Free web-based e-mail is available from a number of sources. Which one is the best, though?
I have three e-mail addresses, one for Hotmail, one for Yahoo, and one for Gmail. Why do I do this? And why do I used web-based e-mail instead of email provided by my ISP? Good questions.
Using ISP based "pop" mail is often difficult, or at least it was in the past. You had to configure a POP server and use Microsoft Outlook to read your e-mails. Outlook was particularly prone to worms and viruses, and if you clicked on one "rogue" e-mail, it would immediately hijack your account and send out SPAM to everyone on your e-mail list. Fun.
The other problem with ISP-based e-mail is that your e-mail address is usually assigned (e.g., bell4627820@bellsouth or something like that) and it is an awkward address. But more importantly, if you switch ISPs, then your e-mail address changes. So if you decide that cable modem is a better deal than DSL, you have to notify everyone that your e-mail address has changed, which is a pain in the ass.
Or, if you move, you have to tell everyone your e-mail address has changed. And for young people, in college or early in their careers, moving is a regular thing. For me, moving from a Summer home to a Winter home meant that I would have to change e-mail addresses every six months, and that is not workable. Or, I would have to forward one to the other and then log into a POP account to access one.
Free, web-based e-mail is one answer. You can sign on to Hotmail, Yahoo, or Gmail and set up an account in seconds. Most accounts are free, although there are some restrictions. If you stop using your account for more than say, 90 days, it may be erased. But most provide copious storage, allow you to upload documents and photos, and also allow you to save e-mails into various folders. I use a separate folder for each client, which makes it easy to find correspondence between clients and myself.
I initially started with Hotmail, a Microsoft Product. It worked OK, but they did one of those periodic changes to the look that annoys me so much. Sometimes they just change how it looks. Other times they try to change the very nature of e-mail, by using, for example, "conversations" which really sucked.
I tried Yahoo, and the look and feel was very similar to Hotmail. Perhaps they are using the same software, or perhaps the HTML coders just copy each other, I do not know. Either way, they are very much the same. I also tried Gmail, a Google Product, and found it to be very user-friendly, although some features, like the virtual hard drive, only work with their browser, Google Chrome, which I do not like at all (too clunky), even though, initially, I was enthusiastic about it.
Why have all three addresses? Triple redundancy. I use e-mail for my business, and I can't afford to miss e-mails. How could this happen? Well, many years ago, I got a notice from AOL that all e-mails sent by me to AOL accounts would be blocked, as AOL was receiving "lots of SPAM" from Hotmail. Not SPAM from ME, of course, just from "some Hotmail Accounts." So AOL's big idea was to just shut down all e-mails from Hotmail.
This was back when people actually used AOL, and this meant I could not contact a lot of customers. That was when I set up the Yahoo account. I called Hotmail, but they said there was nothing they could do. A month later, the ban was lifted. A year later, no one was using AOL. I think AOL's strategy backfired, as its users decided to migrate away from a platform that arbitrarily blocked entire ranges of e-mail addresses.
And perhaps AOL was trying to encourage Hotmail users to migrate to AOL. Whatever the cause of this little tiff, it backfired in a big way, I think.
I also receive e-mails from the Patent Office, and they allow me to receive e-mails at up to three addresses. So when I get a communication from them, I usually get three copies.
Rather than log into three e-mail accounts, I set up two of the accounts to forward to the third. This makes it easier to just read one e-mail account, while still having three active addresses.
So which one is better? Some folks have analyzed this based on "features" like storage space and the like. But I think that misses the point. All three services, even if used in the free mode, provide more than enough storage for even the heaviest of users. So, saying that one service gives 1 GB of storage and another gives 2 GB is sort of missing the point. Most people won't use all that storage - I certainly haven't, in several years of use, sending many e-mails with 10 MB attachments or more (attachment limitations were a problem early on, but most now allow for very large attachments of 10-20MB or more).
So, who is the winner based on ease of use? I hate to say it, but Gmail wins, hands down. I recently switched back to Hotmail as my primary source, and had my Gmail and Yahoo accounts forwarded there. I had forgotten how clunky and slow the Hotmail interface is. When you click on something, it "waits" before it shows the next screen, which can result in bad things happening, like you erasing all your e-mails, as you click on an icon on a screen that has not yet loaded.
Another example of this slowness is that when you create a new message, it shows up in your "Drafts" folder. But even after you send the message, it appears here for about 10 seconds longer. So you send a message, and then see "Drafts(1)" on the left, and think, "Did that message actually send or not?" and you click on Drafts. By the time you do, the phantom draft is gone. Not a big deal, but a sign of a slow server, poor HTML coding, or something. Yahoo and Gmail don't have these problems.
Also, the document upload feature seems to take longer and also bombs out, periodically. And worst of all, it is paranoid about SPAM, without actually giving you a way to filter it. If a message looks "suspicious" to MSN, they won't display the images and links. Sometimes there is a message allowing you to "safe" an address, sometimes not. And it gets tiring having to click on "show message" all the time, from the same person, again and again.
And if you want to filter or block e-mails, it is a lot harder to do. Gmail has a link for "filter messages like these" and with a few clicks of a mouse, you can make sure that campaign messages from Newt Gingrich will futhermore go directly into TRASH. With Hotmail, you have to manually create filters.
When a client e-mails me about a toothbrush invention and I start seeing ads on other google sites for toothbrushes, it kind of creeps me out. So while I like the "look and feel" of Gmail (provided they stop changing the look and feel every ten minutes, as they are proposing to do with Blogger), there are some downsides as well.
Perhaps someday I will migrate to another e-mail platform, perhaps even a PAID one, that avoids these sidebar ads - or worse, putting ad taglines in your e-mails proper, as some providers do.
UPDATE 2020: Today, I use Gmail and Chrome - they make it too damn easy. Hotmail was clunky and Yahoo prone to viruses. Most of my friends using Yahoo ended up being hacked. So I guess Gmail wins by default - for now.