadu. They appear to meet the above criteria, including offering a free webmail (rainloop), and they seem to be good participants in the free software community, having contracted Sourcehut to develop alps for them; a free, lightweight webmail. Had I been looking for providers, Migadu would certainly make it on my short list.

Lastly, I’d like to give a shout out to communities like SDF (gopher) and (gopher) that provide accounts, often at no cost, on their shared servers, providing their users with a wide range of services, which sometimes includes email as well. Of course, there are some caveats: they typically don’t give root (admin) access to regular users on their servers, they might not host email for custom domains, and being volunteer-maintained and often offered at no cost means their services are usually offered on a best effort basis, with no formal guarantees for availability or additional support. That said, they can still be great resources, you might enjoy participating in their communities of like-minded enthusiasts and making your own contributions, and potentially get an email account too :-) — so, well worth a try.

What do you think? I’m interested in hearing your take on this. Maybe you’ve devised your own set of criteria for evaluating email providers? As always my inbox is open to your thoughts, comments, and feedback.

Take care, and so long for now.