Six Months with mailbox.org

When I began using mailbox.org first it was available in German only. It’s available in English now, I’m a user for about half a year, and I think it’s a highly attractive and affordable alternative to established mail/calendar/contacts/storage providers. Time for a little review.

Motivation

Previously, I had only moved my emails away from Google, but calendar and contacts remained there for the sake of easily syncing them with my Android phone. Setting up OwnCloud with my shared hosting was too much of a hassle for me (I’m just a little geek, not a big geek), and the webmail frontends (Roundcube etc.) were all pretty ugly too.

With my slow but steady (and ongoing) exodus from Google’s products and services, my primary reason for choosing mailbox.org was that they offered a complete replacement for not just mail, but also calendar, contacts (and online file storage and tasks, though I’m not really using those) together with the promise to support all common devices for access and sync. Ever since phones and PDAs began to sync with the so-called “PIM” (personal information manager) programs like Outlook, I found it extremely handy and important to have mail, contacts and calendar in sync. And I wanted that in one package (and from a provider that I can pay with my money, not with my data, and giving up privacy).

Setup

Trying the service for free for a couple of days (mailbox.org allows you to test it for up to 30 days without charge) convinced me and I bought one year worth of credit (it’s 1 Euro per month, which equals about $1.30). The credit is deducted as you use the service, which means that you can switch plans any time, and use your existing credits towards a different plan. Payments from the US can be conveniently made via PayPal.

And then it was time to setup all my computers and mobile devices with mailbox.org and transfer my contacts and calendars to them. I exported the contacts on my Android phone, and stored the resulting .VCF file online, same for the calendar(s) and the .CAL file.

Windows (Thunderbird)

Windows 7 doesn’t have a built in mail and calendar app. One has to download the “Windows Live” app suite for that (but I’m not using it). It does have contacts management, but doesn’t offer CardDAV sync (nor does the “Live Calendar” offer CalDAV sync). I didn’t want to use it anyway, but I find it worthy to point out that Microsoft’s offering is lacking in that regard.

Thunderbird was my mail client of choice already before switching to mailbox.org – but unfortunately, it’s not a complete suite either. The calendar plugin “Lightning” requires separate installation, and CalDAV and CardDAV sync need a plugin too. But the setup is explained in the FAQ articles on the mailbox.org site, so it was easy to get it up and running.

When I tried to import my contacts, Thunderbird would import only ONE contact from the .VCF file. Bummer. (I left it like that because I wanted to see how different systems fare against each other, and proceeded to the Macbook for setup.)

As I was using Thunderbird with Lightning and the SOGO connector (for CardDAV & CalDAV) multiple little problems surfaced: the field associations for contacts differ, there’s always some glitch with calendars and how invites are handled (like you can’t select the calendar to which you’d like to add an event when you receive an invitation – it’s tied to the email address; only when you do NOT have a calendar for that particular email address it will allow you to select a calendar. In my case, that meant I had to remove my Google Calendar from Lightning, to avoid invites that were being sent to my old email address automatically being added to the Google Calendar, instead of the mailbox.org calendar).

All in all, Windows 7 and Thunderbird are poorly equipped for what appears to me as one of the basic requirements today: sync mail, calendar and contacts with a server. I don’t know if Windows 8 is any better in that regard, but primarily, I’m severely disappointed with Thunderbird. It’s really incomplete. I’m astonished that no complete, out-of-the-box solution like Evolution exists for the Windows platform.

Oh and, I’d like to add that I tried the Mulberry client as well, but it’s default setup doesn’t even include encrypted client/server connections. The program is clearly outdated.

Mac OS X

Apple has built-in support for CalDAV and CardDAV accounts and sync, and Mac OS X of course comes with it’s own mail, calendar and contacts applications (as it should be, Microsoft!). Setup was easy and straightforward, but because you’re creating three accounts (mail, contacts, calendar) you’ll have to enter server details as well as username and password again and again (and again, since incoming and outgoing mail servers are of course separately configured).

When I tried to import the .VCF file with my contacts however (some 300 people, ie. not that much) the system choked. The contacts app hung, and I don’t know what happened in the background, but it appeared to me as if it hammered the mailbox.org servers with so many requests that my home IP address was temporarily blacklisted. I was only able to access the service after switching my phone from WiFi to 4G, and temporarily use it for internet access. It was a one-time occurrence and never happened again.

As a result, I ended up with a partial import of my contacts – it looked complete at first, but some contacts where missing. I only noticed that a couple of days later, when contacts I was looking for were missing on my phone. Going through the whole import process and risking to get temporarily blacklisted again seemed like too much trouble, so I simply left it at that, and when I found a missing contact I extracted it from my .VCF file, and added it manually. Not ideal, but not too much of an ordeal either.

iOS

Same as Mac OS X – setup is relatively painless. iOS includes all the necessary connectors. And while mailbox.org does offer an ActiveSync (“Exchange” server) connector, I went for CalDAV, CardDAV and IMAP – I like free and open protocols, and ActiveSync is Microsoft’s own technology. No need to support that as a user when there are free and open alternatives.

Android

Here comes the pain-in-butt part. Android does not come with CalDAV and CardDAV connectors. It has an Exchange connector (just called “Corporate”) and I initially used it, but for whatever reason, I found both my contacts and calendar empty multiple times. Highly annoying. Something is messed up there, and I don’t know if it’s the Android connector or mailbox.org, but I switched to (paid) CalDAV and CardDAV connectors from the Play Store, and haven’t had that problem ever since. Dear Google, not including CardDAV and CalDAV connectors in Android while at the same time forcing users of other devices who wish to sync with your services to use exactly these protocols is pretty poor style.

Setting up the 3rd party connectors didn’t make me feel too comfortable initially – when you search for them, you also find patches in the Play Store that are supposed to fix glitches on Samsung devices with certain Android versions, and whatnot. Do I need them? I have a Samsung device. I’m running CyanogenMod. I had no idea, so I installed them. I can’t help it, Android feels more and more like a bit of a mess to me.

Also, setting up a “Corporate” account on Android requires/includes Android’s native email app, and that app is somewhat flawed (it breaks threading because it doesn’t include the RFC “references” and “in-reply-to” headers in replies, for example). When I initially used Android’s “Corporate” connector I disabled mail sync because I’m using AquaMail Pro as my IMAP client on Android, and I’m very happy with it.

Using CardDAV, CalDAV and a separate email client on Android of course means that, just like on every other platform, you have to set up four account configurations. Sheesh. One can only wonder why there are only proprietary solutions to set up the whole shebang in one go.

Critique

There are some technical limitations with mailbox.org – nothing big, but perhaps worth mentioning if you consider making the move. Not being able to share my calendar as read-only with my wife (who is not using mailbox) is one of them. She can’t see what’s in my calendar. Another would be that contact’s birthdays are only shown online automatically, but not added to the regular calendar. Bit of a hindrance because I certainly don’t use their web interface on mobile devices, and I prefer using my local client software (Thunderbird) when I’m at my computer.

My biggest concerns are about the continued slow response times of the mailbox.org support. I guess I’m somewhat spoiled by my domain hoster, who responds to support inquires in under an hour, even in the middle of the night – with mailbox.org’s support, you have to be prepared to wait for days. Their support hours seem to be limited to business hours (in Germany, of course) on weekdays. Which means they work when I’m fast asleep (well, almost). There’s clearly room for improvement, but for a relatively new service and at that price, I’m not really complaining about that. Yet… because I haven’t run into any major problems yet. 🙂

Benefits

And as I kept using mailbox.org I came to appreciate a number of benefits:

  • servers are located in Germany and fall under German jurisdiction
  • encryption and privacy are high on their list of priorities
  • being able to enforce in-transit encryption via the secure.mailbox.org identity/alias
  • their SSL certificates are issued by non-US authorities
  • most recently, the ability to use my own domain’s mail with their service
  • a clean and really useful web interface (Open-Xchange), if I choose to use it
  • a spam filter that rejects spam in real time instead of filtering it

I could go into detail for each of these bullet points and explain why they are important, but you’ll find most of that explained on the mailbox.org website in their Help/FAQ section.

All in all, I’m really happy that I’ve made the move to mailbox.org – it’s great that there is a service that combines most of the things that I’m looking for and care about in a very attractively priced package.

EDIT and full disclosure: after writing and publishing this article, the CTO of mailbox.org reached out to me and asked if I’d accept a free 6-month credit towards my 1€ plan as a small token of their appreciation for my review. I gladly accepted it. My article was written, completed and published before that, so it didn’t have any influence on my review.

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13 Comments

  1. That’s all fine Alex, but this commenting here is a real buttpain. See we have to fill in crap to comment here. Where as if this was posted to G+ properly with comments ON life would be easier, for us the readers.

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  2. Right Alex. This posting like this is a real pain in the arse. See you forced me to sign in here, then WordPress redirected me and I had to sign in there to. Why not just leave comments on at G+?

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    1. Because the content is here, on Google+ is just a link. So do you have any comments about the article or are you just ranting happily to place some cuss words? Seems a bit counterproductive.

      (and for what it’s worth, you don’t have to sign in to anything – if you have a WordPress account you can use it, if you don’t you can just fill in name & email address, that’s enough; even the URL is optional – sorry if that is SUCH a burden!)

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  3. Nice to read your review of this service. Very interesting! Now I can consider trying the service. And their reward for your review makes the people behind even more likeable 🙂

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  4. Thanks Alex! Very thorough and the bullet points make a good case just for the reasons I was looking for a real “private” email service….and not one that was looking make a buck off of my personal information and email content. It seems the services that really want to keep their customer’s content secure are NOT in the U.S. ….disturbing
    Thanks again
    Mark

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  5. Can anyone help re setting up a domain on mailbox.org ?

    I have set my security key within DNS but its not being recognised / validated by mailbox.org, and , as Alex said above, despite submitting a help request, no response has been forthcoming from mailbox.org

    I have owned a couple of domains for several years, and have used Google Apps, and Runbox, to host my email in the past, without issue, but, for some reason, whatever I try, just cannot set my security up in a way that enables mailbox.org to recognise it, so that I can move on to setting up MX records.

    Any help gratefully appeciated.

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  6. Thanks for the comprehensive review, Alex. I’m currently with Fastmail, have been for many years, but their hosting my in the US makes me nervous, now that service providers have by presidential diktat to open up to the government there pretty much on request. Also, Fastmail is looking a bit expensive compared to mailbox.org. The old tariff that I’m still on there costs my over 30 euros/month, but mailbox will only charge 20 euros for a very similar feature set.

    So now you’ve been with them for some time, would you still recommend them (ignoring if you can the bung they sent you!)?

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      1. Hi Alex,
        No I hadn’t seen the update but I have now.

        Among the Fastmail features I value are its customer focus and configurable spam filtering. I’d not want to lose those, so your experience plants question marks in my mind as to whether MBO is the right alternative for me – even though it sounds to me like your criteria for an email provider are similar to mine.

        Thanks for the insights.

        Like

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