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The New Faces of Web-Based E-Mail

Illustration: Edwin Fotheringham
A few years ago, you'd have found little to differentiate one Web-based e-mail service from another. How times change. These days you'll see big contrasts.

Gmail's "stacked" view of message threads saves time spent dredging through mailboxes. Just click each heading to open or close the message.
Gmail's "stacked" view of message threads saves time spent dredging through mailboxes. Just click each heading to open or close the message.
The best of today's services, Gmail, behaves more like a Windows application than like a Web mail service. What's more, Gmail can be a huge time-saver. Instead of making you sift through your sent messages and your inbox to reconstruct an e-mail exchange, Gmail's interface presents every message in a thread--the ones you wrote on a given topic as well as those you received--in a single stack.

Gmail permits you to export and import contacts, and it allows you to set the reply-to address to something other than your gmail.com address--features that most free Web mail providers don't have. It also gives you POP3 access (so you can download messages to a Windows mail program), another rarity. And Gmail's 2.5GB of mail storage far outstrips other services' limits. These items make Gmail a fine replacement for your ISP's mail server: Use its Web interface when you're on the road, and a desktop program at home.

The traditional, forms-based Web interface of Yahoo Mail is quick and easy to use, and the service provides 1GB of mail storage. Yahoo's synchronization utility lets you sync your Yahoo Mail address book with Outlook, Outlook Express, or a Palm device. We also tested a beta of Yahoo Mail's upcoming Ajax-based interface. This promising three-pane approach includes browser-like tabbed windows, an RSS reader, and the ability to search through attachments as well as through messages.

MSN Hotmail offers a respectable 250MB of storage to United States residents (others get 25MB). It has a Windows-like look, but the tiny buttons make the interface awkward, and the address book is limited to 650 entries. Its successor, Microsoft's Ajax-based Windows Live Mail (now in beta) is an Outlook-like application--or an Outlook Express--like one, if you select that view--offering drag-and-drop convenience.

AIM Mail supplies 2GB of storage and integration with AOL Instant Messenger, so it can be good for IM addicts who want a generous Web mail account. But its large, animated ads are distracting--and screens can be slow to load. Netscape Webmail, with 250MB of storage, features large, easy-to-click buttons. On the downside, its address book lacks the capability to import contacts, and its help files aren't searchable.

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