Fastmail review: basic service for a premium price
If you've recently found out about the most popular email service providers' privacy issues, you're not alone. Fastmail, however, has had people's privacy on their minds since the late '90s. For a really long time, this mail service was the go-to choice if you wanted secure communications.
A secure email provider is a simple way to ensure your communications remain private, but they're difficult to get right. Yet with such a long tenure on the market, surely they've managed to succeed? Let's find out in our Fastmail review.
Fastmail: main pros and cons
- No ads
- Efficient and highly customizable spam filters
- Extensive notification settings
- Support for PGP and IMAP
- No free version
- Five Eyes country
- No end-to-end encryption
What is Fastmail?
Fastmail is a security-focused email service provider. If you're tired of the email services like Gmail that serve you ads, you will find none of that here. However, the service has no free version even for individuals. Fastmail business accounts have a separate tier of offerings, including the option to set up a custom domain and more.
Previously owned by Opera, Fastmail has been operating independently since 2013. The product is run from Australia by Fastmail Pty Ltd., although the main Fastmail servers are based in New York and Amsterdam. In 2019, the product came out with a new visual identity and changed their title from FastMail to Fastmail.
- Proprietary anti-spam filters
- Email search feature
- Calendar, email, and contacts in one app
- Customizable notifications
- Import/export from other email services
If someone has sent you a spam email, you must be on some spam mailing list. Most modern providers have intricate spam filters in place that minimize the junk in your mailbox. Fastmail allows custom spam rule settings that enable you to discard messages without the need to see them instantly. You can configure other messages to go into a specific spam folder.
No message that goes through Fastmail can escape Apache SpamAssassin, an open-source anti-spam filter. Message headers are analyzed on the ever-changing set of rules that determine whether the message is potential spam. For example, it cross-references message headers with the Bayes database of known spam message addresses. It also gives users the possibility to customize it.
You can find the specific email that you need using Fastmail's built-in search feature. You can add advanced search parameters in the email header using To, and From. That sounds like a pretty generic function, but there's more to it. You can save your searches and add them to the sidebar. That helps if you repeatedly find yourself looking for particular emails. You can also search in a specific folder to avoid overlap with the items in the main directory.
It helps that once you get your search results, you can organize them further with an additional set of rules. For example, you can specify a rule that, based on the results, would put all emails that fit the criteria into a separate folder. For productivity, such a feature is a godsend.
Two-factor authentication or 2FA, adds an additional measure of security. Using it, you can set up other requirements when logging in that help to confirm your identity. As of this moment, Fastmail supports 2FA via TOTP apps, separate hardware authenticators, and SMS messages.
This feature protects the safety of your email box even in cases when your password leaks out in the open. This way, even with your password, the attacker cannot achieve anything. There is a requirement to add a recovery phone. That way, if you ever lose a 2FA device, you won't be locked out of your account.
Need a burner email that you could use to receive mail and then quickly dispose of it? Aliases are one of the best solutions for that. You can use up to 600 aliases even on a Basic account. The emails sent to your alias accounts get placed in your separate inbox folder. You can set your aliases to bounce back all incoming messages to avoid spam altogether. Plus, it's super easy to dispose of an alias – you can delete it from the main menu, and the whole operation lasts seconds.
Control what's important
Most likely, a message from someone close is more important to you than a weekly newsletter. Thus, Fastmail gives you the choice of receiving notifications of the emails that are truly important to you, rather than alerting about every single new message. You can enable automatic contact gathering and be alerted only about emails from senders that you know. You can also select the chosen few to be on your VIP list. It's also possible to set up notifications if an email arrives in a particular folder. In short, when you receive a notification from the Fastmail app, you'll know that it's something that you should check right away.
Fastmail security and privacy
You may assume that Fastmail is open-source, but that's only half the answer. The truth is that it's partially open-source. What does this mean? Well, their email service runs on Cytrus IMAP software for servers. Fastmail are active contributors to this truly open-source project.
Then, there is the JSON Meta Application Protocol or JMAP protocol used for email synchronization. It's extremely friendly for mobile devices and is stateless, which genuinely helps with compatibility.
As you've probably noticed, the word "encryption" didn't appear up to this point. That's no coincidence. The reason for that is simple – Fastmail doesn't have end-to-end encryption. It uses encryption, but just server-side. This means that the service provider could theoretically access your communications, which is something that would be impossible with end-to-end encryption.
If you need to send an encrypted mail, you'll have to manually set encryption up and it will have to be done client-side. Such public key encryption measures like S/MIME or PGP are absent here. What you get instead is support for SMTP, POP3, and IMAP. That's far from ideal. Their privacy-minded customers would surely appreciate safer encryption options.
Otherwise, the service uses TLS/SSL that encrypts emails while in transit. It's nothing to scoff at, but Gmail uses precisely the same encryption method, and you won't hear me praising them for their top-notch encryption.
Fastmail is an Australian company, and their main servers are based in New York and Amsterdam. That, combined with the lack of end-to-end encryption, is not a great look for this service. Both Australia and the US are Five Eyes countries. This means intelligence agencies in this surveillance alliance would have ways to access your data should the need arise. Of course, we are talking about a national security matter here, which shouldn't concern regular users, but it's still worth a mention.
Australia is not a privacy-friendly country - it has a draconian active data retention law. There is even a loophole in the legislation that requires cybersecurity service providers to enable backdoors to decipher encrypted messages.
Thus, in terms of privacy, you could certainly do better. For example, Protonmail is based in Switzerland and has end-to-end encryption.
Fastmail data centers
As mentioned, although Fastmail is an Australian company, their data centers are in the US. Their main servers are in a New Jersey, New York Internet data center. There are also several scattered in other locations. For example, there's one in Seattle. The company claims their data centers have 24/7 onsite technical support and active monitoring for anything suspicious.
Fastmail developers also say the staff performs routine maintenance and has no access to your data. Also, all data between data centers is transmitted via an encrypted VPN connection. That's all well and good, but in my opinion, that's not enough considering the scope of surveillance in the US. Yet I must stress again - if you're a regular user, perhaps this shouldn't concern you.
Fastmail pricing and plans
Fastmail has three different plans for different types of needs: Basic, Standard, and Professional. Let's take a look at each of them.
The Fastmail Basic plan provides the best overall package for regular users. You get an ad-free service with calendars, contacts, and 2GB mail storage. Besides, there's also the possibility to add up to 600 aliases. Surely, customer support and mail import functionality are also there. All of this can be yours for $3/month per user. This converts to $30/year if you opt for the yearly plan, which would be $2.50/month.
Considering that the storage isn't encrypted, it's strange that you get only 2 GB. Overall, the price/value ratio seems really strange, especially considering there's no free version.
Fastmail Standard includes all the features that you can find in the Basic version and more. With this plan, you can use custom domains and share them with other users. It adds calendar groups and a snooze feature. The latter allows you to move messages out of your inbox and puts them back in when you are ready to respond.
The best thing about this plan is the expanded storage - up to 30 GB per user. It costs $5/month if you don't want to commit to a yearly plan. Should you decide to be in a long term relationship with this service, it's $50/year or ~$4.17/month.
The difference between storage in Basic and Standard is vast – 28 GB. The price difference is ~$2. That shows how disproportionate the price increase is. You're either stuck with a basic version that underperforms or pay more to get the necessary amount. It's a decision of questionable value.
The Professional plan is a solution for businesses that seek an alternative to Google's G Suite. Whether this move ever succeeds remains to be seen. You get all the features that you've seen in the Standard edition plus not a lot more, actually. The only change is the storage increase from 30 GB to 100 GB and an added infinite email retention archive. This safeguards your emails keeping backups in their servers so that they would never get lost, no matter what.
The price increase is just as steep: from $5/month to $9/month if you opt for a monthly commitment. However, if you subscribe for a year, it costs $90/year or $7.50/month.
The storage increase is good, but whether it's worth that price bump is for you to decide.
Ease of use and setup
First and foremost, Fastmail is a web-based email service that also offers mobile apps. There are no browser extensions and no desktop app. The best you could do if you need a more advanced mail client is integrate Fastmail into Windows Outlook or Apple Mail.
Web browser client
Fastmail may not have plenty of applications, but the number of things you can do with just their web client is huge. You can easily import the data from your previous email service provider or periodically fetch emails from those accounts. This also applies to calendars and contacts. It's possible to classify calendars so that you can separate your work and personal schedules.
Suppose you're in the habit of accidentally deleting important messages. In that case, you can restore all deleted files up to 7 days after you misclicked. When the email is open, you can customize notification messages that pop up on the screen. The customization only seems to work with an open web browser. If you're using Outlook or Apple Mail to fetch your emails, this won't work.
The only thing that seemed out of place for a secure email service was the requirement to provide a phone number. Not only is this inconvenient, but it also links your email with your identity. That's not something that should belong in a private email's resume.
There's even the option to save data on mobile devices. You can turn off the retrieval of remote images in your email messages. Plus, there's plenty of customization options to make the app look the way you want it to look. You can also set up unique notification sounds for your new email and calendar updates alerts. The security is also one of the things that you can reinforce by requiring authentication to enter the app. Overall, mobile apps is where they put a lot of effort, and it shows.
The main Fastmail customer support channel is via tickets. You can submit them from their homepage by indicating your email and submitting a query. The response time varies, but you can expect it to take at least 7 hours. There's no live chat option, so if you need quick help, you're out of luck. Plus, it seems that their customer support is in Australia. So, it's likely that the more significant the timezone difference between your location and Australia, the longer you'll have to wait. You can also use their self-help section on their webpage. In most cases, you should be able to find the needed answer right here.
Fastmail vs ProtonMail
ProtonMail is what you would get if Fastmail developers did more to provide a secure email service. Not only does it not track you. It's as ad-free as it gets. Plus, your mailbox is much safer because your conversations use end-to-end encryption. The kicker is that you get all of this for free forever. You will only have to pay if you need even more features. In terms of security, ProtonMail blows Fastmail out the water.
Fastmail vs Tutanota
Think of Tutanota as a gold standard of how a private and secure email service should be. Not only offering end-to-end encryption but also not requiring any personal information when registering. Plus, each sent email strips all metadata from message headers keeping your IP address private. You also can use this service free of charge and upgrade to the paid plan if you like it. If not, continue using it as a free service as long as you like.
Fastmail vs Zoho Mail
What Bollywood is to Holywood, Zoho Mail, is to Gmail. It's a relatively secure email service from India that offers emails as only one product from their suite. The main selling point is its integration with other products. Plus, you still get end-to-end encryption with 5 GB of storage even as a free user. That's a much better option than what Fastmail has on the menu.
Fastmail review: the bottom line
The biggest drawback of Fastmail is that it's lost between ease of use and privacy. Ultimately, the service tries to wage war at the two frontiers but ultimately underdelivers at both.
If privacy is what you're looking for, Fastmail is not a best choice. It's based in Australia and is not end-to-end encrypted. When it comes to accessibility, the service is locked behind a paywall. Yes, you get to avoid ads, but you can also get identical (and more) offerings with ProtonMail or Tutanota for free.
In conclusion, not only do you have to pay up if you want to access the service, Fastmail doesn't seem to be worth it. At least not when you consider the other alternatives.
Who owns Fastmail?
Fastmail is an independent company owned by Fastmail Pty Ltd. Their other line of products include TopicBox (email management service for groups), and Pobox (extensive mail forwarding service).
Is Fastmail free?
Fastmail used to be free, but the plan ended on July 31st, 2017. Currently, the service is paid only, but it has a 30-day free trial.
Is Fastmail better than Gmail?
Fastmail is a paid service. That is why you won't see a single ad in their products. Gmail, on the contrary, gathers more data on its users to serve them better-suited ads. By definition, this means user tracking. However, since Fastmail is in Australia (and there's no end-to-end encryption), your data might not be in the best place if you value your privacy.
Where are Fastmail servers located?
Although Fastmail is an Australian service, their servers are actually located in the United Stated States and The Netherlands. However, there’s no way to know win which of those countries your inbox is stored.
Related secure emails guides from CyberNews:
ProtonMail Review: one of the most discrete email providers
Zoho Mail Review: closes alternative to Gmail that you could find
Tutanota Review: private email service with a no-nonsense approach