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Gmail vs Outlook.com: Which one is better?

Which is the best for business and productivity? We put Gmail vs Outlook, 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 altogether, legacy messaging systems have 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 vs Outlook.com. Both services are bundled into enterprise software suites, though both the email services can be used freely as standalone products. 

What is the history of Gmail and Outlook?

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. The web version of Outlook actually started life as 'Hotmail' in 1996, and was changed to MSN Hotmail and then Windows Live Hotmail before finally adopting the Outlook branding used by Microsoft's business email client in 2013.

Gmail vs Outlook: Interface

Being the two biggest players in the email space naturally means we're talking about a clean pair of interfaces. 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 2018 redesign of Gmail saw 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, which can be accessed through the settings menu.

Gmail vs Outlook: Folders, labels, and searches

One of the most significant things Google has done to differentiate Gmail from other email services is to forgo folders in place of labels. This means that messages can be tagged with specific labels depending on your organisational system, with individual emails capable of carrying multiple labels. The obvious advantage of this is that emails can be organised into several places at once without the need for messy duplicates which can arise from a folder-based system.

If Gmail is set up through a traditional email client, labels will appear as folders, and emails with multiple labels will appear in multiple folders. This is just one example of why Gmail is best experienced in a browser rather than an external email client.

Google will also automatically filter emails into Primary, Social, and Promotions tabs, sparing you the monotony of sifting through junk mail to find your important messages.

Outlook.com does have some good organisational features, with the traditional folder structure, but also a system of categories. These differ from labels in that they are tags for messages rather than pseudo-folders. You can apply more than one category to a message, but this will not affect its place in folders. 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 first conceived, the convenience of an email service that could be searched as easily as one would use a search engine. Simply typing search terms into the search bar at the top of the webpage should unearth what you're looking for. Users can employ more advanced methods by typing in shortcuts such as "from:" or "to:". Additionally, Gmail is reasonably powerful at deciphering typos, able to deliver messages related to or closely resembling search terms rather than taking purely what it is given by a user.

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 for the last few emails containing photos, for example. Outlook.com's search function is good enough to do the job, but it's nothing exciting, and nowhere near as polished as Gmail.

Gmail vs Outlook: 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, and although it has faced claims of connectivity issues in the past, it generally handles both well. Outlook.com also (unsurprisingly) supports Microsoft's ActiveSync, which is used to synchronise an Exchange mailbox with a mobile device.

We tested setting up Outlook.com and Gmail accounts on the normal Outlook client and Thunderbird, and Gmail did appear to be much faster in setting up and retrieving email and folders for both clients.

Gmail vs Outlook: Storage and attachment limits

Gmail offers 15GB of storage for free but this counts across Gmail and Google Drive (although Google recently moved to offer unlimited storage of photos within certain limits). More storage can be bought in a monthly or yearly subscription format.

Microsoft also offers free users 15GB of storage per Outlook account, though this can be increased to 50GB if you have an active Microsoft365 subscription on your account.

Outlook.com users looking to send large files by email might find themselves disappointed, as the service has a 20MB combined attachment limit. For anything larger than this, Microsoft recommends uploading the files to a cloud storage service such as OneDrive or Outlook.com and then sharing the link to your files in the email instead. 

Gmail also limits the size of attachments to 25MB in size, 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. Gmail will also detect if you've mentioned attachments in the text of an email but not actually attached anything, and check if you've forgotten to include it before you hit send - which is a useful (if slightly creepy) feature.

However, when one goes to upload anything larger than 25MB, Gmail will automatically prompt you with an option to upload the file to your Google Drive, and then attach the files as a shared drive link to your recipient. In this way, it can be considered a more seamless file-sharing experience than the stop-start route Microsoft has taken with Outlook.com. 

Gmail vs Outlook: Extensions and integrations

Google allows users to make the most of some features in Gmail that might not necessarily work as expected. They’re part of something called Google Labs, which users are able to activate, at their own risk since the features are usually experimental and haven’t been released fully on the Gmail platform. As you might have guessed, some of these features tend to be less useful than others, while a number of them are actually quite good.

The tech giant has ensured that Gmail has the capacity to integrate with the whole Google Workspace offering, as well as Google Docs, making it very useful indeed. This helps to provide you with a fairly seamless experience, since you’re able to directly open attachments sent to you via email through a Google offering like Sheets or Docs. Then, you can work on them immediately before they automatically save to your Drive. You can do all of this without having to exit Google’s ecosystem of products or use a third-party product that could potentially change the format of your documents or files.

That being said, the email platform also allows for you to use third-party apps if needs be, such as customer relationship management tools. You can even browse Google’s Apps marketplace where independent software vendors try and flog their products to Google Apps or Gmail users. You’re even able to take your contacts from the social media platforms you use and import them into your Gmail address book. Additionally, if you receive an email in a different language, or want to check if you understand it correctly, you can use the built-in Google Translate capability by clicking a single button to easily translate the message, a simple function that is missing from Outlook.

When it comes to Outlook, you’ll be happy to know that the extensions can be completely combined with OneDrive and Microsoft 365 apps, even if the tech giant arrived a little later than others to the extensions phenomenon. It doesn’t matter if you’re using the platform on web, mobile, or desktop, Outlook’s add-ins work similarly across them all. Unfortunately some of the add-ons don’t apply to specific kinds of devices or messages, but thankfully the extensions are supported in Outlook on the web in Office 365, Outlook 2013, and even in Outlook 2016 for Mac.

Despite this, you can easily access OneNote Online, PowerPoint, Excel, and Word through Outlook.com, as well as something called the Sway tool which helps users to put together multimedia stories and is highly acclaimed.

Gmail vs Outlook: Spam, filters, and email management

Gmail’s spam filtering function works effectively, we’ve used it for a number of years and have had no serious problems with it. However, the occasional spam email does unfortunately make its way through the filter once or twice a year, and you can rest assured knowing that false positives are basically non-existent. Gmail is also useful for filtering out emails that you don’t want which aren’t categorised as spam, also known 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. It also offers quite useful tools to prevent you accidentally deleting emails that you need.

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 incoming emails from a specific sender, remove all but the most recent from a sender, or delete emails from more than ten days ago.

Is Gmail better than Outlook?

While individual features vary to raise one service over the other at times, on the whole, the divide comes largely down to preference. Neither one has a ‘silver bullet’ feature that really makes it stand out from the competition, nor can it be said that switching from one to the other will revolutionise your email experience.

While it may be easier to search for email in Gmail, Outlook.com is, understandably, more tightly integrated with Microsoft's wider productivity suite. If you have to pick one for day-to-day operations, however, Gmail just slightly edges out Outlook.com for user interface and quality of life.

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