ProtonMail Review

ProtonMail Review

review

ProtonMail is an end-to-end encrypted email provider based in Switzerland that aims to bring secure, encrypted services to the masses. Founded in 2013 by CERN researchers, it currently has around 20 million users.

This review and screenshots were made using the v4 beta redesign that is available at beta.protonmail.com. This version is expected to be fully released by Q3 2020. All details, facts and screenshots were accurate as of March 2020. I will try to update this review as new features are added or changed.

I've had a ProtonMail account since 2014 and I backed their initial Indiegogo campaign, but did not start regularly using it until last September. I am a big proponent of their mission, and what they stand for.

Pricing

ProtonMail has three paid plans and a free plan. All tiers can add a ProtonVPN plan and get a 20% off their bundle.

Free: includes a single address, 500mb of storage, limited support, three labels and folders and 150 emails a day. It lacks advanced email filters and autoresponder functionality.

Plus: ($5/mo or $48/year) includes 1 domain, 5 addresses, 5GB of storage, regular support, 200 folders and labels, and 1000 emails a day. Catch-all support is not available on this plan.

Professional: ($8/mo or $75/year [per user]) This plan supports multiple users, making it great for businesses. Includes 2 domains, 5 addresses per user, 5GB of storage per user, unlimited folders and labels, unlimited emails per day and catch all email support.

Visionary: ($30/mo or $288/year) This is the top tier plan. Includes all features, 6 users, 50 addresses, 10 domains and a top-tier ProtonVPN subscription.

Plus users can add on addresses, storage and domains as follows:

Extra Storage: $ 1.00 / month or $ 9 / year per GB
Extra Domains: $ 2.00 / month or $ 18 / year per domain
Extra Addresses: $ 1.00 / month or $ 9 / year per 5 addresses

Professional users can only add domains. They cannot add extra storage or addresses.

Visionary accounts cannot do any upgrades.

Signing up

Registration is open to anyone for a free account. You can choose between having a @protonmail.com or a @protonmail.ch email. All email addresses can activate a shorter @pm.me address, more on that later.

In order to preserve their IP reputation and to protect from spammers, signups may be flagged for additional verification. You can verify by solving a CAPTCHA, providing an existing email, getting an SMS or by making a donation. Emails and phone numbers are hashed and not visible to ProtonMail. The hash is used to make sure the same verification details are not used to create many accounts. Not all users will be given all options; it depends on the risk factor of the sign up. This is a point that many privacy purists disagree with, but I personally think it's a good way to ensure legitimate signups.

Features

ProtonMail offers most of the features you'd expect from an email provider. What makes them different is that all emails are stored encrypted with your private PGP key, so nobody but you can read them. However, if you ever forget your password, you lose the ability to decrypt your emails as it is used to secure your private key. As a fail-safe measure, you can download and store a copy of your private key in a secure place like a USB key on a safe or deposit box.

ProtonMail is a major contributor to OpenPGPjs, and offers full PGP interoperability. Meaning you can send and receive PGP-encrypted messages from anyone. Using ProtonContacts you can store your contact's keys on their contact profile for seamless encryption.

ProtonMail also supports the discovery of public keys via HTTP from their Web Key Directory (WKD). This allows users outside of ProtonMail to find the OpenPGP keys of ProtonMail users easily, for cross-provider E2EE. Conversely, ProtonMail also supports WKD and WKS lookups to encrypt emails to outside users without needing to have their PGP key.

If your recipient's don't have or use PGP, you can still send encrypted, self-destructing messages. Your recipient gets a link, protected by a password you set (and communicate to them via an out-of-band method) to read the email. You can set an optional expiration time on ProtonMail’s encrypted emails (by default expires in 28 days), so they will be automatically deleted from the recipient’s inbox once they have expired.

ProtonMail also makes available a @pm.me email address with the same username as the primary email to all users (even Free accounts), though you have manually activate it in the settings screen. Free accounts can only receive email to this address, and cannot send from it. Paid accounts can send and receive from it, as well as create additional pm.me addresses. This shorter, more memorable domain makes it easier to give your email over the phone, or in person.

Due to the encrypted nature of the system, regular IMAP/SMTP access is not available. However, paid users can use the ProtonMail Bridge. The bridge acts as an intermediary between your mail client and their servers and encrypts/decrypts the data as it flows to/from ProtonMail. It is worth noting the bridge is only for desktops, and not mobile devices. ProtonMail also has mobile apps in both the iOS and Google Play stores so you can get your email on the go. A refresh of these mobile apps is coming later this summer, to align with the new v4 release.

Paid users can also use the import/export tool to import emails from another provider, or export their emails as a backup.

In late December 2019, ProtonMail released into Beta a calendar app. It is a fully-encrypted calendar app that uses end-to-end encryption to keep all your events’ sensitive information private and secure. The event title, description, location, and participants for every event are encrypted on your device before they reach their servers. You can read a more thorough explanation of how the security works on their blog. It supports up to 10 calendars and custom recurrence of events (custom monthly, weekly & daily). Import and sharing is still being developed.

Currently it's only available via the web, but mobile apps are expected for iOS and Android later this summer. The current beta is only available to paying users and it is unclear what features will be restricted to paid users in the future.

On the customizability front, if you do not like the look of the interface you have the ability to customize it using CSS to your liking. A lot of folks have created different themes for ProtonMail to suit different tastes. ProtonMail also now has an official dark mode that can be enabled, if you're into that.

As for searching emails, because of their encrypted nature, you can currently only search To, From, Date and Subject as these fields are not encrypted. However ProtonMail is planning to release full-body search later this year.

Looking into the future, they plan to release ProtonDrive, an encrypted online storage system, by the end of 2020. Nothing else is currently known about ProtonDrive.

Infrastructure

In late 2014, ProtonMail became a member of RIPE (Réseaux IP Européens, one of the five Regional Internet Registries responsible for allocating Internet resources globally.) This means ProtonMail has control over their IP address allocation, in addition to owning and controlling all their server hardware. Both of these are key elements which help them to ensure the highest level of privacy and reliability for our users over the long term.

Their primary datacenter is located under a thousand meters of granite rock in a heavily guarded bunker which can survive a nuclear attack. This provides an extra layer of protection by ensuring your encrypted emails are not easily accessible to any third parties. On a system level, their servers utilize fully encrypted hard disks with multiple password layers so data security is preserved even if their hardware is seized. Both of their data centers are in Switzerland.

Final Words

ProtonMail is the most widely used encrypted email provider. However, this level of security comes with some drawbacks that you need to be comfortable with. If you are, their features and overall product are quite worth it. I have been very happy with them.

Feel free to reach out if you have any questions about their product. I'd be happy to answer them!

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