Google’s email service is the reigning champion, but Microsoft’s is rapidly improving. We put the two head-to-head.
Like reports of Mark Twain’s death, the demise of email has been greatly exaggerated over the years. It very much continues to be the core of our communications with colleagues, partners, friends and family and looks set to remain that way for some time to come.
Given the massive amount of time we spend each working day sending, reading and replying to emails, having the right email solution is essential to make you as productive as possible.
Here we’ll compare today’s dominant email service, Google’s Gmail, with one of the one of the longest-standing (albeit under various name changes), Microsoft’s Outlook.com.
Outlook.com’s credentials go back to 1996, with the launch of Hotmail. Microsoft then acquired this in 1997, rebranding it as MSN Hotmail, then Windows Live Hotmail. In 2013, it was renamed again as Outlook.com (the beta version appeared a year before). The service started out with a paltry 2MB of free storage.
Gmail launched back in 2004, on 1 April in fact. The service offered 1GB of storage then and this was dismissed as an April Fool’s joke at the time. This storage limit was many more times that offered by Hotmail (the precursor to Outlook.com) but sparked a battle between the two for supremacy in email.
Google has steadily improved its offering since then and is now clearly winning the market share battle, but Microsoft is catching up – at least in terms of its interface and features.
But what are the main differences, advantages and disadvantages of each? Which is better for business and productivity? Read on to find out...
Both Outlook.com and Gmail sport a clean interface. Outlook.com’s one takes inspiration from the Windows Modern UI interface. It has to be said that Gmail has the “uglier” of the two interfaces, but for a long time it was the lean, clean and somewhat plain interface that allowed you to get things done. This meant users could concentrate on the emails themselves rather than being distracted.
It is fair to say that Outlook.com in its present incarnation has been inspired by Gmail look and then taken it to the next level.
Outlook.com has a reading pane but this is turned off by default (it can quickly be enabled). Gmail also can sport a reading pane but this is one of its Labs features that has to be enabled.
It also offers a preview pane, which, when enabled through Labs, allows you to view messages side-by-side with your inbox.
A recent report said that Google is on the verge of an update for Gmail, which will allow you to do things like snooze emails so they reappear later and store emails offline. The new Gmail will also have a new interface, though the company has not released details on what it will look like.
Folders, labels and searches
The big thing the Gmail did to differentiate itself from the competition was to have labels instead of folders. This meant that messages could be tagged with multiple labels instead of being put into one specific folder. At this point, we need to clarify things a bit. Most people still believe that Gmail as it has labels, doesn’t have folders – this is not strictly true. As anyone who has set up Gmail via a traditional email client (ironically through Outlook) will tell you that these labels appear as folders in those clients. Not only that, if you have applied more than one label to an email message, that email message will appear in multiple folders.
Google will also automatically filter emails into Primary, Social, and Promotions tabs, saving you time sifting through ads for important messages.
Outlook.com has the traditional folder structure, but has categories instead of labels. These are labels in the strictest sense in that they are tags for messages rather than pseudo-folders. You can apply more than one category to a message but in doing so, does not move a message into a folder. Outlook.com automatically tags certain messages with categories such as Documents, Photos, Newsletters, etc. These are known as Quick View folders.
Search is probably why Gmail exists at all. It was part of its raison d’etre when it was first conceived as the engineer behind the idea wanted to have an email service that could be searched as easily as one would search on the internet.
Simply typing search terms into the search bar at the top of the webpage should unearth what anyone is looking for. Users can employ more advanced methods by typing in shortcuts such as “from:” or “to:”.
Outlook.com sports similar search facilities with advanced methods of finding the right information quickly. The Quick View folders enable users to instantly search through messages, say, for the last few emails containing photos, for example. Search is good enough for Outlook.com, but nothing exciting.
Gmail supports both POP and IMAP, meaning that pretty much any email client on most operating systems will work off the bat with the email service, even Microsoft Outlook will play nicely with it.
Outlook.com also supports POP and IMAP (although in the past, some have complained about connectivity issues and lack of IMAP support – we did not find any problems relating to this). Outlook.com also (unsurprisingly) supports Microsoft’s ActiveSync.
We tested setting up Outlook.com and Gmail accounts on the normal Outlook client and Thunderbird. Gmail did appear to be much faster in setting up and retrieving email and folders for both clients.
Storage and attachment limits
Gmail offers 15GB of storage for free but this counts across Gmail and Drive (though Google also moved to offer unlimited storage of photos within certain limits).
However more storage can be purchased for both platforms, as we explained in our Google Drive vs Microsoft OneDrive comparison. An Office 365 subscription, for example, gives you a 50GB mailbox.
Both platforms limit the size of attachments: 25MB for Gmail and 33MB for Outlook.com. However, you can effectively send larger files easily by sharing a Google Drive or OneDrive file within an email.
In addition, the Gmail app only allows you to upload one image at a time. The images are displayed as thumbnails, however, which allows you to both check that you've sent the right files and see what you've received before you download it.
Extensions and integrations
Within Gmail, users can enable certain features that may or may not work as expected but appear to be stable enough to be let free outside of Google. These features are part of Google Labs. As such they are experimental, pre-release items to be used at the user’s risk. In the humble opinion of this writer, some of these are good, some less useful, but we have never tried a feature that has yet proved to destroy everything.
Gmail, as you would expect, integrates with Google Docs. This is pretty seamless with, for example, the ability to open up attachments in a Google Apps, such as Docs or Sheets, work on them and then save them to Drive - all without leaving the Google ecosystem.
Gmail can also integrate with third party apps, such as contact relationship management (CRM) apps. Google offers its Apps Marketplace as a means for third-party software providers to show off their wares to users of Gmail and more importantly, Google Apps. Gmail can also import contacts from social media accounts into your address book. Furthermore, you can even use Google Translate within a message, an option missing in Outlook.
Outlook.com is a little late to the extensions party but, as you would expect from Microsoft, integrates completely with Office 365 apps and OneDrive. Outlook's add-ins function similarly across desktop, web, and mobile. These extensions are supported in Outlook 2013, Outlook 2016 for Mac, and Outlook on the web in Office 365, but some add-ons don't apply to certain types of messages or devices. There is more information about this here.
That said, Outlook.com provides easy access to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote Online as well as Microsoft’s acclaimed Sway that enables users to create multimedia stories.
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