Web mail has come of age. It used to be an inferior way to get your messages: Storage capacity was low, and the services were simple. No more. Web mail services now offer spelling checkers, access to POP3 accounts, virus scanners--and plenty of storage space.
Client applications are typically more customizable than a Web service, and usually include collaboration functions. But if you don't need such extras, a Web service could suffice.
We scouted four Web services and four desktop clients to find out which have the best features and which do the best job of keeping your mailbox free of spam. Plus, we looked at a Web service that filters spam for multiple e-mail accounts and aggregates their inboxes.
You can choose from among several free, advertising-supported Web services--or spend about $20 a year for a service with enhanced functions and oodles of storage space. Gmail earned our Best Buy nod in part because it costs nothing and gives you 1GB of storage capacity. We also liked FastMail's paid services, which provide every tool an e-mail guru could want.
Among desktop apps, Mozilla Thunderbird won our Best Buy because it's free and full of features, but corporate users will prefer Outlook 2003 for its unmatched collaboration tools.
If you take your e-mail seriously, FastMail is the service for you. It lets you pick from more than a dozen domain names for your e-mail address, set up mail aliases so you can protect your primary addresses from spammers, and more. From searching old mail to accessing your address book, FastMail is both speedy and smart.
You can compose messages as text or use the cool WYSIWYG HTML editor--this is the only Web mail service we tested with such an editor. FastMail is also the only Web service we tested that supports the IMAP protocol for accessing your account from a desktop e-mail client (to use POP3 you must pay the $20 or $40 annual fee). Also, you can download mail from other e-mail servers to your FastMail account, and arrange for the service to automatically fetch messages every 3 or 12 hours.
At its default setting, the spam filter was the least effective of those offered by Web services: 36 junk messages landed in the spam folder, but 21 others appeared in our inbox. FastMail's paid accounts offer more options, however, such as a unique "custom" mode that uses the SpamAssassin engine to assign a "spam score" to each message. You can assign three different actions based on these scores, telling FastMail to delete the messages, move them to a specified folder, or change their subject line to something like "I Love Spam." In addition, FastMail is one of only two services we tested that scan for viruses; the other is Yahoo Mail.
We appreciated FastMail's security consciousness, as well: When we chose an easy-to-guess password, the service recommended that we select a more robust one.
FastMail offers four types of accounts: The free Guest account provides 10MB of mail storage space but limits you to 40MB of mail and attachments per month and prohibits commercial use. (FastMail is the only service we tested that has an explicit bandwidth limitation.) Free accounts are deleted after only 45 days of inactivity. A one-time $15 fee gets you a Member account, with 16MB of storage, twice the bandwidth of the free account, a virus scanner, an SMTP server for sending messages from your desktop e-mail client instead of from a Web browser, and other features. The Full and Enhanced accounts, which cost $20 and $40 per year respectively, deliver up to 2GB of mail storage, plus file space, IMAP and POP3 access, and adjustable spam filtering. But even the free account that we set up was devoid of advertisements.
Google's Gmail is a winner. It delivers features for free that many other Web-based mail services charge for, or don't offer at all. At 1GB, it supplies the largest inbox of the free services we tested.
Gmail is snappy--so fast in fact that it acts more like software on your desktop than like a Web site. When you start typing an e-mail address, for example, a list of recently used addresses quickly pops up. A speedy search function lets you locate messages across your folders in a fraction of a second.
The spam filter isn't configurable, but it works well. During our test period, nine junk messages landed in our inbox and one legitimate piece was misfiled into the spam folder. Messages in the spam folder are automatically deleted after 30 days.
Gmail's rules-based filters trump Hotmail's and Yahoo Mail's offerings, allowing you to automatically label, forward, archive, or delete incoming messages based on the sender, on the subject, or on words in the message body.
The interface is sparkling clean, and the advertisements are a breath of fresh air compared with those on Hotmail and Yahoo Mail. Text ads show up to the right of some incoming messages, and that's it: No graphical ads display at all. Unlike the free versions of Hotmail and Yahoo Mail, Gmail doesn't paste ads to the end of your outgoing messages. However, Gmail scans the text of incoming messages in deciding which ads to display, which worries some privacy advocates.
You can download messages to your desktop client using POP3 (but not IMAP) and automatically forward incoming mail to another address, useful features missing in the other free services. The Gmail Notifier app can alert you when messages arrive, even if you aren't logged in to Gmail--another unique feature. Gmail has no calendar or task lists, however: It's strictly about e-mail.
The service removes dormant accounts after nine months of inactivity, a significantly longer period than either Hotmail or Yahoo Mail allows.
To get a Gmail account, you need to be invited by someone who already has one. Or, you can use the Gmail Invite Spooler.
MSN Hotmail serves up so many ads, you likely won't care about the collaboration tools and other features.
Our eyes are burning after reviewing MSN Hotmail: We saw enough ads there to last a lifetime. Most free Web mail services have advertising, but Hotmail goes way overboard with banners, skyscrapers, "featured offers," and aspirin-size buttons everywhere. It's hard to care about the service's merits after wading though all that.
Hotmail provides 250MB of storage for free, as Yahoo Mail does, though it's significantly less than the 1GB that Gmail offers.
Hotmail deletes messages in the spam folder after only 5 days, which gives you little time to catch misfiled mail. In addition, Hotmail accounts that are left unused for more than 30 days may be deleted.
An upgrade to Hotmail Plus for $20 per year fetches you 2GB of storage space, permits file attachments of 20MB or less per message, and mercifully removes the glut of graphical advertisements. And a Plus account doesn't expire simply because you don't use it often, either.
The junk mail filter is available at three levels: low, enhanced, and exclusive, which delivers mail only from people in your contacts list. Enhanced mode did an acceptable job, letting only nine junk messages into our inbox. However, it took the bait on four messages that we crafted using suspect words, classifying them as spam; in comparison, Gmail filtered only one of the messages erroneously, and both FastMail and Yahoo Mail correctly put all four in the inbox. To hone the Hotmail filter's work, you can set up blacklists and whitelists.
The Hotmail interface is a little bit clumsy; for example, adding a new friend to the contacts list requires multiple steps. However, the service provides a few collaboration tools. The calendar has a tasks list, and it can send reminders to Hotmail and MSN e-mail addresses. Also, you can publish your calendar on the Web. Overall, Hotmail provides a reasonable Web-based e-mail experience if you can endure the incessant ads.
Yahoo Mail provides 250MB of storage and an intuitive interface. Like Hotmail, the free version has a lot of advertisements, though there seem to be slightly fewer of them and Yahoo Mail's better features--such as virus scanning and access to outside e-mail accounts--make them more tolerable. In the free version, attachments are scanned for viruses, an important feature that's missing in the other free Web services we tested.
When you are entering the name of the recipient for a new message, autocompletion provides quick access to the address book, as in Gmail. But Yahoo's message filters are more simplistic than Gmail's and Hotmail's, allowing you only to automatically move messages to designated folders.
Yahoo was less successful at filtering spam than Gmail and Hotmail. It let 25 junk messages slip into our inbox, though it correctly filtered 67 junk messages. Unlike Hotmail, Yahoo Mail did not misidentify the four messages we created with suspect subject lines, correctly placing them in the inbox. Yahoo stores messages in its spam folder for one month before deleting them.
Yahoo Mail can fetch messages from your ISP's POP3 e-mail account--a feature that Gmail and Hotmail lack. It color-codes messages imported from other servers for easy identification.
You can share your Yahoo calendar with friends or publish it to the Web. A unique synchronization feature permits you to move your contacts, calendar, and notepad between the service and a PDA or organization software.
Accounts are deactivated after four months of inactivity, which is a considerably longer fallow period than Hotmail allows.
By upgrading to Yahoo Mail Plus, for $20 per year, you obtain 2GB of storage with a 20MB limit per attachment. The premium version also adds the abilities to create disposable e-mail addresses (which you use temporarily to register at Web sites that might spam you, for example), access your e-mail from a POP3 (but not an IMAP) e-mail client, and teach the spam filter. Also, you get automatic virus cleaning, and ads disappear from the site.
OnlyMyEmail: The Garbage Collector
If you have multiple e-mail addresses that are in need of a better spam filter, OnlyMyEmail might be the answer. Though the service provides an e-mail address and Web mail interface, its primary purpose is to remove spam from existing e-mail accounts. The system can check up to three POP3 or IMAP e-mail accounts--unifying them into a single inbox--and you don't have to abandon your current e-mail client. The service costs $3 per month, after a ten-day free trial.
We linked our OnlyMyEmail account to a mailbox filled with more than 3000 messages--mostly spam. The results were very positive: Only 11 junk messages reached our inbox, while the service dutifully removed the rest. Only one legitimate message, a newsletter subscription verification, was misinterpreted as spam.
We like the way OnlyMyEmail deals with junk: Rather than deliver it to a spam box that needs periodic attention, the service sends a daily e-mail summarizing the spam, viruses, and other nastygrams you've received. You can review a list of captured messages and have legitimate messages moved back into your inbox. You can also tell the system exactly what you characterize as junk, including virus-laden e-mail, messages from senders with foreign domains, newsletters, and direct-marketing announcements.
If you don't need to consolidate multiple e-mail accounts or don't want to use a Web browser to manage your spam folder, a spam filter that works with your e-mail client might be preferable. Some spam filters place a convenient toolbar in a POP3 e-mail client.
When you can't use your regular e-mail software, OnlyMyEmail offers a convenient though bare-bones Web mail interface. OnlyMyEmail is the sole Web mail service we tested that doesn't have a spelling checker, and it lacks other niceties for everyday use.Accessed from an e-mail client, OnlyMyEmail is almost invisible, doing its work quietly and well. It's a reliable way to consolidate a few older, spam-filled accounts and make them useful again.
The name Outlook 2003 might make the program sound past its prime. In fact, this e-mail app remains a worthy contender for corporate users, but its helpful collaboration features are overkill for most home and small-office users.
Outlook is available by itself for $109 or as part of Microsoft Office.
Outlook's unique rules wizard for setting up mail filters could make the task easier for newbies. Outlook also has the ability to send encrypted and digitally signed messages. When your correspondents use a compatible mail program, you can restrict them from forwarding your mail, or you can set the message to expire after a certain date, a function unavailable in the other mail clients we tested.
Integrated access to a dictionary, a language translator, and an encyclopedia ensures that you'll always have the right word at your fingertips. Outlook 2003 works with regular POP3 and IMAP servers, can get mail from Microsoft Exchange Server (useful in many corporate environments), and can download mail from Hotmail Plus accounts. Unlike PocoMail and Thunderbird, however, Outlook doesn't include a newsgroup reader.
Without any training Outlook's spam filter identified more junk mail than any other client app: It caught 19 of the first 25 spam messages testers sent it. After testers had trained its filter, Outlook caught 94 percent of the junk.
The calendar, task manager, and contacts manager are nicely integrated. Also, you can initiate instant messaging conversations from Outlook.
For home and small-business users who want very good features but don't want to pay for e-mail, Mozilla Thunderbird 1.0 is our top choice.
Commands are easy to find, and the search field provides instant gratification: Type a few letters of the subject or the sender's name, and a crowded inbox is reduced to the messages that match. In addition you can customize the views with categories like "Unread" or "Last 5 days."
The program can encrypt messages and attach a digital signing certificate. Thunderbird's filters automatically file and color-code messages, though they lack Eudora's ability to match patterns or automatically forward a message. Our biggest complaint is that Thunderbird's spelling checker works only after you've finished composing a message: It can't check your spelling as you type.
Without any training, Thunderbird's spam filter caught 18 of the first 25 spam messages it received, just shy of the success rate of Outlook's filter. After our testers finished training it, the filter caught 95 percent of the junk mail it received.
Downloadable extensions allow you to add new tools to the program. Among the dozens of add-ons available at the Mozilla Web site are a dictionary search function and support for mouse gestures, which allow you to execute a command (such as opening the next message) by right-clicking and pushing the mouse to the right, for example.
Besides supporting POP3 and IMAP for e-mail, the application serves as a Usenet newsgroup client and as an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) reader. The RSS reader is a nice touch, and Thunderbird is the only desktop e-mail client we looked at that includes one. Given the growing popularity of blogs, it is a sensible addition to an e-mail program.
PocoMail 3.2 is a decent, basic e-mail client that doesn't overwhelm you with extra features. It has no RSS viewer or collaboration tools, just straightforward, reliable POP3 and IMAP e-mail. With scripting and numerous configuration options, it could appeal to control freaks, but we can't find many reasons to spend $40 on PocoMail when free e-mail clients can work just as well.
PocoMail's interface can be convoluted, though its tabs let you conveniently switch between folders. Also, the program can check spelling as you type. Other features include message threading for following conversations, automatic completion of phrases (for example, you can set it to replace "yt" with "Yours Truly, Frederick Smelty III"), and a pop-up window that permits you to read a new message while you use another application.
Oddly, in PocoMail's default settings the junk mail filter is turned off. But PocoMail also has a Bayesian filter, which eventually learned to filter out 90 percent of the spam it received.
PocoMail 3.2's built-in scripting language enables you to build automated mail-handling tasks, such as finding all messages that you haven't replied to yet. Also, PocoMail offers a decent Usenet client.
If Eudora 6.2 were a person, it would be a middle-aged man enduring a midlife crisis: smart and capable, but no longer youthful looking and hip. Eudora's interface is cluttered, and it reminded us of Windows 3.1, with countless cryptic, unlabeled icons littering the landscape.
Interesting features aimed at newbies include MoodWatch, which warns users that they might be writing an inflammatory message, and alerts about potential "phishing" attempts in incoming mail.
Eudora serves up SSL encryption, graphs of e-mail statistics, and powerful filters. For example, you can have it automatically forward messages with a specified number of letters in the subject line.
Plug-ins can adjust text by rewrapping, sorting, and fixing capitalization. But the search function is like molasses compared with Thunderbird's.
After our testers trained it, Eudora's spam filter identified 98 percent of the junk mail it received. At the outset, however, it spotted only 12 of the first 25 junk messages sent to it.
Reprinted with permission from PC World magazine.