From G to Fast: A short story about email

12 Jul 2020

Here’s an opinion you’ve probably heard before: Google has too much reach on the internet. They manage most of the search, most of the email, most of the video content and most of the browsers. In an ideal world where all companies work for the benefit of humankind rather than just their shareholders, this would probably be fine, helpful even. Sadly though, we do not live in such a world. So here is the latest chapter in my meagre effort to depend a bit less on Google and its services.

The Problem

I already run a significant chunk of my digital life away from Google. I primarily use Firefox, my searches run through DuckDuckGo, I don’t feel the need to store every image under the sun on Google Photos and I don’t use Google Analytics for this (or any) website. I actually only use 3 Google services regularly: Youtube, Google Maps and GMail (although this brings with it calendar and contacts). I don’t think my goal here is to actually stop using Google services completely, just to spread things out a little. As you may have guessed from the title, the topic of this post is my experience shifting away from using GMail specifically.

My primary concern with Google’s email service is what it does with all of the information that my emails contain. Now to be fair I would be pretty surprised if somebody told me that Google employees were literally reading my emails, but ones inbox contains all sorts of information about them and I find it a little jarring whenever I see it add calendar entries for an appointment or a flight. Its just a reminder that somebody is watching. Sure any email provider could be watching (and since automated calendar entries are admittedly helpful, its not unlikely), but remember that Google’s primary business is advertising. They are financially incentivised to collect more data about you so that they can charge higher prices for adverts that are arguably more relevant to the people viewing them.

My Solution

Enter Fastmail. They’ve been around for ages, I’ve heard mostly-good things about them and they provide most of the features I want but not much. Sounds like a good option. I was about to sign up when it occurred to me that there might be a referral system. A quick search through their docs revealed that there was! Even more than that, the referral system gives the referree a 10% discount on their first year. This surprised me because in all of the blog posts I’d seen about Fastmail, none of them had mentioned a referral system. I went in search of people that had said (on forums or blog posts) that that they were using Fastmail and tried to find somebody who could give me a referral link. I wanted that 10% discount!

Eventually I did (thanks to this helpful person), and I signed up.

Now I’d like to interrupt briefly here to say that if you happen to be looking to try out Fastmail and looking for a referral link, then here is one you can use: If you sign up there you get a discount on your first year. In the interest of transparency though, I also get a discount that is slightly more complicated to calculate.

An evaluation

The first step was getting some email into my new mailbox. Fastmail lets you import mail from other providers (such as GMail) from inside their web UI. I created a new set of credentials that Fastmail could use to access my GMail inbox and set the importer running. The entire process took around 11 minutes to import my 5600 emails and it even included a log that enumerated all the folders it copied and the number of emails in each. One strange thing about this though, is that the summary it gives says: “5618 of 5492 messages imported”. Excuse me? Where did the extra 126 emails come from? If I add up the numbers it gives as imported for each folder then they come to 5618. I assume this happened because GMail uses “tags” rather than “folders” and I had some emails with multiple tags. Everything seems in order otherwise.

Now that Fastmail knows how to collect mail from my GMail inbox, it will helpfully also automatically pull in new mails that arrive there. If I were more paranoid then maybe I’d disconnect that, delete the Google credentials I originally created and setup a forwarding rule to send new mail from GMail to Fastmail. I don’t think I’m that paranoid though, and this is less effort to setup so we’ll stick with it. I was originally surprised at how fast the auto-fetch was. I sent myself a test email and 2 minutes later it arrived in Fastmail. Neat! That delay seems to have grown since (sometimes it takes almost an hour), but one possible reason for that is simply that mail gets moved at some interval and it depends where in that interval you fall. For any urgent mails you should probably ensure they go straight to your Fastmail address.

Now that I had some mail in my inbox I could take a look around the interface. Admittedly I don’t actually use a web interface for email (I generally use either Thunderbird or eM Client) so I don’t have years of experience with the GMail interface, but it definitely struck me that the Fastmail UI feels pretty snappy. Folders, lists of mails and mails themselves all load pretty quickly and the list of mails isn’t paginated at all. I can open a folder with a thousand emails in it, scroll right to the bottom and it just loads them as I scroll. This seems like a small thing and it might not be the most crucial feature (since you probably care more about more recent mails) but its definitely a change from most modern web interfaces. I’m not a heavy email user (as I said, I have under 6000 mails in total), so maybe this experience would degrade with much large quantities of mail but for me it’s great!

The next step of setup was the domain. Fastmail provides detailed instructions on setting up the relevant DNS records for a number of registrars and while they didn’t have any for mine (Porkbun), their generic instructions were clear enough to get me setup without much hassle. I did have to do a little bit of research to figure out the exact text to add for some of the sender-verification DNS entries (the ones that are required to prevent all of your outgoing emails from getting marked as spam) but it turned out that I was over-thinking it and I just needed to use in the text that Fastmail gave me as-is. Fastmail’s custom domain setup wizard also includes a step at the end where they check all the relevant records and tell you if any are missing or incorrect. Even as somebody who likes to think they know a thing or two about DNS, this is helpful just for peace-of-mind. If Fastmail said my setup is correct then it must be.

Finally we have the extra services that seem to always come with email: contacts and calendars. This turned out to be the most disappointing feature to set up, although not necessarily because of Fastmail. Calendars were simpler, so lets start there.

Getting calendars into Fastmail from Google was easy. On the import page there’s a dropdown that lets you select where to import calendars from and since I still had it “connected” to my GMail account, that was one of the options. Select my GMail account from the list, hit “Upload” and we’re done. Nice. Connecting my other devices to the calendar proved slightly more involved since neither the Settings page nor the Calendars page itself shows you what URL to point CalDAV clients to. Thankfully there was a page in their documentation dedicated to this that even had instructions specifically for my eM Client, so once I found that I could connect it up and now I have calendar sync. Doing the same on my phone was a little more complicated because unlike its support for Google services, Android has no built-in CalDAV/CardDAV functionality. Instead I installed DAVx5 and that works well enough for me.

So we’re just left with contacts. Sadly Fastmail cannot simply import contacts directly from my Google account. I need to export them to a file and then upload that file to the Fastmail importer. Google provides several options for which format to export your data in and none of them are obviously the right one. First I tried CSV, then I tried VCard. VCard worked better. In both cases though, the import was far from perfect. The problem is that different providers disagree on what information each contact should have or what to name a particular piece of information, meaning that when you import contacts from Google into Fastmail, not all of the information gets through and there is some extra Google-specific information left over. For example at least some of my contacts in Fastmail had some text that gave a URL for the contact’s Google profile picture. I also had to go through and manually fix up a bunch of names that are not clearly just two words (for example “Foo van Bar” would confuse it and just drop the “van”) as well as re-adding most of the birthdays that just didn’t go through at all.

If I had thousands of contacts this would be a real problem, but thankfully I’m not famous so I could just go through all 188 people on my contact list and do whatever fix-up was needed. A little tedious but as a one-time action it wasn’t too bad. It was also the last item on my “Setup Fastmail” TODO list though, so with that we’re done with setup!

I tried it out for a few days but then decided that realistically I didn’t see much reason to go back, and maintaining multiple inboxes simultaneously sounds like more effort than its worth so I made the purchase and for the past 3 months have been a happy customer of Fastmail. In that time I haven’t really had anything to complain about. I had to contact customer service to ask a question about contacts once and they responded fairly quickly and were helpful. I did once get a notification that there was an error while fetching mail from my GMail account but that seemed to resolve itself without any intervention and otherwise I have nothing to complain about!

A conclusion

So that has been my experience migrating to from GMail to Fastmail. It doesn’t have all sorts of integrations like GMail does (that’s the point) and it doesn’t have a long list of bells and whistles but I am a simple man with simple requirements. I want to pay somebody to host a mail server for me so that I don’t have to administer one myself. Fastmail does that, they do only that, and they do it quite well. I am glad that they do.