Review: Web-Based E-Mail

AIM Mail, Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, and even Mail -- some are better for business, some for consumers, and all are quite useful.

Hotmail has the best integration of features for business users, but it is hindered by a lack of storage space and inferior spam blocking.

Workgroups can use Hotmail's calendar to share schedules and set different permission levels for each person. The intuitive interface simplifies setting reminders, inviting peers to meetings and managing your to do list. MSN Premium subscribers ($9.99 per month) can also synchronize their calendars and contacts with handheld devices.

Hotmail has the most flexibility in presenting contact information, and the search function can grow your contact database by scanning past e-mails. Although Hotmail supports importing contact files created by Outlook and Outlook Express, I could not successfully load either of two Outlook-created .CSV files that had worked fine with the other programs tested.

Despite my best efforts to flag spam as junk mail, about 40 percent of the unwanted solicitations slip by Hotmail's enhanced filter. Hotmail offers and 'exclusive' filter that blocks everyone who is not on your contact list, but that could prevent useful e-mails too.

Hotmail's tools for managing your inbox compare well with desktop e-mail programs, enabling you to create custom views and filters. The find function lets you quickly track down important messages based on the subject line, body text or folder location.

While Hotmail's 250 megabytes of e-mail storage seemed like a lot of space just a few years ago, it isn't sufficient for folks like me who frequently receive PDF and image attachments and don't have the bandwidth to save them separately.

Yahoo! Mail

While Yahoo! Mail is more of a "me too" service than an innovative product, it includes everything you need to successfully manage your messages through a straightforward interface. Business users may prefer Yahoo! Mail's contact management features, but many folks would have a hard to find compelling reasons to switch their e-mail from or to Yahoo! Mail.

You can set up custom fields in your Yahoo! Mail contact database as well as establish categories to keep your work and play contacts separate. One unique feature of Yahoo Mail is the free synchronization software that will keep your Palm or Pocket PC handheld up to date with your calendar and address book, and maintain synchronicity with Outlook as well. The Intellisync software can simplify uploading your data to a new computer, and also comes in handy if you need to find an email address when you are away from your computer.

As with AIM Mail and Hotmail, you can share your Yahoo! Mail calendar with peers or publish it as a public page.

The four tabs across the top of the screen for managing messages are used to store and retrieve messages. You can flag messages that urgently need to be dealt with, and use the advanced search function to find important information contained within a message text. The one gigabyte of free storage is likely more than enough for most users.

Yahoo! created its own SpamGuard software to ward off unwanted solicitations, and it seems to work well. Although I've had a Yahoo! Mail account for several years, I very rarely receive spam. Yahoo! offers a Plus service for $19.99 per year that doubles the amount of storage and provides additional anti-spam options.

Comcast.Net Mail

ISP Comcast's e-mail offering is more suitable for families than small businesses. Comcast mailbox administrators can establish up to seven e-mail accounts You can also choose how frequently messages are automatically deleted, with choices from once day to never. Comcast limits home user accounts to 250 megabytes of total storage, but businesses can add five e-mail addresses with 20 MB of storage per account for $15 a month.

The message center uses colorful icons across the top of the screen for managing messages and provides all of the standard tools for formatting and searching messages. Moving messages to folders is done through a drop down menu on the far right of the screen using a font that is needlessly small.

Comcast does not provide a calendar, and the anti-spam software can not be customized. You can block e-mail addresses from sending messages, and parental controls enable you to block offensive content as well as providing a firewall.

While you can import or export files from Outlook, Outlook Express or Netscape Communicator, there are no options in Mail for setting up contact groups.

Editor's Choice
Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Nathan Eddy, Freelance Writer
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing