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Google Apps vs Outlook.com for free email hosting at your domain

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Back at the end of 2012 Google’s big announcement was that they no longer offered a free version of Google Apps. Google Apps is basically a free Gmail account but at your own domain instead of at gmail.com. If you pay for the pro version (“Google Apps for Business”) you get more storage, support and a few other features. Nonprofits can get it free by request.

Google Apps is a great product but who can we turn to now for domains that have simple email needs and no budget? I host most of the sites I build but I no longer host email on my server in order to keep it safe and speedy for my WordPress managed hosting clients.

live mail outlook 300x180 Google Apps vs Outlook.com for free email hosting at your domain

What is outlook.com?

Outlook.com is the successor to Hotmail. If you have a Hotmail address, you can upgrade to outlook.com. Note that Office 365 is more of a direct, enterprise-ready competition for Google Apps. It gives you an Exchange account, and web versions of all 8+ office programs (not just the 5 free “SkyDrive” ones). But Office 365 is not free – there are 3 service levels.

Google Apps vs Outlook.com

Here is a comparison chart between Yahoo, Outlook.com and Gmail (all of which are free).  They are all really similar in terms of feature lists – and all allow forwarding to other email accounts (Outlook.com allows forwarding to just one address but Google apps allows for more than one). The key thing this chart doesn’t address is the experience of using the web-based interface. The interfaces are all very different – with Yahoo being a distant 3rd in terms of usability. Of course all 3 offer many ways to access your email without every using their browser-based interfaces. Some other take-away notes:

  1. Outlook.com didn’t offer IMAP till very recently.
  2. Outlook claims “virtually” unlimited storage.
  3. Outlook shows ads (more that mail) BUT it doesn’t target them based on your email content – in other words, it’s robots don’t read your email.
  4. You can get free email in the form of  x@outlook.com or you can use your own domain free. (Gmail/Google Apps no longer offers a free option for using your own domain name)
  5. Outlook.com  has web-based versions of Word, Excel, and Powerpoint so you can work with those kinds of attachments directly. It is like Gmail and Google docs + Google Drive. See image below.
office onine skydrive.live .com  300x211 Google Apps vs Outlook.com for free email hosting at your domain

Look in the Sky – It’s a drive!

How to set up free outlook.com for your domain

Now that I’ve done this process a few times I can offer some tips:

  1. Start with this LifeHacker article.
  2. Note that you can have multiple administrator accounts for your custom domain. Each administrator must register the domain on the Windows Live Admin Center website and enter a unique MX record that authenticates that user (an MX record specifies which server in your domain should receive incoming email) that’s associated with that administrator at your registrar or Domain Name System (DNS) provider’s website.
  3. The Domain administration interface at live.com / outlook.com is much much simpler and has hardly any features compared to Google Apps. But that can be a feature in itself.  Basically just add new user accounts and go on your way.
  4. Check e-mail at http://mail.live.com or you can set up your own subdomain just like Google Apps does via a Cname DNS record
  5. Where to make more accounts for your domain? You can make up to 50 email accounts for free.
    Start here: https://domains.live.com/ and click “get started”
    Note that you  have to log in as the new user in a browser in order to confirm the account before using it. Live will ask you for a captcha to confirm you are a human and there are two other simple screens to proceed through before you can start using the new account.
  6. Important note: Please sign in at least once every 365 days—otherwise your account looks inactive and could be deleted. I’m not sure how that compares to Gmail these days but there are a few levels of security you have to go through in activating a new Outlook.com email account.
  7. Also see: answers.microsoft.com FAQ
  8. To use Apple Mail (or any other IMAP client) read these instructions. Here’s the most relevant part: “For incoming mail server settings, make sure that the account type is set to IMAP, then enter “imap-mail.outlook.com” as your incoming mail server. Enter your real Outlook.com e-mail address and password in the username and password fields.”see: ActiveSync and POP settings

Are there other free email options?

The short answer is Zoho. They offer a similar suite of tools and a free option – with email at your domain. But I have not used it.

For free (and paid) email/webmail Wikipedia has a useful table with many options:

wikipedia.orgwikiComparison of webmail providers 300x253 Google Apps vs Outlook.com for free email hosting at your domain

Lifehacker has a great article about alternatives.

LH notes 300x161 Google Apps vs Outlook.com for free email hosting at your domain




…or just pay for Google Apps!

gapps pricing 300x270 Google Apps vs Outlook.com for free email hosting at your domain


PS: here’s a tip if you are having issues with the outlook.com (and hotmail.com) spam filter. it’s pretty agressive and only has two settings. There is no way to turn off the spam filter. For those that don’t use the web interface and want to use some other spam filter this can be a real problem. solution: set up a filter

  1. Go to the gear icon, go to “more mail settings”
  2. Then find “Rules for sorting new messages”
  3. Finally, add a new rule of the form “Sender’s Address” “contains” @ then select “Move to Inbox”

turn off spam filter in outlook hotmail 634x594 Google Apps vs Outlook.com for free email hosting at your domain


UPDATE: After struggling with some senders being blocked I am “downgrading” Outlook.com and am motivated to try out Zoho’s service.

UPDATE 2014: Well, I have not tried Zoho yet but I have a couple commentors that seem to be happy with it.

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  1. Apex
    Posted December 28, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    After reading this post I will try to setup outlook.

  2. Posted February 13, 2014 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    This is a useful review of the options. Has anything changed since you wrote it wrt Outlook’s spam agressiveness and how are you getting on with Zoho?

  3. Alan Lemond
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    I recently took the plunge: got my own domain, so I could have as many personal email addresses at my own domain as I wanted

    I chose ZOHO to host/serve email for my domain, and have been nothing but delighted with the service/product they provide. Sycing between their IMAP server and my own laptop (I use Mac Mail) is silky smooth, and fast. Their customer service is responsive. Best of all, it’s totally free. (I almost feel guilty about paying nothing for such a great, and ad-free, service.)

    Above all, switching to Zoho allowed me to stop going through Gmail. As most probably know by now, the first release of Mavericks essentially broke the native Mac Mail app with regard to Gmail. Most people seem to blame Gmail itself for this, citing Google’s wonky implementation of the IMAP protocol. But regardless of who’s to blame, Mac Mail just wasn’t playing well with Gmail.

    But Mac Mail in Mavericks plays beautifully with Zoho. They sync flawlessly. So in addition to having a bunch of my own domained email addresses served through Zoho, I also have Gmail forward all my Gmail mail to my Zoho address as well. This allows me to access all my email — both my own domained email and my Gmail — through my laptop’s Mac Mail app without ever having to deal directly with Gmail’s wonky IMAP servers.

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