Review - Using Runbox email for a family group

First, let me say I have no affiliation with Runbox, nor do I know anyone personally at Runbox, nor do I have any financial interest in the company or its products. I am simply reviewing their email solution after studying alternatives for months.

If this review gets a little long-winded, I apologize. I just want to be thorough. If I have something wrong, again I apologize (it wouldn’t be the first time I got something wrong), and I invite Runbox staff to correct me.

I am a computer scientist by training and trade. I’ve been taking care of email for my family for about 20 years. I ran my own email server for about 13 years before giving up and first using a web hosting service, and then google workspace. Since I am getting rather long in the tooth, I began to worry about what would happen to my domain if I die or become incapacitated. Loss of domain would result in loss of email for my whole family, not just me. And there are many ways I could lose the domain: the domain provider could be compromised, I might forget to renew the domain, a problem with a credit card could result in the domain not be renewed, etc. Since no one in my family had the knowledge or the desire to maintain the domain, much less learn how to maintain and administer either the domain or the email service, I needed to look for a simpler solution and still be able to help my family with their email needs.

There are many email providers. I won’t name them here except in passing, but I will say all of them are good providers. Email is hard. REALLY. HARD. It takes a lot of work. It is a constant battle against spammers, criminals, and software glitches. Every provider I evaluated seriously tries to provide a good service and to a large extent they succeed. And, in fact, even Google and Apple also provide good services. But ultimately, only one company provided a service that I believed was private, secure, complete, and manageable, and would work well for a family group as well as an individual. And that company is Runbox.

A couple of definitions are required before I continue:

  • Provider Public Domain: this is a domain that is owned, and maintained by the email service provider. The provider will offer email services to the public on one or more of these domains.
  • Custom Email Domain: this is a private domain registered and maintained by an individual (in the case of a family domain) or a company. All of the providers I evaluated provide some level of support for custom email domains. Google requires that you subscribe to Google Workspace in order to use a custom domain, and you cannot use google Workspace to manage users with personal gmail addresses. Apple iCloud+ also now provides support for custom email domains.
  • Username: this is the primary email address you have with the email provider. You might have aliases that point to the primary email address inbox. But you log into the service with this username.

Anyway, with all that as background, this is why I like Runbox:

  1. Runbox provides email addresses on their public domains. This is important since as I mentioned, maintaining a custom domain forever is likely to fail at some point after the maintainer dies if no one in the family is interested in doing that work. Runbox has many public domains, and they treat them as synonyms, so once you create an account at any domain at Runbox, it works at all their domains. No need to remember which domain you used to sign up. Runbox also supports custom domains if desired. I have tested their custom domain service, and it is well documented, and works as expected. While I will no longer add users to my custom domains, I will use Runbox to forward email from those custom domains to individual user via their new email addresses.

  2. Runbox DOES NOT recycle usernames. In fact, Runbox does not even recycle aliases. And recently on these very forums, Runbox has reiterated that they will not be changing that policy. This is fundamental, and I rejected outright any provider that recycles usernames. Recycling email address is problematic since if you die or become incapacitated, someone can get that username and thus start getting your email. Gmail and iCloud do not recycle usernames either. However, surprisingly, many popular email services do recycle addresses. And of course, ultimately all email addresses on a custom domain are technically recycled since someone else can get access to the domain if you lose it (with a catchall, they don’t even have to know your email address to start getting all your email).

  3. Runbox does not have a free tier (although they do offer a free trial). Many people will disagree with me on this point, but having a free tier could result in an inferior email domain reputation. Free tiers are frequently gamed to sign up for short-lived spamming accounts. Providers with free tiers are more likely to see their customer email rejected by receiving services or even online services who don’t want to deal with spam registrations.

  4. Runbox does not expose your username in email messages. You can sign up for the service using an obscure username, and then only use aliases for your online accounts, and to send and reply to email. Replying to email using aliases is easy and intuitive to set up. And, again, usernames and aliases are never recycled.

  5. Runbox does not allow signing into their service with an alias address. This is important. If you are able to sign into a service with an alias address, then everyone to whom you send email, knows at least the username part of the login process.

  6. Runbox allows setting up a family group. You purchase a main account which can then be used to purchase and assign sub-accounts. Sub-accounts are offered at a significantly reduced price. Google does not allow family groups for free gmail accounts. While you can purchase a Google One subscription, that does not allow you to administer your family members’ email addresses. You can only manage a family group in email if you use google workspace, and that requires a custom domain. And many of the google consumer services are not available or are restricted with google workspace accounts. Apple allows family sharing but it’s limited as far as managing the family accounts.

  7. Runbox gives you 100 aliases for free. This is 100 ACTIVE aliases, so you can add aliases and then later “delete” them which places them in quarantine where you can later restore them if you want. Since Runbox does not recycle addresses or aliases, you don’t have to worry about some other customer using one of your deleted aliases. This is a very generous alias policy, and even though I am an active user of aliases, I don’t see myself running out of usable aliases at Runbox.

Most other email providers offer between 5 or 10, with some allowing 100s or unlimited aliases. Google provides zero aliases on personal accounts and 30 on google workspace accounts. Apple allows three aliases on iCloud accounts. Three aliases is the minimum required to provide effective email masking. The problem with Apple’s solution is if you want to replace one of your aliases, you must delete it first, and then you must wait seven days to create another alias. Furthermore, since you must delete the old alias first, you can’t filter that address to junk while switching over to a new alias.

  1. Runbox allows users (both main accounts and sub-accounts) to maintain their own aliases. Google workspace does not allow users to create their own aliases (true aliases, not plus aliases), which creates an administrative burden, and reduces user privacy. Apple does allow users to create their own iCloud email aliases. Fastmail recently started allowing users to create their own aliases.

  2. Runbox allows 2FA by OTP and TOTP (authenticator app), but does not require it. I find that few non-technical people even know what an authenticator app is, much less how to use one, even less how to provide a backup solution for TOTP seeds. So it’s important to allow 2FA without requiring it. Note that if your family members do not use 2FA, then it increases risk to the user, and increases the administrative burden for the group administrator.

  3. Runbox makes it easy to block access to imap/pop and require only web access to an account. This is especially important to secure the main account which administers sub-accounts.

  4. Runbox employs app passwords for imap or pop access by email clients. And it’s very intuitive to set up. Thus the real account password never needs to be entered in the email client on any device. And device access can easily be revoked.

  5. Runbox is very affordable. A 6 user runbox account (1 admin and 5 users) with all micro plans is $59.70 a year. A 6 user google workspace account is $432 a year on the annual plan, $518.40 a year on a monthly plan. A 6 user fastmail account on the standard plan is $300 a year on the annual plan or $360 a year on a monthly plan.

  6. Runbox does not earn money from ads so you won’t see ads on their web pages, or in your inbox. And they won’t scan your email to create targeted ads. Furthermore, Privacy Badger reports no trackers on even their main website.

  7. Runbox is employee owned. I value that as I believe all employees are then invested in the success of the company. It’s not “just a job” for them.

  8. Runbox support is the best I encountered in the email services I reviewed. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say they provide better support than any online service, not just email, that I’ve ever dealt with. Where other providers took days or a week to respond (if ever) to my requests, Runbox responded in a few hours, sometimes even faster. And Runbox staff know email; they REALLY know email. From simple requests to complex requests about how best to secure family email, they provided clear and friendly help. I felt like they were always trying to help me and were never condescending.

The Runbox support ticketing system works very well. Almost all the providers I reviewed, offer a support ticketing system. Not all work. The Runbox system is intuitive and reliable.

The Runbox online help documentation is better than any other provider I reviewed. The information is thorough, clear, and understandable. As an example, look at this page: Connection Encryption – SSL, TLS and STARTTLS | Runbox Help. The information on this page is important for an email administrator to know, and useful for any service, but only Runbox provides it in such complete, clear and understandable way.

  1. During my testing, 100% of emails that I sent FROM my runbox account were delivered. And 100% of the emails sent TO my runbox account were delivered. So deliverability is not an issue. Performance (speed of delivery) was comparable to gmail, but a little slower than icloud email.

Ok, there are still a few things I don’t like or could be improved:

  1. The web interface is a little messy. Version 7 has been in beta for five years. That’s a long time to be in beta. In the meantime, many of the interfaces will drop back to version 6. So you will see two different interfaces depending on which feature you are working with. However, when you hover over a menu item, it will warn you that it needs to drop back to version 6, so this helps. While it is messy, every feature I used worked flawlessly. I could easily add aliases, and identities, and access security settings with no issues whatsoever.

  2. Searching for me was a bit problematic. Initially, I would see errors like “missing index”, or I would search for a message and find a deleted message, or the inbox count would be wrong. The problems went away after the inbox/folders grew to contain real messages (not just test and delete messages) and we determined it was due to problems with an empty account (during testing I would often send test messages, and quickly delete them). For new users, this might be concerning. However, to be fair, while email is hard, email search is extremely hard. Almost every provider will have search problems. Reddit is full of people complaining about email search not working for nearly every email service provider, and I have personally experienced email search failures on both Google and Apple iCloud email.

  3. Purchasing sub-accounts is confusing. First, you purchase a main account. This works perfectly and intuitively. If you only need one account, this will not be a problem for you. But this is a family account for me, so I need sub-accounts. You must buy sub-accounts and assign users to sub-accounts. However, if you buy sub-accounts at different times, they are renewed on different schedules. If you want multi-year accounts, the solution is to purchase an account, and then renew it immediately multiple times. Technically, you could have sub-accounts that outlive the main account.

Also, if you buy multiple sub-accounts on a plan (for instance, a micro plan), then assign people to them, you can’t easily upgrade or downgrade the users to a different plan. I still don’t know how to do this without entering a support ticket. In fact, my recommendation is if you have a question about purchasing/upgrading/renewing accounts, just enter a support ticket. As I said, Runbox support is stellar, and they will help you.

My recommendation to Runbox would be to make this more intuitive. Let me add users one at a time, and pick a plan for each user at purchase time. Link the purchase and renewal to the main account end date. Then renewal will include the main account and all sub-accounts for one or more years if I choose to renew.

One last thing. Runbox will send payment notifications to the admin (main) account OR the sub-account, but not both. I think they should have the option to send notifications to both because then payment notifications are less likely to be missed.

  1. Filtering and forwarding could be better. The Runbox filtering system is ok, and on par with most services. That is you can filter messages and have multiple rules based on to/from/subject, contains/does not contain, etc. But I’d like to have multiple actions per filter, and provide a “mark as read” action. That is, if a mail matching the filter arrives, I’d like to mark it as read, forward it, and then place it in archive.

One really nice thing about Runbox filtering, however, is they allow you to define filters based on headers. I currently use this capability to block emails that don’t have a valid DKIM signature or fail SPF, effectively enforcing DKIM and SPF validation on incoming email.

  1. I’d like the main account to have more/better abilities to manage sub-accounts. For instance, I’d like to be able to suspend a sub-account. In the event that a family member’s account is compromised or has an issue, they could call me and I would be able to suspend their account until we corrected whatever problem they have without deleting their account. Presumably, since I know the family member, I could verify their identity much easier and faster than anyone at Runbox so it would make more sense for me to be the first level of support and suspend the account.

Currently as a main (administrative) user, I can change the sub-account user’s password if they forget it, and get them back into their account. However, if the user has enabled 2FA, and forgets or loses their 2FA setup, then neither of us can access their account since the the 2FA setup is owned/controlled only by the sub-account. They do give you the ability to create an unlock code to get into your account if you forget your 2FA setup. But still the main account should be able to enforce/enable/disable 2FA on sub-accounts at least temporarily.

Before I finish, I should address the issue of longevity. Runbox is a small provider. Google has 2 billion users, Apple about a billion. Runbox users number in the millions, a tiny fraction of the two major providers. So I was repeatedly asked by my family, “Will Runbox be around long term?” While I can’t say they will be around forever, in all my dealings with Runbox staff, they were kind, courteous, responsive, and helpful. All their documentation leads me to believe they are honest and ethical. So my personal belief is that Runbox will be in business for a long time, and they will never abandon their customers. If they do decide to sell their company or shut down for some reason, I believe they will give their customers fair warning, and they will not sell out to any company that doesn’t subscribe to their same ethics.

So in spite of a few shortcomings, I believe Runbox is the best email service for a small team or family group, even for individuals. It provides the best mix of privacy, security, features, and affordability of any email service I could find. I highly recommend Runbox.

1 Like

I’ve been using Runbox for family email for a few years, and have just signed up for a couple new accounts for my fledgling business. I am not technically aware, I just wanted something that was privacy oriented and wasn’t selling me (my data) as the real product. Thank you very much for your review. I’ll need to reread, but I found it really helpful and it is nice to have my choice vindicated by someone who clearly knows so much more about it than me.
All the best.