The Best Gmail Alternative for Laptop & Phone (August 2019)
The Complete Guide to Getting off of Gmail
Here’s the end result, including an optional dark theme to reduce eye strain:
Update 2023: Spark now has a desktop email app for Windows, and one for MacOS that I’m using. And for anyone using a browser based email system, I recommend the dark reader browser extension.
Ok, so I’ve done the research. I wanted to be able to have the best Gmail alternative (because, let’s face they do a great job with UI). I wanted to have the best email UI for my computer and phone (a unified solution that Google solves well) with as little compromise on the overall experience as possible. I don’t want to feel like I’m in the stone age while dealing with my emails. I also wanted to have a great email dark theme for laptop use that reduces eye strain. It took some searching, trying out different products and services, some contemplation, and some problem solving. I was able to put together a solution with everything I wanted!
In my quest, I tried Protonmail (cannot search email bodies, can only use their mail app which is pretty limited), Kolabnow (had an immediate ugh reaction to their UI and they have some of the worst customer service I’ve ever experienced), Mailbird (no spam filter!), Outlook (no hope of a fully dark theme) and Thunderbird. The funny thing is, Thunderbird is the best solution and it’s the only one that is free and cross platform! And critically, Thunderbird has a trainable spam filter.
So if you’d like to try this out, here are the steps:
Step 1: Email Address
The first step in setting up a Gmail alternative is having a new email address. If you already have the email address(es) you need, go ahead and skip to step 2. After trying all the options, I think the best solution is to get your own, private email address. It takes some focus, but I’ll walk you through all the steps. And once this is done, it’s done. You have your own, private email for good!
I Don’t Have My Own Domain Name or Website
If your only email address is email@example.com, then to follow this guide you’ll need to purchase your own domain. (i.e., myname.com or something.me) Any domain name will work. If you’re not going to host a website with the domain and just want to set up email, then I recommend one of these GoDaddy plans (this will be your only required cost):
Email essentials plan:
5GB of email storage: $4.99/month
50GB of email sotrage: $5.99/month
They will try to upsell you, but for a personal email, you only need one of the above.
If you already have a hosted website, then you can talk to your hosting provider about adding additional emails if you want to have multiple addresses. For example, you might have two addresses:
Personal: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
In this case, check with your hosting provider about adding an additional, personal email to your account.
Or, you may have a domain name with GoDaddy for example, and your site is hosted elsewhere. In this case you might talk to GoDaddy about adding an additional domain name for private emails for example. In this case, see the GoDaddy email plans mentioned in the previous box.
The Thunderbird & Spark setup discussed in this guide can handle all your email accounts. It’s great!
I Already Have My Own Domain Name & Website
Step 2: Install & Configure Thunderbird (with Optional Dark Theme)
1. Download and install the latest version of Thunderbird.
2. Thunderbird offers thousands of themes. If you’d like a fully dark theme, then install the TT Deepdark theme: https://addons.thunderbird.net/en-US/thunderbird/addon/tt-deepdark/ and then proceed to step 3 to complete the dark theme.
Note: there is a known bug when installing it, just follow the instructions and it will install fine.
Install custom themes in Thunderbird here:
3. Once you have the theme installed, if you want to change the background color and text color of the read and compose email windows, in Thunderbird go to (you have to press the alt key to get the top menu to appear): Tools > Options > Display > Fonts & Colors > Colors. Set the background color and text color you want (I use #2e2e2e and #cccccc) and then be sure to choose “Always” for the colors override setting.
Step 3: Install the Spark Email App on Your Phone (iOS or Android)
Here’s the link for Spark if you need it…
You’ll need to get the IMAP settings from your email account(s) to be able to connect the Spark app (and Thunderbird). The settings look something like this and whoever hosts your email can provide this information for you.
Sample IMAP Settings
IMAP Is The Way To Go
Assuming you want to access your email accounts across devices, you’ll want to use the IMAP protocol to connect your computer and phone to your email accounts and get them working properly.
It works well. If you look at an email on your phone for example, and then delete it, you won’t have to re-delete it when you open Thunderbird on your computer.
So there you go. you now have a complete Gmail alternative for your computer and phone.
Bonus: Cool Tip for Windows Users: System Wide Keyboard Shortcut to Compose a New Email
Step 1: Set Thunderbird as the default email client.
- Go to a folder where you’d like the shortcut stored (like Documents)
- Right click in the folder and choose New > Shortcut
- For the location, enter: “mailto:”
- Hit “Next”
- Give the shortcut a name (i.e., Compose Email)
- Click “Finish”
- Now, right click on the shortcut you just created and choose “Properties”
- In the Shortcut Key field, type the letter “Z”. You can choose almost any key you want. The key combination must include CTRL + ALT or CTRL + SHIFT. So for example: CTRL + SHIFT + Z
- Press “OK”
You’re all set! Now you have a system wide keyboard shortcut to compose new emails. Awesome.
Note: if you try to move the shortcut after setting it up, it will stop working. In this case just open the shortcut properties again and re-enter the key combo you want and hit “Apply.”
Step 4: Snooze Emails in Thunderbird
If you’ve gotten used to snoozing emails, you know it’s a must have. Fortunately, there is an add on that allows you snooze emails in Thunderbird:
- Download the latest version of the add on directly from the link above to your desktop.
- Go to the add-on manager in Thunderbird and, under the gear icon at the top, choose “Install Add-on from File”
- Once Mailmindr is installed, restart Thunderbird.
- Go back to the add ons manager, and select “Options” for Mailmindr.
- Click on the “Inbox Zero” tab.
- For all your connected email accounts, select the folder “Later”
- Press “Ok” and then restart Thunderbird one more time.
You’re all set. There is now an “Add Reminder” button above the reading pane for emails. All you have to do is press that button, select a time frame and hit “ok.” The email will be moved to the “Later” folder and then reappear at the desired time.
And, you can totally customize the snooze options. For example, you can create a list of options like:
- In an hour
- Later today
- This evening
- Tomorrow morning
- Later this week
It’s totally customizable which is great and you can even set a default value for quick snoozing.
Step 5: Calendar
Yes, the Lightning calendar that comes with Thunderbird is great! And setting it up is a breeze. Here’s the add on you’ll want to use to sync to your existing calendars and task accounts:
Supported account types are:
- CalDAV & CardDAV (this includes iCloud for example and will allow you sync to an apple calendar as well as the reminder app on iPhone)
- Exchange ActiveSync (EAS)
TBSync handles calendars as well as tasks! If you need help connecting your accounts, here’s the documentation: https://github.com/jobisoft/TbSync/wiki/How-to-get-started
Step 6: Contacts
As part of this whole process, I’ve tried using Microsoft’s Outlook.com as well as Apple’s iCloud. Since I have accounts with both companies, functionality is what wins out.
Transferring contacts from Gmail to Outlook.com was a broken process. I would have had to end up manually transferring all my contacts. Transferring contacts to my iCloud account from Gmail was a breeze (took about 2 minutes). Here’s a good article to walk you through those easy steps…
I like your take on these topics. I also found Thunderbird to meet my needs. But, ok, confused on Step 2!! You say download the latest version of Thunderbird (which for me seems to be 91.4.1). Then you give the link to TT DeepDark Add-on. But, that is only compatible through version 60 or 61. I tried it anyway. It would not install. Should I just look for a different dark theme Add-on? You tout this one highly. Have you updated to something else? Thanks.
Hi Tim. This is the latest response in the history of responses (had a health problem). I thought I’d give an update on where I am now:
I just decided to get off all google products. I’ve switched to Spark. They’ve come pretty far.
HOWEVER, the ultimate solution for any browser based email program is a browser extension called “Dark Reader.” It takes all the work out of this subject, and works for all web pages. It’s a life saver. I highly recommend it.
Also, for anyone reading this that is sensitive to light, you may find this website interesting: GiftedConnect.com. It’s all about high sensitivity.