A Few Weeks with ProtonMail

Category: Comp

Back on Memorial Day, I finally took the plunge and moved my email hosting to ProtonMail. I signed up for the professional tier for 75€ per year. I also moved DNS hosting for MGZI.NET over to AWS Route 53.

I have been slowly weaning myself off of various Google service. Ever since Google killed off Google Reader, the writing has been on the wall for most of the fun Google projects. Of all the services that Google provides, Maps and GMail have been the hardest to get rid of.

GMail is a genuinely useful service. Prior to this, I had used web mail services like HoTMaiL and Yahoo!, and self-hosted web mail systems like SquirrelMail and Horde. These systems tend to be slow, and make it difficult to organize your email. They also tended to have very limited storage capacity, forcing you to delete (or archive) old emails.

GMail changed all of this by encouraging users to store all of their mail, forever. Google leveraged their search technology and lots of extra storage capacity to allow users to quickly access a massive email archive. Once the smartphone hit the scene, Google made it easy to access your email wherever you were (competing with BlackBerry).

The downside of this free service was that Google was scanning all of your email for 'targeted' advertising. In the web interface, you'd see ads relevant to your email messages. This didn't seem to carry over to the mobile app version, and eventually the advertising aspect became invisible. However, the targeting was still tied to your user ID (as well as your non-GMail correspondents). The extent of Google's tracking in this regard is downright creepy -- but the service worked very well. Scanning such as massive volume of email allowed them to create a very effective spam filter, for instance.

Unfortunately, it worked well until it didn't. I never truly committed to GMail, and always kept my main email directed through MGZI.NET. This meant that all email went through Your-Site's email server. This added a time delay to all incoming mail, as GMail would poll Your-Site for new messages. (The polling rate seemed to be random.) Over the years, Your-Site hasn't kept up with the latest trends in email, so half my outgoing mail ended up going directly to spam.

Moving over to ProtonMail was fairly easy. After signing up for their service, and resigning myself to the fact that I needed their professional tier (for the catch-all email), the real transition started.

The first thing I had to take care of was my domain itself. Since I wanted to move away from Your-Site completely, I had to find a new web hosting provider as well (more on this later). Since my website had been showing "database error" anyway, I set up a small static page in an S3 bucket, and then set up Route 53. It basically went like this:

  1. Log in to the OpenSRS control panel, and copy down all of the zone records (and domain unlock code).
  2. Carefully format the data as a zone file.
  3. Import the zone file into Route 53.
  4. Transfer MGZI.NET over to Amazon (bye bye $11).
  5. Wait for the changes to propagate.

After that, I went in to my ProtonMail settings, and added MGZI.NET as a custom domain. They provided a few additional bits of information for the zone file (MX/DKIM records, plus a 'verification code' to prove ownership). Once the DNS had propagated around the world, ProtonMail became my defailt MX host.

The next step was dealing with GMail. ProtonMail provides a free (Windows) tool for importing your email messages. I ran their import tool, which took several hours, and it mysteriously failed to import about a dozen messages. The tool provides no feedback as to which messages failed, so I ended up grabbing a Google Takeout bundle anyway.

My initial impressions of the ProtonMail webmail client is quite good. It's a little slower than GMail, but still fairly fast. Getting emails delivered directly to MGZI.NET instantly was a refreshing change, as well. The search capabilities are also good, although the default inbox view is a bit lacking.

I then set up Thunderbird, and connected it through the ProtonMail bridge. My impressions of this are not so good. First, a heavy-weight desktop client in addition to the email client isn't really that appealing. Second, Thunderbird and the bridge can get out of sync, with Thunderbird displaying the wrong message, or sent messages 'failing' then getting delivered. This problem seemed to taper off after Thunderbird had downloaded the entire contents of my inbox a few times. (The exact same messages being duplicated in the Inbox, All Mail and Imported folders.)

Thunderbird seems to work, but it has three main problems:

  1. Font sizes seem to be random. Even if you configure Thunderbird to override all font styles, the displayed text can vary between super-tiny and huge, just going from message to message.
  2. The inbox doesn't refresh until you click on another folder, then back on to the Inbox -- even though a notification shows up.
  3. No tray icon -- the best you can do is minimize the window.

The next client I set up was the ProtonMail Android app. My impressions of the ProtonMail app are just bad. It seems to share Thunderbird's desire to load your entire inbox -- I could only get acceptable performance after moving most of my actual email out of the Inbox folder. Secondly, it doesn't notice that emails have been marked read. In order to clear the unread status for a message, you basically have to open the email again from the app. This is particularly annoying if you get an alert on your phone, then read the email on the desktop, then get another email message -- the app notification shows both emails.

Overall, ProtonMail is working well, but there is a lot of room for improvement. The biggest weakness seems to be the Android app -- the performance is just bad, and I miss the swipe left/right feature of GMail. Also, if I had to do the transition again, I would just use Google Takeout, then use Thunderbird to copy the messages over IMAP. If you make the web client your primary interface, it's quite good.