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 realise 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 web apps.
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. 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 favourite 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 favourite 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 favourites 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 favourite: simple pen and paper calendars. When we asked you guys what your favourite 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 it's 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 agressive, 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: 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 licence 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, customisable 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: Zoho Docs
This is another area that Google wouldn't win even if it were in the picture. Zoho Docs lets you edit documents, spreadsheets and presentations from its web interface, which has all kinds of features that we've seen before -- from line spacing to numbered lists to bold and italics -- to less widespread ones, like inserting quotes around a sentence or changing the case with one click. Users familiar with pre-ribbon Microsoft Office will find its interface very easy to get around, and the addition of collaboration and version control are really just the icing on the cake.
It's worth mentioning that Office 365 from Microsoft is just as good, if not better than Zoho Docs -- but with the addition of a $US6/month subscription price. That said, if you want full compatibility with Microsoft Office, Office 365 might be worth the cost, though we recommend checking out Zoho Docs first. After you do, you won't be sad you switched away from Google.
This is far from a comprehensive list of Google's services or the alternatives out there, but these were our favourites 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). Share your own favourite alternatives in the comments below.