Over the last week or so, my hosting provider has been suffering with a lot of problems on their mail servers. When it comes to my virtual private server, it has been a smooth ride for the last two years. However, it seems like they have mail server issues on a monthly basis. So, I finally decided to pull the plug and use a different solution for email.
Recently, Scott Hanselman described the process of moving his family to Google Apps. After reading how well it worked for him and some of the benefits, I was already leaning that direction. However, I wanted to see what Microsoft Live Custom Domains had to offer. In case you aren't familiar with either of these, they offer the ability to use a custom domain as an email address, but it is actually serviced by the Google or Microsoft Live email infrastructure. For example, Google Apps allows me to create email addresses for jeffbarnes.net, but they are actually facilitated by the GMail system. Live Custom Domains does the same thing, but it uses the Windows Live Mail system.
It turns out that Custom Domains has recently been renamed to Windows Live Admin Center. From what I can tell, the features are relatively comparable to those of Google Apps, but it was really difficult to find a page with consolidated information about exactly what their service provides. Instead, it requires quite a bit of searching and digging through their Help Center to try and find answers to what I would consider to be common questions. They really are doing themselves a disservice in that regard (IMHO).
The real showstopper for me was that you essentially have to purchase an MSN account in order to check your email from Outlook. Of course, it is free to check the accounts from the web interface, but I demand the ability to use Outlook as well. In order to use Outlook, an MSN premium account is required, which costs $9.95 per month. I was really disappointed with Microsoft's decision to go that route. It seems to be justified by the fact that you can get desktop client access to your email, but you have to use the Windows Live Mail client, which is basically a new edition of Outlook Express with advertisements. I can appreciate the fact that advertising is a means for recouping the costs associated with the free email accounts, but I'm not paying $9.95 per month to get Outlook access.
Ultimately, I decided to go with Google Apps. Not only is access to Outlook provided for free, but I also get slightly higher storage space as well. I'm currently using the standard edition because it is 100% free and satisfies all of my needs. However, there is a premiere edition also available for $50 per user per year. This gives you a considerably higher amount of storage space, access to the APIs for programmatically integrating with Google Apps, and it enables various 3rd party tools. For now, I'm content with the standard edition. The setup process was incredibly easy. If you are comfortable working with the DNS editor of your hosting provider, there shouldn't be any problems. Google Apps also provides clear instructions to help you along the way. When you get ready to migrate over existing email, I highly recommend Scott's post as he goes into detail about several of the possible methods for getting the job done.
So far, I'm quite pleased with the service and would quickly recommend it to anyone looking for a custom domain for your email without the hassle of hosting it yourself.