(Credit: Sammby/Shutterstock)

There's no question that Gmail has served us well over the years, as a free ad-supported service from Google with respectable storage space, high-grade spam protection and polished mobile apps. But we learned a lot in 2018 about the privacy of our personal data on the internet, and how website security lapses can expose our private lives to public viewing. And when it comes to email, an interesting new competitor is emerging from Switzerland.

Literally created by scientists working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in 2015 -- aka CERN, a global hub for nuclear physicists thanks to its 16-mile long particle collider -- ProtonMail is a free email service designed by some of the most talented geeks in the world, with a laser focus on privacy and high-grade security. (Download for iOS or Android).

But despite its venerable pedigree, ProtonMail isn't necessarily a full upgrade from Gmail (download for iOS or Android). Let's go through a few key differences.

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The magic of client-side encryption

With Gmail, your email messages aren't encrypted until they leave your mailbox, and Google gets a copy of your encryption keys. Since Google can technically access your email messages at any time, and it can be legally compelled to hand over the account keys to law enforcement without you being informed, it's not the best place for handling sensitive information.

If you're a political dissident dealing with an oppressive government, or a journalist investigating a story confidentially, being able to keep your email account keys to yourself is essential. The tradeoff is that ProtonMail can't send you a password reminder, so if you lose that, you can't get back in. But for purposes like these, it's arguably a fair tradeoff.

Plus, if you send mail from ProtonMail to another ProtonMail user, the message travels through an encrypted tunnel that's built into the service -- independently from standard email encryption. ProtonMail's second barrier makes its messages especially resistant to snoopers trying to intercept and read their contents.

And if you're concerned about the quality or trustworthiness of ProtonMail's encryption, it may help to know that it only uses open-source algorithms, meaning that the programming code is publicly available for inspection at any time. Of course, not everyone has the technical training to make sense of lines of code, but this transparency is important for establishing trust.

Upgraded user privacy

In addition to ProtonMail being deliberately unable to access your account or view your email in transit, the service also does not collect any personally identifiable information. It doesn't even keep a record of the IP addresses used to log in. In the event that ProtonMail's servers are seized, all of its storage devices are also fully encrypted.

And that wouldn't be easy to obtain by force, as the website says, "Our primary datacenter is located under 1,000 meters of granite rock in a heavily guarded bunker which can survive a nuclear attack." It's also located in Switzerland, whose privacy rights are among the beefiest in the world.

ProtonMail's inbox is uncluttered and intuitively designed. (Credit: Proton Technologies AG)

ProtonMail's free storage is a little cramped

ProtonMail does not use any ads or trackers to generate revenue, instead relying on income from users who decide to upgrade to a paid account. The downside of this decision is that the free version of ProtonMail can't be very generous; you get only 500 megabytes of storage. You're also limited to 150 emails per day.

That's probably plenty of space for text-only emails, but if you're handling media-heavy attachments, you'll need to either pony up a subscription fee for ProtonMail or stick with Gmail.

However, in addition to giving you 5 gigabytes of storage (about ten times the space of the free tier), the subscription also lets you use custom email domains, up to five aliases (virtual email addresses that point back to the real one), custom filters, and premium tech support. You can also send up to 1,000 emails per day.

Gmail offers 15GB of storage, but that number actually applies to your whole Google account, which also includes Drive (download for iOS or Android), Photos (download for iOS or Android) and Docs (download for iOS or Android). So if you're storing a lot of media in Google's cloud, the space left over for Gmail can shrink surprisingly fast.

However, extra space has gotten quite inexpensive lately; Google One customers can get 100GB of space for $20 a year, and it scales all the way up to 30 terabytes, which is a whopping 30,000GB. Of course, you're also paying $300 at this top tier, but the option is there.

The "Plus" version of ProtonMail currently costs $5 a month, or $4 a month if you pay annually. If you want to use it for your business, the fee is $6.25 per user per month. These fees all help subsidize the cost of providing free accounts, so a customer can hit two birds with one stone -- helping themselves in a way that also helps others, for the cost of a latte.

The bottom line

If you don't need much online storage, ProtonMail arguably offers the better service, thanks to its client-side encryption, end-to-end encryption, and open-source encryption algorithms. At the very least, a free ProtonMail account is a smart backup to have in your tool chest, and you get an indefinite time to decide if upgrading to a paid subscription is right for you.

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Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.