Best free email backup tools

A look at some of the easiest to use tools for saving your essential data

Backing up your inbox to your PC or external hard drive gives you access to your messages no matter what happens - even if a hacker attacks your account. We go through some of the best options available, whether you're looking for something to automate the process, or for a manual tool for only the occasional backup.

Automatic: Thunderbird

In Thunderbird, an email client from Firefox's creator Mozilla, the Mail Account Setup Wizard simplifies the process of adding an email account down to entering your name, email address and password. It works with all the main webmail and email services, and has a tab-based interface to make it easy to switch between messages.

When setting up you can choose between two email protocols: POP and IMAP. With the former option, messages are downloaded to your computer (250 at a time) and then, depending on your settings, either deleted from the source (Gmail, or Outlook.com, for example), archived, or left alone.

When setting up Thunderbird choose either the POP or IMAP protocol

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With IMAP, messages are synchronised. Delete an email in Thunderbird and it will vanish from the web and vice versa.

Automatic: eM Client

eM Client is a more advanced alternative to Thunderbird, containing a calendar, a to-do list and tools for managing your contacts. Like Thunderbird, it works with POP and IMAP, downloads your messages as they arrive, and lets you save them by dragging them to your desktop or a folder.

It automatically sets up Gmail, Outlook.com, and Apple iCloud accounts, and even imports email from other clients you used in the past. It's free for home users, with no limitations, though you'll need to register to get a licence.

There's a 30-day free trial of the Pro edition, but the free version should be enough for your needs.

Automatic: IFTTT

Use IFTTT to set up automatic actions, such as saving email attachments to Google Drive

If This Then That is a useful service that lets you link popular programs and devices so an action in one triggers a related action in another. A simple example is "if I get an email from a specific sender, then forward it to a different email account". Sign up for an account, choose the options you require, then customise them. You can use it to do all sorts of tasks, such as automatically downloading attachments to Google Drive, OneDrive, or Dropbox.

Manual: MailStore Home

MailStore Home backs up your emails, and works with all email providers. To use it, select the service(s) to back up, then enter your email account details.

Your messages are saved in a central location on your hard drive, from where you can search for and read them. You can also easily restore them back to your email account. You can password-protect your archives, and the software fully encrypts all databases to make it impossible for anyone other than yourself to view the messages. You can run the software from a USB stick if you require.

Manual: Upsafe Free Gmail Backup

Some backup programs come with annoying limitations or, only store emails online (in the 'cloud'). If you just want to save a copy of your Gmail messages to a folder on your hard drive, use Upsafe's Free Gmail Backup, which is a breeze to use.

Once you've backed up your emails in Upsafe, click 'View mail backup' to see them

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Install and run it, click the 'Sign in with Google' button, then enter your Google username and password and grant the program permission to access your account (none of your login details go to Upsafe).

Click 'Start backup' in the program and it will begin downloading your messages. You can choose where to save your backup to and see how much space is being used on your hard drive. Messages are downloaded in EML format (the format used by all email programs), and saved in Zip files. To see your emails in the program, click 'View mail backup' button.

Manual: Save and Backup My Emails

Most backup tools save copies of all your emails, which may be overkill. To selectively save emails, use CloudHQ's 'Save and Backup My Emails' Chrome extension, which works in Gmail only.

Select emails to back up using CloudHQ's extension, then click this button

Once you've connected CloudHQ to your email account, select one or more messages, then click the extension's button under the search bar to save a copy online.

You can download these at any time as PDFs by clicking the extension's icon at the top right. If you don't select any emails, you'll see a button to 'Backup all emails' instead. This might be tempting, but the free version limits you to saving just 200 emails a month.

Manual: Google Takeout

Google lets you download a copy of all your data from its various products and services, including Gmail. Go to the Takeout page, click Select None, then scroll down and switch on the Mail slider (underneath 'Location History'). Next, click the arrow next to the slide so you can choose to include all of your email or selected labels. Scroll to the bottom and click Next, and select the format to save the data in (it's Zip by default).

Click this slider to download your Gmail emails using Google Takeout

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You can send backed-up data as a download link via email, or added to Google Drive, Dropbox or OneDrive. You can browse this data once downloaded, but can't restore it or import it into a new account. Takeout is strictly export-only.

Manual: Outlook

The best way to back up emails from Outlook.com is using an email client like eM Client or Thunderbird. To back up in Outlook 2013, click File, then select Open & Export. Click Import/Export then select 'Export to a file'. Click 'Outlook Data File (.pst)', then click Next. Select your email folder, click Next and then Finish. You can import the backup through the Import/Export page.

Image: Shutterstock

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