These days, Web-based e-mail services are like opinions -- they're everywhere. Almost every other Web site seems to offer one. It's easy to see why Web mail has become so popular, even with users who already have an ISP. Web mail lets you read and send e-mail no matter where you are. And the price -- free for most services -- is hard to beat.
But Web mail has limitations -- namely on the amount of mail you can stash in your in-box. With storage capacities topping out at just a few megabytes, even one e-mail containing several photos can crowd out the rest of your correspondence.
Some new Web mail providers have loosened the squeeze on users by offering e-mail storage capacities that dwarf those offered by others. With Web mail services adopting other features, from message retrieval via an e-mail client to spam filtering, you may want to review the Web mail options available to Mac users, even if you already have an e-mail account.
Web Mail Rundown
Web mail is basically a Web interface for your e-mail. In all Web mail services, the host, not a mail server at your ISP, receives the e-mail and stores it locally (there are always mailbox size limits).
You can access your e-mail through the service when you're away from your computer; any computer with an Internet connection and a Web browser will do. Even using your own machine, you can bypass long downloads on a slow connection by scanning subject lines on a Web page.
A few Web mail services can check one or more POP or Web mail accounts that you maintain elsewhere, too. This gives you the benefit of a Web interface without redirecting your e-mail or changing your other mailboxes or addresses. On the flip side, a few Web mail providers also let you retrieve your e-mail from them through an e-mail client using POP, IMAP, or both -- usually for a fee. This is handy when you're checking e-mail on the road but want to store it in one offline archive that you maintain.
Free Web mail services usually rely on advertising for support. Typically, such ads are minimal -- they aren't often displayed while you read e-mail via the site, but they may be attached to the bottom of messages you send.
Most Web mail services include basic or advanced spam filtering, using blocklists, self-reporting options, your own personal blacklist, and Bayesian word-frequency methods. Most also let you report spam you've received.
Web Mail Roll Call
The long-established free Web mail providers include Yahoo and Hotmail (see "Who's Who in Web Mail"). (Web Update: After the print version of this article went to press, Hotmail announced it was expanding its storage limits.) Hotmail offers the basics, with fees for additional storage beyond 2MB.
As this issue went to press, Yahoo announced plans to extend its free storage, in response to newer services that dramatically extend mailbox size. Gmail, from Google, was still a beta at press time, but will offer 1GB for free. Gmail recently added Safari to its list of supported browsers. Mac-centric site SpyMac.com quickly matched Google's offer, providing an array of hosting services at no cost, including 1GB of e-mail storage.
While using open public networks, you might want to rely on a service that offers a Secure Sockets Layer Web connection that encrypts your Web mail–reading session. Only Gmail and FastMail.FM -- a full-service Web mail provider that lets you use your own domains for an extra fee -- explicitly offer this service.
Mailblocks.com stands out among Web mail providers that offer free accounts with its challenge-and-response spam filtering. Each e-mail sender who isn't on your approved list receives an automated challenge message. Once that recipient responds, the message -- and all subsequent messages from that sender -- moves from a pending folder into your in-box.
Before you set up a Web mail account, you should check with your ISP to see if it offers a Web mail service; many do via their regular Web page–account login. Even America Online offers Web mail as part of its service. If you're running Mac OS X Server 10.3 (Panther), Apple includes Squirrelmail, a Web mail program that works with its e-mail system.Pick and Choose FastMail.FM presents an assortment of options to customize sending, filtering, and receiving e-mail. Spam, Canned You can mark messages and then click on Report Spam to improve Gmail's spam-filtering capability.