Gmail vs Outlook.com: Which one is better?

Which is the best for business and productivity? We put the two biggest email services head-to-head to find out

While the likes of Slack, Zoom and Microsoft Teams would rather you stopped sending emails, the legacy messaging software has proven to be future-proof. Despite the many instant messaging services available to us, email is still king.

A big part of its endurance might well be the need to have an email address to sign up to services like Slack and Zoom, making it something of a foundation for modern life. And there are two main contenders for our email needs - Google and Microsoft. 

To be more specific, that's Gmail - formally Google Mail - and Outlook. Both services are bundled into enterprise software suites, though both the email services can be used freely as a standalone product. 

History

Gmail was first released on April fool's day in 2004, but it's no joke. It quickly became the main challenger to Microsoft's much older Outlook service. Outlook actually started life as 'Hotmail' in 1996 and was changed to MSN Hotmail and then Windows Live Hotmail before finally settling on Outlook in 2013

Interface

Being the two biggest players in the email space naturally means we're talking about a clean pair of interfaces. Gmail used to be a white letter trimmed with red but that's changed to a blue, yellow, green, and red 'M' shape to match the parent company's colour schemes. Outlook is a little less expansive, sporting a simple blue aesthetic. 

Outlook.com takes its cue from the Windows Modern UI style, also known as the Metro user interface, with Gmail until recently considered the "uglier" of the two. However, a recent redesign to Gmail has seen its aesthetics and user experience vastly improve - looking far more in line with Outlook.com. Gmail had previously prioritised simplicity, although many would describe this as plainness. The redesign, thankfully, improves on the feel while retaining the ability for users to concentrate on emails themselves rather than face any distractions.

The reading pane on Outlook.com is by default switched off but can be enabled quite simply. Gmail also features a reading pane, but it can be enabled through the quick settings menu. Gmail also has a reading pane, switched off by default too, but is much easier to enable.

Folders, labels, and searches

The big thing 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.

Connectivity

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 (Google recently moved to offer unlimited storage of photos within certain limits). More storage can be bought.

Microsoft also offers free users 15GB of storage per Outlook account. But it was previously unclear just how much storage you get depending on which products you used. If you have an Office 365 subscription you get 1TB of storage to cover all Microsoft products, for instance.

Gmail also limits the size of attachments to 25MB in size (this also includes the message as well) and takes longer to upload images. 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 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, as well as the wider G Suite. This is pretty seamless with, for example, the ability to open attachments in a Google App, 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 CRM apps. Google offers its Apps Marketplace as a means for third-party ISVs 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 Microsoft 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.

Spam, filters, and email management

Having used Gmail for several years, we can conclude that its spam filtering works effectively. Once or twice a year one spam email gets through, and false positives are almost non-existent. It is also good for filtering out unwanted emails that aren't spam (sometimes referred to as bacon).

Gmail does match ads with email content, which bothers some users, but these ads are usually filtered into the social or promotions tabs and don't interfere with inbox use. 

Outlook.com's email and spam filtering is less sophisticated (much of it has to be done manually), but has some features that put it ahead of Gmail. One such feature is Sweep. This can get rid of all emails, all from ten days ago or keep the last one from a particular sender or block future emails from a sender.

Conclusion

There's very little that separates the two. There aren't enough killer features in Outlook.com to entice Gmail users and vice versa. While it may be easier to search for email in Gmail, Outlook.com is, understandably, more tightly integrated with Microsoft's wider productivity suite. For general day-to-day operations, however, Gmail is still the email platform to beat.

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