tl;dr: I like PurelyMail and I will slowly switch all my online accounts to use it. I've been using it for almost three months and I didn't have any issues (except with some Hotmail/Outlook addresses).
I have a GMail account since 2006 (that's the date of the first email in my inbox), but I started actually using it more in 2009. I have around 120000 emails in total in my mailbox, about 17 Gb in total. I even worked as an SRE in the team responsible for the storage of GMail. So there's quite a bit of history between me and GMail, but I've started to move on.
It's been a long dream of mine to have an email address at my own domain. Technically, I had that ever since I started hosting my blog on a VPS from DigitalOcean, but I didn't set it up properly, so I never used it. I didn't want to use it only for forwarding the emails to GMail, I actually wanted to have send, receive and access emails from my own domain.
Why leave GMail?
First and foremost, because it's a single point of failure, which can fail due to many unrelated problems. Because my GMail address is my Google account basically, if for whatever reason I lose my GMail address, I lose all the things I have in my Google account: Google Drive, Google Photos, Play Store purchases, YouTube uploads and history, Google Calendar data and so on. While some of these can be backed up, such as Drive, Photos and YouTube, some cannot be, for example all the apps and movies I have purchased over the years.
But my GMail address can be lost for many reasons, many unrelated to GMail itself. I guess you can get the address suspended for spamming or doing other things, I'm not particularly worried about that. However, ToS violations of any kind, across other Google products, can lead to a ban on your account and implicitly, on your GMail address. There are many examples: reselling Pixel phones, writing too many emojis in YouTube chat, for publishing "repetitive content" in the Play Store. If you search on DuckDuckGo, I'm sure you can find many other examples.
Did the previous examples break the ToS? Some yes, some not. But the current ToS is 15 pages long and it changed 3 times in the last 4 years. And that's just a general ToS, Play Store has a separate ToS and YouTube as well. On top of this, they are quite vaguely formulated and many bans are unclear about the exact reason for which they have been instated.
The appeals process used to be completely opaque. Rumor has it that this has changed since they added the Google One service/platform/rebrand, but I haven't used the customer support from there myself, so I can't be sure. But even if now it works better and you can convince Google that your account was wrongfully suspended, it would be a couple of very stressful days.
Technically, I could use GMail with my own domain, but only by signing up for a business GSuite account. That comes with its own problems, such as not all features are available for business accounts and you can't move content that you've bought from the old, consumer address, to the new, business one.
Another reason because of which I'm leaving GMail is because it's kinda slow. A full load with an empty cache takes about 20 seconds on my desktop (good specs, wired Internet connection). Loading a folder with 184 emails takes 2.5 seconds. I miss computers being snappy.
My requirements for an email provider
- Custom domain.
- Decent amount of storage. I accrued 17 Gb in more than 10 years of usage. So even 5 Gb would do the trick for 1-2 years.
- Server side based full text search. I want to be able to search for random emails, based on some word from the body of the email that I vaguely remember.
- Ability to use multiple aliases. I want to have firstname.lastname@example.org, besides the main address I will give out, but still have everything come in to my main inbox.
- Ability to use 3rd party apps to read my email. This means I want to read my email with any standards (mostly IMAP) compliant app.
Privacy stuff is not a part of my requirements. It's a nice feature to have, but it's not a blocking criterion. From the state mass surveillance perspective, I'm not going to actively implement many of the opsec measures because they are inconvenient. From the advertisement surveillance perspective, 90% of the emails I receive are automated, so there is a marketer on the other side who is probably selling my preferences anyway. If I want to keep something really private, I don't send it through email.
I have started looking at many email providers since last year, but not many of them fit the bill. And those that meet all the requirements are at least 50$/year. I signed up for the trial version of several, but none of them stuck.
Many providers boast that they are located in country X with strong privacy laws, but that is marketing only. Even Switzerland, which is famous for strong privacy laws, gave additional power to their intelligence agencies so that they could monitor the population more closely. The German intelligence agency, BND, cooperated with NSA: BND would spy on Americans, NSA would spy on Germans and they would exchange intel. So there is not much advantage in hosting your email in a Swiss underground bunker.
Some of the more notable email providers:
The first two are very security and privacy oriented. If that's your main concern, go for it. But it comes with some inconveniences: no server side search and you can't use 3rd party apps to read your email, just the apps they provide. They have some workarounds, but they just move the problem onto your machine (they offer a bridge that you install locally and which translates their custom protocol to IMAP and does indexing).
Fastmail was my top choice, from a usability perspective and I read many good reviews of it. It ticks all the boxes, at a cost of 50$ per year. I evaluated it a year ago, but because the construction of my house started, I put the email migration project on hold.
Good thing I did that, because this year, in January, I read on Jan-Lukas Else's blog about PurelyMail. It immediately stood out to me because it's cheap: around 10$/year, so 5 times cheaper than Fastmail. At such a low price, I signed up for it right away.
PurelyMail is a one man show and it offers purely email, nothing else. It meets all my requirements and then some. Email data is encrypted on disk, but it also offers full text search, with the caveat that some information can be extracted from the search index, which seems like a very reasonable trade off to me. Scott Johnson, the owner, is very friendly and answered the support channel very quickly when I had some questions.
Besides the low price, PurelyMail has one more awesome thing: you pay for storage, not for users. So if you have a custom domain, you can create as many users as you want and you won't pay extra. All you will pay for is the total storage (and number of emails sent/received). All the other providers I saw charged extra for different addresses. They even had limitations on the number of aliases you could create for one user. But with PurelyMail, I can create an account for my wife, an account to use for sending automated mails from my servers (for monitoring) and accounts for many other things and not pay anything extra. ❤️
Setting up PurelyMail with my own domain was very easy. They have one page which shows all the information needed to set up MX, SPF, DKIM and DMARC records and validation happened almost instantly. All this is needed so that other email providers know that the emails really came from someone somehow related to the domain and it's not just spammers spoofing your domain. I tested this by sending out emails to several other addresses I own and they all got the mail, except for my Hotmail address. There, I first had to send an email from the Hotmail account to my own domain email address and then replies were received by the Hotmail account too.
The web interface is based on RoundCube with a custom skin. UX wise it's decent and load times are faster than GMail :) One thing that I miss is the fact that in GMail folders are actually labels and you can have multiple labels for an email. However, I believe this is more of a limitation of the IMAP protocol, so it's not purely PurelyMail's fault.
The situation on Android is a bit worse. The recommended FOSS email client is FairEmail, whose UX sucks. Sometimes I still can't figure out how to check the details for an email and finding the forward button takes too long. So I cheat and have both FairEmail and the GMail app connected to my PurelyMail account. If I can't do something in FairEmail, I open the account in GMail.
Reliability wise, during the last three months I noticed only one outage (which happened while I was writing this post :) ), during which load times increased 10x. Otherwise the service has been stable.
In the 11 years that GMail has been my main email account I have signed up for many online services with it. Logging in to all of them and changing the email address would take a long time. So I am taking an incremental approach: when I get a new email on my old account, I try to switch it to the new account.
The advantage of this method is that I don't have to spend a lot of time at once updating accounts and I might actually never waste time trying to change websites that don't send me emails.
During this process, I also review many of my accounts and I've decided to delete some of them and I've unsubscribed from many newsletters that were irrelevant. But I also discovered some oddities about some sites are: for example, Withings has one email address for the user account and another one for the user profile. I updated the first one, but then I still received weekly updates on my old email address. Similarly, The Atlantic confirmed my change of email address for my account, but I still receive their newsletter on the old address, because that's a separate thing.
I will still be checking out my GMail account for a while, but I'm glad that I've successfully convinced my main personal contact to send me emails to my domain: dad. The rest will follow soon.