Face it: Google runs your life. The search giant turned web ecosystem owns your email, calendar, and even your voicemails. Your most important data lives on Google’s servers. What you may not realize is that, despite the quality of Google’s products, someone else is doing it better—and placing all your eggs in Google’s basket isn’t necessarily the best thing. Here’s a look at alternative services you can use in place of Google’s webapps.
Photo remixed from originals by Jan Kranendonk (Shutterstock) and Alfonso de Tomas (Shutterstock).
You might want to move away from Google entirely, whether you’re tired of things like the Google Plus-ification of your search results or the fact that Google’s mining ridiculous amounts of data and selling you to advertisers, or maybe you’re just plain tired of Google creating services it doesn’t actually improve over time. You may scoff at the idea of using Bing or other less popular competitors, but they’re quite good—sometimes even better—than Google. We’ve just become too entrenched to notice.
If you want to take a serious look at the alternatives, we did some digging and a lot of experimentation to find the best alternatives to Google’s most popular services (and we also asked you guys to share your favorites). Most of these services are still from big companies, like Microsoft or Yahoo!, but we’ve tried to include a few services off the beaten path as well. The fact of the matter is just that the highest quality services around are going to be from the companies with the most resources. Below, we’ve listed the best Google alternatives in each category, as well as a few runners-up we think are worth checking out.
The Best Search Alternative: DuckDuckGo
Google Search, while great, isn’t without some big annoyances. From the new Google+ results on your search page to the Instant Preview layout to its constant desire to change your search terms to what it thinks is better, you might just be ready to switch to something new. Our favorite alternative is DuckDuckGo, a search engine that focuses on your privacy, while also packing itself with great features for power users, like searching specific sites with a bang (e.g.
!lifehacker jailbreak iphone), keyboard shortcuts that help you navigate your results, and even integration with other services like Wolfram Alpha for quick answers to certain things (like unit conversions, calculations, and other facts).
Of course, DuckDuckGo falls short in a few areas. For all the engine’s cool features, it still doesn’t have some of the basic features other popular search engines will give you, like the ability to narrow your search down by date. If you find that DuckDuckGo isn’t giving you what you need, you can try one of the more traditional search engine alternatives below.
Other Alternatives: Bing, which offers related searches and your search history in the sidebar; Yahoo!, which offers links to the cached version of a page; and Ask, which can answer a lot of other questions without the need to sift through results (such as release dates for movies and video games). Of course, you could also try choosing your search engine based on what you’re searching for.
The Best Gmail Alternative: Hotmail
Gmail, frankly, is far and away our favorite web-based email. But if you’re truly committed to ditching Google—even your precious Gmail account—you could do much worse than Hotmail.. We’ve compared the two before, and not much has changed since last year. Hotmail has some pretty cool features, like one-click filters, SkyDrive integration for attachments, and embedded content, not to mention some Gmail favorites like conversation view and a great spam filter. Even its Bing-powered email search is very good, offering suggestions for certain operators but offering a ton more (many of which are the same as Gmail’s). It also has a great set of keyboard shortcuts, just like Gmail, that let you control the interface without touching your mouse. Also like Gmail, you can use it to manage your other, non-Hotmail mail accounts. If we weren’t in love with Gmail, this is the first place we’d go to host our email.
Other Alternatives: Yahoo! Mail, which requires a paid account for things like POP access or email forwarding; iCloud for seamless syncing with your iPhone; or Zoho Mail, which is ad-free and has a more desktop client-like interface but doesn’t support saved searches or advanced filters.
The Best Google Calendar Alternative: Zoho Calendar
Zoho Calendar is the only calendar application that can really stack up to Google Calendar. It has everything we love about GCal, like a “smart add” feature that lets you add events with one line of text, the ability to search your calendars, an “agenda” view that shows you just your upcoming events without the grid, and more. The interface is very similar to Google, so migration is dead simple, and sharing your calendars with others is as easy as copying a given calendar’s link.
That said, we want to give a shout out to our other favorite: simple pen and paper calendars. When we asked you guys what your favorite Google alternatives are, many of you noted that you’d use a paper planner over Google Calendar, and we don’t blame you. Paper calendars are about as quick and simple as they come: it’s easy to add events, and super quick to browse through your months (even easier than digital calendars, really). Alternatively, if you still want a digital calendar, you can always just use a calendar app on your phone and store it locally. There’s no reason you have to sync it to the web if you always have your phone with you.
Other Alternatives: Hotmail Calendar, which has a beautiful interface and Hotmail integration but doesn’t have a search feature (seriously); AOL Calendar, which surprisingly has a nice interface and a fair amount of features, and 1Calendar, which is light on advanced features like sharing but has a very nice interface, Facebook integration, and an upcoming mobile app. Yahoo! Calendar is not really worth your time due to its frustratingly bad interface.
The Best Google Maps Alternative: Bing Maps
As much as I hate having three services from the same company in this list, I couldn’t find anything I liked better than Bing Maps. Its interface is not only clean, but smooth as heck—even smoother than Google Maps—and its Streetside view is arguably even better than Google’s Street View, too. It’s super easy to use, and the images are all very high-res, meaning you can find what you’re looking for quite nicely (though it also has a 360 view if you prefer something more akin to Google Street View). It also has live traffic views, satellite images, and great pages for businesses that you find via the Maps search. And, of course, you can save places you want to visit later, as well as find driving, public transit, or walking directions to just about anywhere. Zooming in with the mouse wheel is a bit overagressive, but if you can get past that, it’s a fantastic alternative to Google Maps—in fact, I might even like it better.
Other Alternatives: Mapquest, which has a cool “MQ Vibe” feature that helps you find the best restaurants, shopping, and other activities in a specific area (but only works in the US); OpenStreetMap, which is community-driven and has lots of plugins for things like directions and 3D views; and Yahoo! Maps, which frankly isn’t worth your time compared to other service, and lacks in a lot of basic features like public transit directions and saving your home location.
The Best Google Reader Alternative: NetVibes
Even if you aren’t looking to ditch Google Reader, you should check out NetVibes. You can add and read feeds just like Google Reader, though it also has a really cool widget view that turns your RSS feeds into a more visual, newspaper-like layout in your browser. You can give higher preference to certain sites, see the top stories, and (as with the feed view) see how many articles you haven’t read. It’ll also link you up with the Twitter accounts of the sites you add, so you can see what they’re saying there too. It’s also got a bunch of different snazzy themes to choose from, and sharing features coming out of its nose, for sending articles by email, through Facebook and Twitter, and more.
Other Alternatives: NewsBlur is another great alternative to Reader, with a similar (but very desktop client-like) interface, though it could stand to be a bit cleaner. Other than that, there aren’t a ton of good, browser-based online RSS services out there, but you can always store your RSS feeds locally on your desktop or phone instead. Feedly is a very popular service worth mentioning, but it does sync with Google, so you aren’t truly escaping Google by using it.
The Best Picasa Web Alternative: Flickr
This one’s a no-brainer: Flickr is one of the most popular photo sharing sites on the net, and that’s because it’s very well put together. While Picasa has Google integration and 1GB of free space, Flickr lets you license the photos as you see fit, and has a bunch of really cool social features that get you in touch with like-minded photographers (and gives others the chance to see your work). It also has a built-in image editor for you to tweak your photos, which is pretty great.
Other Alternatives: SmugMug, which provides a beautiful, customizable interface for viewing your photo collection, though lacks the community that makes Flickr so strong; and Dropbox, which is not only a dead simple way to get your photos in the cloud, but also offers a barebones album view for showing them to your friends.
The Best Google Docs Alternative: Office Web Apps
This is another area that Google wouldn’t win even if it were in the picture. Microsoft’s Office Web Apps let you edit documents, spreadsheets, and presentations from its web interface, designed after the Office desktop programs. It has the ribbon, built-in support for Microsoft SkyDrive, and tons of collaboration features for working on documents with your friends and co-workers. Plus, since it’s made by Microsoft, compatibility with Office documents is top-notch, which you won’t get with Google Docs.
Other Alternatives: Zoho Docs, which has some neat formatting features, collaboration features, and a ribbon-less interface (if you aren’t a Microsoft fan); and Evernote, which isn’t an Office suite per se, but a webapp that you guys mentioned was your first go-to for online document editing.
The Best Google Voice Alternative: Phonebooth
There is no true Google Voice alternative on the market. When you look at the feature set and the price, Google Voice is really the only service of its type, and once you use it, it’s hard to pull away. If you absolutely must, though, the most comparable is probably Phonebooth. They have a free service that gives you a local phone number for free, lets you forward calls to your different phones, and transcribe voicemails, just like Google Voice. The free version gets you 200 minutes of inbound calling per month, with extra minutes costing 3¢ each. You can’t record any of your calls, nor can you make any outbound calls on the free service. You also can’t send SMS messages from that number or from your browser (though you could always use a service like DeskSMSinstead). You can also upgrade Phonebooth to the paid, PKR1,915/month plan which includes unlimited minutes, outgoing calls, and more business-oriented features.Other Alternatives: Google Voice has no true alternatives. You can try some similar, but not equal, services like Line2, which adds a second line to your mobile device and can forward your calls for PKR957 a month; or RingCentral, which is pretty expensive and only available for iPhone (and also doesn’t include an SMS service).
This is far from a comprehensive list of Google’s services or the alternatives out there, but these were our favorites after lots of testing. We wish there had been a few more independent services worth featuring, but they’re surprisingly hard to find (that is, if you care about a good feature set). Of course, if you want to see even more, check out our previous Ask the Readers on the subject, or share your own favorite alternatives in the comments below.