Microsoft Corp. retail store employees and guests mingle at a pop-up Microsoft Store during Microsoft's annual meeting of shareholders, in Bellevue, Wash.
(Photo: Ted S. Warren, AP)
(USA TODAY) -- Q. Are there any e-mail sites that don't bombard you with ads? I would not mind paying for an e-mail account.
A. In the year and a half since a different reader asked a similar question, several things have changed about the Web-mail market.
Google's Gmail has added a set of automatic filters that try to sweep marketing messages and site-update notices out of your primary inbox and under separate tabs. I generally like them, but I realize not everybody agrees.
Meanwhile, Google has also amped up its presentation of the Gmail ads it automatically places based on software analysis of the text of your messages. They now occupy a more prominent spot on the Gmail site and in Google's just-updated Android app.
Don't like having that much marketing with your mail? At least for now, you can have an ad-free experience using the Gmail Offline app for Google's Chrome browser - already worth using for the ability to read and compose Gmail messages without an Internet connection. You can also set up a standard e-mail program, like Mail for OS X or Outlook for Windows, to synchronize your Gmail to a Mac or PC.
But you can't pay to opt out of Gmail ads entirely. The best you can do is create a separate Google Apps account for $50 a year, then set the Apps account to fetch your Gmail messages.
At Yahoo Mail- refreshed last week with new mobile apps, an updated Web interface and the woefully overdue addition of free downloading or synchronization of your messages to any standard e-mail program- a paid, ad-free option does exist. But it now costs $49.99 a year instead of the $19.99 Yahoo charged before.
Microsoft's Outlook.com, its considerably upgraded replacement for the old Hotmail service, charges only $19.95 a year for an ad-free version. Outlook.com got another boost last month when it finally added standard "IMAP" synchronization- until then, Mac users were stuck using a browser interface or falling back to an older, download-only option called "POP."
(To simplify a discussion that can wind up e-mail wonks, IMAP, short for "Internet Message Access Protocol," provides the same view of your e-mail from multiple locations and programs, thanks to its ability to sync all your message folders and whether you've read, replied to, forwarded or flagged e-mails for follow-up. POP, or"Post Office Protocol," only downloads the messages in your inbox; it invites confusion over what you've answered if you check your mail from more than one program.)
Apple's iCloud has never had ads and allows for both Webmail and IMAP access, but you can only sign up for an account on a Mac or an iOS device. It doesn't let you use a personal domain name - something that's free at Outlook.com but costs extra at Yahoo and requires the $50/year Apps subscription at Google. And it's exhibited a troubling history of outages.
AOL's free e-mail includes ads but not an off switch for them.
Finally, you have separate paid-only mail services like the two I mentioned in last summer's column: Pobox and Opera Software's FastMail.fm charge $50 and $39.95 a year, respectively. Their online storage isn't as generous as what you get at Google, Yahoo or Microsoft but would still be hard to exhaust, and each lets you use a personal domain name.
It would be instructive if every major Web-mail service let users pay for an ad-free experience - and if the companies involved would publish how many users had opted out of ads. But you rarely get specifics; Yahoo representative Suzanne Philion, for example, would only say that "a small portion" of Yahoo Mail's 100 million-plus daily active users paid for ad-free access.
Tip: Opt out of Google "Shared Endorsement" ads, if you want
Google's latest venture into advertising - "Shared Endorsements" that let advertisers display the faces and names of Google+ users who follow, "+1," review or comment on their wares through that social network - both matches and departs from Facebook's earlier "Sponsored Stories" ads.
Like Facebook's 2011 addition to the social network, Google's new shared ads let advertisers repost your testimony to people who might have missed it before. But Google has also provided an opt-out at the bottom of its Shared Endorsement page; click to clear that checkbox, and your G+ value judgments won't get a commercial rerun.
Keep in mind that isn't a radical shift from Google; it's been displaying names or faces of Google+ users who have "+1ed" items since 2011, as SearchEngineLand's Danny Sullivan noted in an FAQ post Friday. And like that earlier ad venture and Facebook's sponsored stories, it remains subject to your privacy settings: Companies buying these ads don't get to show them to people who couldn't have seen your shout-out in the first place.
Rob Pegoraro, Special for USA TODAY