There are many, many different free e-mail services on the Internet: perhaps a dozen or so "big name" ones such as HotMail, Yahoo Mail, and GeoCities, plus countless smaller services. The big boys are tried and true, but there's nothing wrong with using any of the smaller services -- as long as they're reliable, protect your privacy, and provide the services you need.
There are three distinct ways that these services can get your e-mail to you: using a web interface, with a POP account, or via mail forwarding. Some services offer just one of these delivery options; some offer all three.
With a web interface, you can read and send e-mail using your trusty web browser. To use this type of system, all you need is access to a browser: the service provides a web interface that lets you read and send mail. This is very flexible: you can access your e-mail from anywhere you can log in to the Internet. It doesn't require an e-mail address at your ISP -- but if you do have one, remember that your web-based mail account is totally separate from your ISP mail. This makes web-based mail useful in a number of situations: you can keep personal e-mail off of the servers at your workplace, you can create multiple accounts for your kids so they stay out of your mail, or you might create a mailbox just for your mailing list subscriptions.
Another type of e-mail account is the POP account. POP, which stands for Post Office Protocol, allows you to receive e-mail using just about any standard e-mail program, such as Eudora or Outlook Express, or even with one of those cool palm-held computers. Like the web interface option, POP mail doesn't require you to have another e-mail address, but it does mean you have to install an e-mail client on your computer. And like the web interface option, POP accounts provide a measure of privacy. Power users will find that using an e-mail client provides more features than doing e-mail through a web interface can -- but with POP, it's not as simple to check your e-mail from just anywhere.
The final type of free e-mail account is mail forwarding. Mail forwarding services only work if you already have an e-mail address. Forwarding gives you a new e-mail address that, when you receive a message, punts it to your other address. Why would you want to do this? Because email@example.com is a whole lot easier to remember (and prettier on your business card) than firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, mail forwarding provides a modicum of privacy: have your John Tesh fan club mail sent to an address that doesn't reveal your identity to other subscribers. Mail forwarding services let you receive mail at a special address, but don't necessarily allow you to send it from that address (some services do provide a Web interface for that).
Which type of account is best for you? If you already have e-mail but hate your address, mail forwarding is an easy solution. If you don't have e-mail at all or want additional mailboxes, go with web-based mail or a POP account. Web-based mail is simpler and accessible from any web browser, but POP mail can be sweeter for power users.
How do you find a free mail service? Point your web browser to one of these indices. The Free E-mail Address Directory (http://www.emailaddresses.com) is a well-organized index of dozens of them, sorted by the type of service: web-based mail, POP and forwarding. In addition, it lists a myriad of services that work in languages other than English. Another fantastic index is The Guide to Free E-mail Accounts (http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Vista/8015/free.html). It lists more than 200 services worldwide, and also sorts by the type of service.
For instant gratification, try one of these popular services: HotMail (http://www.hotmail.com), Yahoo Mail (http://mail.yahoo.com) or ZDNET Mail (http://www.zdnetmail.com). You can get more bang for your buck (well, not even a buck--they're free!) with GeoCities, which offers web page space along with e-mail (http://www.geocities.com); and My DejaNews, which offers a nifty Usenet reader plus web-based mail (http://www.dejanews.com/rg_reg.xp).
=*=*= SITES MENTIONED IN THIS ISSUE =*=*=
Free E-mail Address Directory: http://www.emailaddresses.com
Guide to Free E-mail Accounts: http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Vista/8015/free.html
Yahoo Mail: http://mail.yahoo.com
ZDNET Mail: http://www.zdnetmail.com
My Dejanews: http://www.dejanews.com/rg_reg.xp