Inbox Tamers

Web Mail Services

FastMail

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 Gmail

Gmail is free of clutter, though it displays text ads based on topics discussed in your e-mail.
Gmail is free of clutter, though it displays text ads based on topics discussed in your e-mail.

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.

Editors' Note: After we went to press, Google announced a free increase in its mail storage, from 1GB to 2GB.

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

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

Yahoo Mail can fetch messages from a POP3 account and color-code them for easy identification.
Yahoo Mail can fetch messages from a POP3 account and color-code them for easy identification.

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.

Editors' Note: After we went to press, Yahoo announced an increase in its mail storage, from 250MB to 1GB, slated to start in late April 2005.

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. --K.S.

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