Migrating from Gmail to Fastmail

In 2004, Google launched Gmail. This service changed everything. No longer did you have to worry about running over your few megabytes of quota - your storage space was "unlimited" (with a ticker and everything)! You didn't have to delete messages, you just archived them! Folders were so ninety-ninety-late, there were labels! I got an invite within the first two weeks of it launching, and it was good.

A decade or so later, Google launched Inbox, which brought innovations like bundles, snoozing, hightlights, pinning, sweeping and smart filtering to the delugue of email that flooded your account each day. I switched from Gmail to Inbox, and it was better.

Then, in true Google fashion, it was sacrificed at the altar of project mismanagement (or whatever the lack of project managmeent is called). And it was bad.

Since being forced back to Gmail, I've constantly lamented the death of a service that made dealing with email less painful for me. Gmail is not only without new innovation, but it's also slow - regularly it fails to load new messages, or seemingly loses track of what it should be showing, necessitating a hard refresh. Sure, Google has thrown a few bones at it, like smart replies, but I respond to so few emails that spending a few seconds to formulate a response has never been an issue.

Given these concerns, I realized that the "stickiness" of Gmail was gone for me. I have the means to pay for service, and nothing keeping me on Gmail (other than the fact that everyone's been using my Gmail address for 16 years). Leaving Gmail sounds doable, and I own a personal domain at which I'd love to receive more email. The only question is: where do I go for hosting?

Assessing the Field

At the time of my research, there were a handful of buzzy, well-regarded options, both free and paid.

  • Gsuite would do nothing other than allow me better custom domain integration. It doesn't help that Gsuite accounts are second class citizens in the Android ecosystem.
  • Outlook Premium is Microsoft's offering. However, I'm wary of Microsoft pushing Exchange over more open protocols, so an instant no-go.
  • Self hosting is always an option, but it's risky. Unless one is willing to keep up with security patches, harden their networks, manage backups, and provide reliable connectivity, this is a nostarter. My time is worth more than what I'd save dealing with these potential headaches, so I wrote it off.
  • Protonmail acquired a decent amount of hype because of their security and privacy focused approach to hosting. They went as far as making it so that you needed special tooling to decrypt your messages. This is an attractive offering, but also makes it so that you need to run a compatibility layer to use their service with standard email clients. AAdditionally, they don't offer a calendaring service (which is nice to have as most calendar applications use one's email address as a form of identity).
  • Hey is a service by DHH (of Rails/Basecamp fame) that claims to have a solution for to many of the annoyances that taint ones relationship with their inbox. They're currently in a public beta, and I have an invite. Unfortunately, they're a nonstarter: no custom domain support. This is on their roadmap, but until it happens, no deal.
  • Fastmail is another well-regarded provider. They've been around for a while, have a competitive feature set, and present an air of competence. Of particular interest to me was their Gmail import tool, and robust set of custom domain tooling.

While Protonmail was tempting with its privacy-first approach, email is fundementally insecure. Given my threat model, I went with Fastmail as the sheer amount of functionality won me over.

Switching to Fastmail

Making the the jump was pretty straightforward. I created an account and opted to start with my custom domain. They provided good instructions for configuring DNS settings, and I was off to the races!

Gmail migration

I then turned my attention to Gmail. I once tried downloading my entire Gmail inbox via IMAP. It took ages. Thankfully, Fastmail's integration was quicker than that, and everything was synced over in a few hours.

The clients

I use Gmail for the web, and for Android. While the Gmail client can read IMAP, I opted to jump into the deep end and switched to the Fastmail web and mobile clients.

Web

The web client is noticably snappier for me than the bloated mess that Gmail has become, so switching was generally an upgrade. It also had the added benefit of consuming far less RAM. They have a comparable set of keyboard shortcuts,

Mobile

It's pretty obvious that it's not a native app. My guess is FastMail went with a cross-platform framework, like React Native, to optimize for development speed over user experience. As a result, all the patterns for the platform feel "off".

Performance is okay. I'll occassionally hit stutters, or overly long loading indicators, and the frame rate doesn't feel similar to native apps on my 90 Hz display. Offline caching is hit or miss, and there's no ability to adjust caching per label.

A positive, however, is that one can do almost everything on mobile that they can do on desktop, include set filters (unlike with Gmail). And notifications have been timely and prompt.

Miscellaneous

  • Calendaring - Like Google, FastMail offers an integrated calendaring feature. They don't offer automatic event detection, but things work. I'm not quite ready to switch calendaring services, so I was really happy to discover that, once connected to my Google Calendar, FastMail calendar lets me use it as my default. This is wonderfully considerate.
  • Hangouts - Hi, it's me, one of the 3 people who still use Hangouts. Naturally, it's not integrated with the FastMail webapp, but there's a standalone web client.
  • Smart Categorization - I didn't realize just how reliant I was on Google's smart email categorization. Unfortunately, I'm now back to having to set filter rules to label emails. While tedious for the first few weeks, the work naturally lessened. Additionally, it forced me to confront just how many unnecessary mailing lists I was on, at which point I KonMari'd them from my life.

5 months later...

I wrote most of the above sections 5 months ago. I, a procrastinator, didn't get around to finishing this until just now. In that time, I've had no issues with Fastmail, and plan on continuing to use their service. If this interests you, save on your first year with my referral link!