I recommend Fastmail to people a lot, and this is why. It is a great email service. It costs at least $3 per month or $30 per year, so if that’s a dealbreaker for you then stop reading. Plus you might have to deal with stuff like IMAP and SMTP server names and possibly DNS settings if you want to get the most of it. But none of that is really all that hard.
Before I get to the technical advantages of Fastmail, just philosophically, email is a decentralized service, but for their personal accounts most Americans tend to use email from Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo.1 Other services are big in other countries but the story of centralization is similar. Google and Microsoft are pretty big in the enterprise as well. This is a shame—we should hold on to the original decentralized model of internet services, where no one company has too much control, as much as possible. And it’s very possible with email at least, even if very few people are using Mastodon instead of Twitter.
Also, I think (at least if you’re tech savvy enough and can afford to pay for a domain and then pay for an email service, which not everyone is lucky enough to do) you should own your own email address, one that’s not tied to some commercial service like iCloud or Gmail or even Fastmail. Mine is my first name @ my last name dot net. That’s not necessarily to say that you should never use those services—you don’t want to actually host your own email servers unless you really know what you’re doing. But the address that you share with the world should be one that is yours and that you can move from place to place, just like you can port your telephone number from one service to another. Similarly if you do a lot of non-work writing, it’s better to have it on your own domain, instead of just on places like Medium or, if that floats your boat, Facebook.
With that out of the way, I like Fastmail for a few very specific reasons.
Works well with your own domains. Lots of email services allow you to use other email addresses as aliases, but it’s less common to see an email service that allow you to easily use your own domains the right way. Fastmail does. When you own your own domain, you can have Fastmail host your DNS for you and configure your DNS records for you (that is, you set Fastmail as your name server; it’s not a registrar), or you can just set your DNS MX records (and a few other verification records) to point to Fastmail. That makes it so that the “official” mail servers for your domain names are Fastmail’s. This is not a how-to so I won't tell you how to do any of this; Fastmail's documentation is really good.
This means that when you send an email from one of your personal email addresses from your own domain, that email is properly “from” that domain name—your mail headers don’t show its being sent “on behalf of,” clients like Gmail don’t say things like “from firstname.lastname@example.org via Fastmail.com,” and the message is less likely to be flagged as spam.
The other way—the wrong way—is for emails to just be sent as aliases, which is sort of like faking your caller ID. Like faking a caller ID, it’s an officially supported thing, and also like faking your caller ID, it’s often abused. This means that emails sent as aliases are more likely to be flagged as spam or displayed in some strange way on the recipient’s end. With aliases, typically people will buy a domain name, and set up a “forwarding” address with it (say, all emails to email@example.com will be forwarded to firstname.lastname@example.org), and then tell the service (like Gmail) to just put the alias in the “from” field. But all of the other email headers will show that the message is just an alias, being sent through email servers that are not officially associated with the domain, and this is the kind of thing that spammers often do. (Even when you have everything set up correctly if you are using the Fastmail web interface, that will be reflected in the X-Mailer header of your message, and Fastmail might also be part of the Message-ID header. But those aren't bad things.)
You can get proper domain support with lots of services, of course, like a paid Google Apps account, though I don’t know what limitations there might be with using multiple domains. Some support them, others don't, others make you pay extra. With Fastmail you can use as many of your own domains as you’d like.
(When you set up an IMAP client with a Fastmail account, you just tell it the various email addresses you want to use with it, after using your actual Fastmail address as the user name. This is a normal IMAP thing.)
Works well with outside email accounts. Sometime you don’t own a domain but you want to send from an outside email address, but still not as an “alias” for all the looks-weird-sometimes/might-get-flagged-as-spam reasons above. Fastmail can handle this as well, because you can connect it to outside email accounts. Say you have a Google Apps account, but you’d rather use Fastmail to send mail from that email address. You can just have Fastmail send email from the Google mail servers, instead of using its own. Doing this means that using Fastmail with that address, including using the Fastmail web app, is exactly the same as using Mail.app or Outlook. (You can also have Fastmail poll the outside email service and pull in emails from it via IMAP at regular intervals—but it’s better to just tell that outside email service to forward email to your Fastmail address. That way it comes in in real time, at least if that’s what you want.)
A nice thing about this is that when you send an email from a third-party email app like Apple Mail on iOS from that address, Fastmail knows to use the correct mail servers, even if those mail servers aren’t specifically configured in your app. So once you’ve set email@example.com up correctly via the Fastmail web client, sending from it will always work the way it should for any third-party app that is configured to work with Fastmail without your having to manually give each third-party app the mail servers for the third-party email address. You just add addresses you use with Fastmail in this was as email addresses for the account in your IMAP client the way you’d add any other.
Push support on iOS. Push email support on mobile is sort of a pain in the ass since the “official” push method for IMAP is too much of a battery hog to actually use. So getting push on mobile usually requires using something proprietary, like Exchange instead of IMAP, or using a service-specific app like the iOS Gmail apps that hook into standard push notifications to sort of fake it. I don't mind third-party, non-system email clients but I really hate the idea of things like a "Gmail" app or a "Yahoo Mail" app--they're at best a necessary evil to work around limitations on push email. (Fastmail does of course have its own apps.)
There is another way, though—Apple has worked with different email services over the years, notably Yahoo, to support push on normal IMAP email accounts. A while ago Fastmail and Apple worked together to make this happen for Fastmail, as well. So when an email arrives in your Fastmail inbox it’s immediately sent to your mobile device. (I have no idea if any of this works on Android or if Android has something better.) This means that, for instance, if you use Fastmail to send and receive email from a third-party account, you get push for that account even if doesn’t otherwise support it. This is pretty cool.
Fastmail itself has written about all of this.
Fancy Email Tools.. Fastmail also has all kinds of nifty things like the ability to quickly scan for and delete duplicate messages. Sometimes when migrating email around you end up with thousands of them, and this fixes it. And if you’re moving to Fastmail, it can also import email from other email services very efficiently.
Uses normal folders. Fastmail just works like a normal email service, not a weird space alien one, which means it uses folders and not labels (as well as a very normal IMAP implementation). One advantage of this is that if you ever decide to move away from Fastmail in the future it’s very easy, just using an email client, to move all your messages somewhere else by dragging them from one folder to another. Gmail-style labels make that very hard and could result in your creating lots of duplicate messages (since the same message would be in “All Mail” and “Sent” at the same time, for instance).
Works with outside calendars. It's not really a huge differntiating feature, but of course Fastmail supports calendars and contacts. But while Fastmail has its own calendars of course, you can also point it to outside services (iCloud, Google) and have it use those calendars as well. My work calendars are on Google, and my personal ones are in iCloud, but I see them all (and can edit/make new events) in Fastmail. I can also see/edit them all if I point an iOS device or a calendar app to Fastmail, using CalDAV--meaning that Fastmail is a good way to aggregate lots of services and prevents you from having to sign into lots of different services on different devices. Fastmail doesn’t support outside contacts services using CardDAV, but it does make its own contacts available to third-party apps and devices via CardDAV. So, using Fastmail, you can cover the basics of email/contacts/calendars all in one place. It also has some file/web hosting support and a few other things like that that I don’t use.
It’s fast. It’s right there in the name, and it’s true.
Ok, that’s it.
- The best counterargument to using Fastmail is, if you’re a person who’s super tied into Google services, using Gmail gives you some integrations that you may or may not want—it can automatically scan your email for tracking numbers and tell you when packages are going to arrive, do some similar stuff with flight times, and so on. Plus Gmail makes it easy to respond to Google calendar invites, if you use the web app. But nothing about Gmail that involves using the web app appeals to me since I don’t like using web apps (they suck, because the web is good for publishing information but is terrible at software), and I hate all that automatic scanning stuff. Plus third-party apps do it all better, and in less privacy-invasive ways. ↩︎