Walt Mossberg

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Room At the In-Box

For the most serious email users, there’s no substitute for a sophisticated, powerful program such as Outlook and Outlook Express on Windows, or Entourage and Apple Mail on the Macintosh. These programs reside on your computer’s hard disk and store e-mail there. They offer a host of deep features and are very fast. But there’s another popular way to handle e-mail, one that’s used by millions: Web-based programs — including Yahoo Mail, Microsoft’s Hotmail and Google’s Gmail — where the software resides on the provider’s server, along with the email itself. Users access both through a Web browser.

The big advantage of Web mail is that any computer, anywhere, with a browser and an Internet connection can access it. The PC you’re using needn’t have an e-mail program like Outlook installed on it, and it doesn’t have to be configured for your e-mail account. The disadvantages: Since the type of e-mail software the Web providers use is essentially just a Web page, their services typically lack the power and speed of installed programs; they also place limits on how much e-mail you can save.

That’s why, for many years, Web-mail services have most often been the preference of light users attracted to the free email they offer. They’ve also been popular with people who use Outlook or another heavy-duty program at work, but who want an account on the side for personal e-mail. Lately, however, the major Web-mail offerings have gotten much better, to the point where they’re plausible candidates even for serious users. Here’s a quick rundown of how they compare. (A note on methodology: Although you can receive Web-based e-mail via a local program like Outlook Express, I tested the services in their most common mode — Web-based e-mail delivered through Web-based programs.)

All three of the major Web-mail providers now offer much more free storage than was common a couple years ago. Gmail leads with more than 2 gigabytes. Yahoo offers 1 gigabyte for free, and Hotmail provides 250 megabytes. All three also now have decent antispam and antivirus features, and they are a bit less susceptible than Outlook to being exploited by e-mail containing harmful computer code, particularly if you access them via a browser other than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. That’s because malicious software writers have targeted Outlook (and IE) for years. But the three still lack some key features. For instance, none offers a full preview of e-mail content, though Gmail does show you a few words of each message. None allows you to set up multiple signatures you can attach to different outgoing messages. And the Web-based e-mail filters these services provide are fairly crude compared with those in local programs.

As for how they rank, Yahoo Mail takes the lead. It’s fast, and its gigabyte of free storage is more than enough to free most users from deleting old mail. I also like Yahoo’s autocompletion of addresses, as well as its folder and filter systems. Plus, its overall user interface is clean and clear.

Google’s Gmail is also pretty good, though its quirky design could put off some users — it’s clearly still a work in progress. Gmail has the most free storage of the Web-based providers, which is a big plus, and searching all that mail is fast and accurate. But a simple operation such as deleting an e-mail takes more steps than in Yahoo. Gmail’s biggest, most beguiling quirk is its insistence on displaying e-mail in “conversations,” groups that include all back-and-forth responses. This view can be useful, and most local e-mail programs offer it as an option. But inexplicably, Gmail refuses to let you view e-mail one message at a time. It also runs ads alongside every e-mail, based on a scan of the message’s contents.

Hotmail comes in last. It offers only a fraction of the free storage of Yahoo and Gmail, which, for my money, flatly disqualifies it as a serious contender.

Whichever program you choose, Web mail has finally arrived as a viable option. Let’s hope a good thing keeps getting better.

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