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Webmail war: Gmail vs. Outlook.com vs. Yahoo Mail

Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have all rolled out major changes to their free webmail services. Which now offers the best organization, message handling, mobile options and advanced features?

By Serdar Yegulalp
March 1, 2013 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - There's little question that Web-based email has captured a major portion of the user base. The conveniences of webmail -- all your messages in one place, few or no practical limits on storage, access from almost any client device -- make it all the more appealing to generations of users for whom client apps like Outlook are clunky relics.

Trouble is, hard numbers can be tough to come by. Google, for instance, claims that as of June 2012 Gmail alone had some 425 million users, although analytics firm ComScore gave an estimate of 289 million for May 2012. The other two major contenders -- Yahoo Mail and Hotmail (now Outlook.com) -- were in about the same ballpark, according to ComScore, with 298 million and 325 million users, respectively.

The picture is further complicated by other issues, such as how many users have accounts on more than one service, how many accounts are abandoned, how reporting on mobile versus desktop is skewed, and so on.

Fuzzy as the hard numbers might be, any service type with a user base in the hundreds of millions is worth keeping fresh. Over the past year, each of the three largest webmail providers has made major changes to its service.

In the case of Gmail, those changes have been part of the rolling tweaks Google makes throughout its family of services. On the other hand, Microsoft has pushed through a major rebrand and relaunch, turning its well-known Hotmail email service into Outlook.com, with an entirely new interface and overhauled feature set. Yahoo has also been attempting to reinvent itself, giving its service a new look and some new features.

In this roundup, I look at what's changed for each email service during the past year -- both cosmetically and functionally -- and the ways each implements commonly used features: mail organization and searching, POP/IMAP access, handling of attachments and the mobile experience (including apps).

(Story continues on next page.)

How to switch email accounts

One of the biggest problems with using a webmail account is leaving it and/or going to another. None of the accounts profiled in this piece have an obvious way to export your email and your contacts, and move them to another service. That doesn't make it impossible, though.

Moving email

Gmail lets you import email from another provider; you can also have messages forwarded from the provider to your Gmail account for up to 30 days. Most popular mail services are supported, and I was even able to set up a link from my own vanity email address after manually specifying the needed POP3 login information. If your provider isn't one of those that Gmail imports from, Google has a tool it calls the Mail Fetcher, which lets you download messages from up to five accounts.

Leaving Gmail is trickier. Third-party services, such as the command-line Got Your Back and Gmail Keeper tools, or online apps like Backupify and BackupGoo, can be used to automate the process without needing much babysitting.

With both Gmail and Yahoo, the easiest way to export your email is via IMAP connectivity, which is supported by each service. Install an email client that supports IMAP -- such as Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird -- then download your email locally.

You can also import email to Yahoo using this method, but it's not easy. When you set up a local mail client for IMAP, you can copy mail to or from the remote IMAP folders. So if you have two services set up in the same mail client via IMAP, you can transfer mail between them simply by copying them between remote IMAP folders.

The process is slow and a bit tedious, especially if you have a lot of folders, but it can be done. And this, or using a third-party application such as TrueSwitch (see below) is the only way to import email to Yahoo.

Outlook.com does not support IMAP, but you can use Microsoft's Outlook Connector tool, together with Outlook (the desktop application, which does support IMAP), to accomplish the same thing. (The Outlook Connector is built into Outlook 2013 and Outlook for Mac 2011; it can be installed to earlier versions.)

While there is no built-in import mechanism for Outlook.com, there is at least one third-party outfit that might help. TrueSwitch copies email messages and contacts from one account to another for you, provides mail forwarding between accounts, and notifies contacts of the upcoming change in address. TrueSwitch is free for some services, such as Gmail and Outlook.com; it will also work with Yahoo, but you have to purchase a copy of the software for $29.95.

Moving contacts

Migrating contact information, thankfully, isn't as hard. Gmail (and Google generally) makes it easy to do this. The Google Takeout service lets you create an archive which contains data associated with your various Google accounts. Contacts information can be downloaded as a CSV file, vCards or as an HTML file.

If you're migrating to Gmail, importing contacts can be done via CSV or vCard. Google has documentation for how to import CSV files and how to format them for use in Gmail.

One very nice feature of Yahoo's contact export option is the variety of formats. Not only does it export in Outlook-friendly CSV files, but also a CSV format recognized by Yahoo itself (in case you want to re-import to a new account), a Mozilla Thunderbird-native format, and either multiple vCards in a ZIP file or a single vCard. Contacts can also be imported from a whole plethora of sources -- another Yahoo account (you'll need the login and password), a variety of social networks or as a CSV file exported from a desktop program.

Importing contacts into Outlook.com isn't hard; it can be done via a CSV file exported from Outlook or another program. Exporting is also simple; just go to the "Export" option in the "People" submenu, click that and you can download a CSV copy of your contacts. The bad news is that this copy, at least as of this writing, doesn't include contacts imported from social networks (Facebook, Google+, Twitter); it's only contacts that you have added directly in Outlook.com yourself or imported via a file.



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