Prepare for a somewhat ranty post, but it doesn’t come from a bad place. I honestly want Fastmail to succeed. I’m eager to see more alternatives for email hosting, and clients (and there are scaringly few).
I also acknowledge that some of the problems I bumped into are quite specific to my own setup, which isn’t common. So in some ways, it’s not about you, Fastmail. It’s me. Make your own judgement.
TL;DR – Fastmail is pretty neat, but their support sucks. Their support ticket system sucks even more, and their product is not clear enough to work without support. From my personal experience anyway.
I’ve been reading lots of positive comments about Fastmail on HackerNews. Including a couple of posts listing people’s experience switching to Fastmail from Gmail.
I am half-hosting my own email domain, but primarily use Gmail. My setup is definitely odd, but it works. My domain MX record points to my own server, where I run a cocktail of postfix/spamassassin/postgrey/dovecot/milters/etc. Email gets stored and is accessible via POP3/IMAP as well as via Roundcube webmail. But I also forward my email to a sub-domain hosted on Google. And so I tend to read and write emails mostly using Gmail. I was lucky to join at a time when it was free for a domain with up to 50 accounts. So I pay nothing, and get quite a lot. But with all the privacy implications and reliance on Google, I was wondering if I could move to Fastmail.
My primary requirements were: Storage and Interface.
Storage, because I don’t want to store Gigs of emails on my own, set up extensive backups and so on (I currently auto-archive old emails into tar files, so I can restore them, but they’re not searchable or easily accessible on a day-to-day basis). Interface, because Roundcube isn’t nearly a match to Gmail, and I’m not aware of any decent mobile email client for iPhone (I enjoyed K-9 on Android though). Fastmail fulfilled both of these pretty well. Their storage was ample (25 Gigs for $50/year). Their UI was pretty neat and fast. Their iPhone client was good-enough for me as well.
First round of problems
I started-off by setting up my domain on Fastmail, the way I imagined would be best. I defined my top-level domain and set an alias with the sub-domain to forward emails to. There was a setting to “Route all email internally” on the top domain. So I thought this should work as expected. It didn’t. I was getting strange bounces from Fastmail. That’s where I decided to contact their support for the first time.
I’ve read in a couple of places that the Fastmail support is great. This is something you don’t get with Gmail and is worth paying for. My experience was totally different.
The first response suggested I upgrade to the paid plan, even though it was still during the trial period. I didn’t mind that much, because I truly believed I would use the service for long. So I upgraded. But the problem didn’t go away.
At this point, I already bumped into two shortcomings of the Fastmail support:
The support ticket system was horrific. It was like going back to 1999. You can’t reply to support tickets via email. The interface is ugly. It’s hard to differentiate between my messages and the answers. It was a real turn-off after being quite impressed with the email client interface. I think I couldn’t even attach more than one file…
It took quite a bit of time to get answers. Ok, I wasn’t expecting an instant response, but because my case required several back-and-forth, it really took too long to wait a few hours between each interaction. Every mistake or misunderstanding in one of the interactions just makes the whole process longer still.
So with these constraints, it took a few days to get things working. I didn’t give up on Fastmail at this point, but was unimpressed and slightly worried what might happen if there was a real problem …
Second round of problems
So my email and domains were all routed correctly at this point. Sweet. Next step: import my email from Gmail. I had around 11Gb of emails on Gmail, so I knew this will take some time. Nevertheless, I was encouraged to see that Gmail was explicitly mentioned, and that they had an option to avoid duplicates. I knew that a naive IMAP import might have trouble with multiple labels on Gmail. And surely this wasn’t the first migration FastMail had to do. I therefore kicked-off the process to migrate everything into a separate folder, and avoid duplicates. I had full faith that FastMail will take care of everything the Right Way. Wouldn’t you??
After a few days of the migration running, I noticed that my email usage was climbing up way above 11Gb. At this point I suspected something wasn’t working properly. I promptly contacted the Fastmail support and asked about the discrepancy with the storage space. That’s where the 3rd shortcoming of Fastmail emerged (and that was the last straw):
- First level support is incredibly incompetent. I was getting copy&paste replies and it was quite obvious they didn’t read my questions. They did not understand the problem at all. The best I could hope for is being bumped-up to 2nd level support, which was better.
It took several times to explain to the support staff that sending back a copy&paste reply does not actually answer any of my questions. I was then later given wrong instructions about the option to choose in order to purge duplicate messages, but even after finding it by myself, the system was returning 500s every time I tried it. I forwarded the error message with all necessary details, but the responses I was getting were along the lines of “you’re doing something wrong”. I’m sorry, but no system should 500 if I do something wrong. Not a solid system, anyway. It looked like the system wasn’t able to process duplicate flagging or deletion when the folder size was in the region of 25Gb, or perhaps that since at this point, my Inbox was over the size limit, strange things started to happen. I don’t know.
At this point, I was stuck with a 100% full mailbox, which stopped accepting emails, and support staff that weren’t being helpful at all. To make matters worse, the migration process wasn’t giving any progress indication whatsoever. You get notified via email when it finishes. That’s it. There’s no way to pause it. No way to see how many Gbs or estimated time left. Nothing.
I did eventually figure out my “own” workaround to delete duplicates. I simply had to select a smaller sub-folder, and purge duplicates there, instead of the “master” folder. But at that point, I decided it’s not worth it. The support staff wasn’t even clever enough to tell me to do that. Not quite what I’d expect from the same people who created JMAP – a faster and better alternative to IMAP.
I really enjoyed the Fastmail interface, and was happy to pay for the service that gives ample storage. I truly want to support services that compete with Gmail’s dominance. Even in a small way. From reading HackerNews, I have a lot of respect for FastMail’s developers and they’re doing lots of things well. It just didn’t feel as refined or as solid as I was expecting it, and their support did not give me much confidence at all.
I know that if something went wrong with my Gmail account, nobody would even bother replying to my email. Google doesn’t need me even if I was paying them. Let alone when I don’t. Unfortunately however, I still somehow feel more safe with Google than switching to FastMail.
In the interest of transparency, here’s the two conversations I had with Fastmail support (copied from their support system and converted to PDF). ticket #1 and ticket #2… Note that the conversation is in reverse chronological order, as they appear on the FastMail support system.