Walt Mossberg

Years in the Making, Powerful Yahoo Mail Is Worth the Wait

Two years is a really long time to test a software product, but that’s about how long it took for Yahoo to finish its slick new version of Yahoo Mail, the popular email program you access from a Web browser. This new Yahoo Mail entered its beta, or test, stage in September 2005, and this week it emerged in finished form.

The result is a polished, fairly powerful email program that I prefer to Google’s much-hyped Gmail, which is undergoing an even longer gestation. It has been in beta status since April 2004.

I’ve been testing the new Yahoo Mail on both Windows and Macintosh computers. It has some downsides, but it beats Gmail, in my view, both in terms of features and in terms of its ability to act like a standard computer program rather than a Web page, something for which Gmail often gets more credit.

A closer competitor to Yahoo Mail is actually Microsoft’s Hotmail, now called Windows Live Hotmail. But Yahoo tops Hotmail, too, in my opinion.

The new Yahoo Mail, which works in Internet Explorer and Firefox on Windows, and in Firefox on the Macintosh, is now more than just an email program. Like Gmail, but unlike Hotmail, it has a built-in instant-messaging module. You can choose to communicate with any of your contacts via a real-time chat, right from within Yahoo Mail, as long as that contact is online and has an IM account on either the Yahoo or Microsoft instant-messaging networks. You don’t need to be running your IM program.

Unlike either of its competitors, however, the new Yahoo Mail also allows you to exchange text messages with people on cellphones, although the message exchange must be initiated from Yahoo Mail.

Yahoo Mail offers unlimited storage of emails and attachments free of charge, and a very fast and good search capability — like Gmail’s — so you can keep years of messages on hand and retrieve them quickly. Gmail offers 2.9 gigabytes of storage free. It sells extra storage for prices ranging from $20 a year for six gigabytes to $500 a year for 250 gigabytes. Hotmail is in the process of boosting its storage to five gigabytes, free, and 10 gigabytes for $20 a year.

With Yahoo Mail, you can send attachments of up to 10 megabytes per message and 20 megabytes if you opt for a $20-a-year plan that also eliminates the annoying banner ads that litter the free version. Gmail offers attachments of up to 20 megabytes free. Hotmail allows 10 megabyte attachments and 20 megabytes under its $20-a-year plan, which also banishes ads. Gmail has no banner ads, just text ads that run alongside the emails and can’t be eliminated.

This new Yahoo Mail is gradually being rolled out in coming weeks. The company still plans to retain the older version of Yahoo Mail, now called Classic, for people who prefer it, or for those using browsers that are incompatible with the new version, such as Apple’s Safari.

The new Yahoo Mail allows you to do things that once were impossible in a Web-based email program. For instance, you can drag messages to new folders, or select a group of messages in the same way you would with a standard email program, to delete them or mark them as read or unread. Unlike in Gmail, when you right-click on a message you get a list of options that pertain to the mail program — like “Reply to Sender” — instead of options that pertain to the use of the browser — like “Add to Favorites.”

Also, Yahoo Mail features a very nice tabbed interface that Gmail and Hotmail lack. With this interface, which is separate from the browser’s own tabs, you could have your inbox in one tab, an instant-message or text-message conversation going on in another and a new email you are composing occupying yet another. You can move among these tabs without losing the content in any of them.

And like Hotmail but not Gmail, Yahoo Mail offers a preview pane, like Microsoft’s Outlook, so you can see the contents of an email without opening it. Gmail offers just a “snippet” of the message content. Unlike Gmail, which forces you to view your emails as bunched-up “conversations,” Yahoo Mail — like Hotmail — displays them as a standard email program does, sorting them by date, sender, subject or size.

So what are the downsides of Yahoo Mail?

Well, the biggest is probably that unless you pay for the $20-a-year premium plan, you can’t view your Yahoo mail account in a standard email program such as Outlook or Apple Mail. Gmail allows this free of charge. Hotmail allows it free in Outlook and in Windows Mail, though it will soon announce the capability for other email programs for premium members and, eventually, for free members as well.

Also, I found Yahoo Mail could sometimes be slow. When I created a new folder and tried to drag 200 emails into it, I was warned that I couldn’t do that because the new folder was “still being created.”

But overall, Yahoo did a really good job making its online mail program versatile, powerful and accessible.

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com. Find all my columns and videos online free at the new All Things Digital Web site, http://walt.allthingsd.com.

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