| By Scott Dunn |
As free Web-based e-mail services get better and better, you may soon be able to leave your desktop e-mail apps behind.
But which of the Big Three webmail services — Gmail, Hotmail, or Yahoo Mail — has the features that meet your needs?
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When it comes to Web-based e-mail, we’ve got an abundance of choices. Still, most of us use Google’s Gmail, Microsoft’s Hotmail, or Yahoo Mail.
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Recent enhancements to Yahoo Mail give that service most of the best features of Outlook and other desktop e-mail programs. This puts Yahoo Mail a notch or two ahead of both Gmail and Hotmail, though those two services are far from slouches.
All three of the services I tested get your e-mail account running quickly. Signing up requires only some basic information such as your preferred e-mail address, an alternate (existing) e-mail address, your name, and your country of residence.
Hotmail also asks for the state or province you live in, the postal code, and your birth year. Yahoo wants to know your birthday (day, month, and year) and postal code.
Among the more advanced features offered by the services are the ability to search your mail and to link your mail account to a calendar and other ancillary utilities.
Note that Microsoft offers the equally free Live Mail, but this product — and the accessories that come with it — has to be downloaded and installed on your PC rather than working solely in a browser, so Live Mail doesn’t belong in this review.
E-mail has become such an important, idiosyncratic application that most of us have our own must-have features as well as those we can live happily without. Some people use filters religiously while other folks never use them. Other folks might care a lot about page-load speeds but don’t have any use for folders.
The table below will help you decide which features of the three services are most important to you. Each of the offerings has some unique, impressive attributes.
Table 1. No two webmail services offer the same combination of features.
| Feature || Yahoo || Gmail || Hotmail |
| Storage limits || None || 5GB+ || 5GB |
| Attachment size limit || 10MB || 20MB || 10MB |
| Integrated inbox and reading pane || • || — || • |
| Drag-and-drop attachments || • || — || • |
| Labels (or tags) || — || • || — |
| Sort mail || • || — || • |
| Mail-specific context menu || • || — || • |
| Custom look and feel1 || — || — || • |
| Integrated instant messaging || • || • || — |
| Integrated text messaging (SMS) || • || — || — |
| Integrated RSS2 || • || — || — |
| Auto forwarding || — || • || — |
| Filtering ||•|| • || • |
| Get mail from other accounts (POP in) ||•|| • || • |
| Get mail in other clients (POP out) || — || • || — |
| Supports IMAP ( Internet Message Access Protocol) || — || • || — |
| Fast switching among accounts || — || — || • |
2Gmail lets you display links to RSS feeds, but you need the separate Google Reader site to see the entire feed.
#1: YAHOO MAIL AND YAHOO MAIL PLUS
| $20 version |
No e-mail application is perfect, but Yahoo Mail provides such a rich environment for my daily communications that I’ve become addicted to the service.
Yahoo Mail’s recent facelift adds some Web 2.0-level functionality, making the service work more like a desktop application. For example, you can single-click to select a message, Shift-click to select a range of messages, and Ctrl-click to choose multiple files one at a time.
Yahoo also lets you drag and drop your selection to custom folders for storage or to the trash can for deletion. Unfortunately, you can’t create nested storage folders, nor can you drag and drop between the mail application in the browser and your desktop as you can to add attachments to Outlook, for example.
Like Hotmail, Yahoo Mail lets you customize the colors of your mail window, but unlike the Microsoft product, you can’t change the location of the Yahoo Mail reading pane, which is always positioned below your inbox.
As in Windows Explorer’s Details view, Yahoo Mail lets you click column headings to quickly sort mail by date, size, subject, and author. The service’s unique flagging feature allows you to arrange messages based on whether they’re flagged or not.
Like the other two services I tried, Yahoo Mail stores your contact info, including multiple phone numbers, addresses, and notes. Yahoo Mail gives you a limited number of canned categories for each entry (for example, five phone numbers plus a pager number). Hotmail offers the same function, but only Yahoo Mail’s Contact list has date fields for birthdays and anniversaries, which are added to your calendar automatically.
Yahoo’s calendar integration is evident in your e-mails as well. The service detects dates and times in your messages and marks the entries with a dotted underline. Hovering the mouse over the text pops up an option for adding the event to your calendar.
It’s often handy to have spare e-mail addresses you can use for registering at shopping sites, for business correspondence, or for personal mail, for example. In addition to yahoo.com, Yahoo Mail now offers two other domains — ymail.com and rocketmail.com — you can choose for your address.
Unfortunately, there is no quick way to jump between multiple accounts in Yahoo Mail. However, Yahoo also offers a paid version, Yahoo Mail Plus (US $20 per year), that provides disposable addresses along with many other added features.
Advertising in the free Yahoo Mail can sometimes be aggressive, with an annoying panel of animated ads popping in from the right. It cost Yahoo some points in my scoring and has probably cost them a few customers as well.
The for-pay Yahoo Mail Plus eliminates these ads and promotional taglines and adds auto-forwarding, POP access, more filters, increased message size limit, and more. You can compare the features of the free and paid versions at the service’s FAQ page.
While none of the three services I tried lets you display more than one message in a single browser window, with Yahoo Mail you can open e-mails in multiple tabs. This lets you switch quickly between open drafts or received messages by clicking the tab for the item you want.
Yahoo Mail’s unique features include SMS messaging and an RSS reader. Unfortunately, the service seems to fail more often than Gmail and Hotmail, at least in the past. Also, Yahoo Mail’s performance isn’t as brisk as competing webmail services.
Still, its wealth of features and its clean and easy interface make Yahoo Mail my webmail choice.
#2: MICROSOFT LIVE HOTMAIL AND HOTMAIL PLUS
| $20 version |
With a recently revamped interface, Windows Live Hotmail (formerly Hotmail) is the best-looking of the mail services I reviewed. Not only can you choose a custom color for the interface, you’re also able to change the location of your reading pane by placing it on the bottom or side of the screen.
Hotmail supports the same selection conventions, drag-and-drop, and folder storage features as Yahoo Mail, and the Microsoft mail service lets you sort messages by date, author, subject, and other criteria.
However, unlike the other two services I looked at, Hotmail lets you hide all mail except items with a specific subject or author or items with an attachment.
On the subject of disposable addresses, Hotmail states: “Add up to five of your e-mail addresses. When you use an alternative address, recipients may see the following information: ‘From: firstname.lastname@example.org on behalf of email@example.com.'” Since Hotmail doesn’t hide your real e-mail address, I don’t think this qualifies as a true disposable address.
Nevertheless, having multiple e-mail accounts is much easier to deal with in Hotmail than in the other webmail apps I examined. For starters, you can choose e-mail addresses ending in either hotmail.com or live.com.
Best of all, you can link multiple addresses and jump between them quickly using a pop-up menu on the upper right.
Hotmail’s ability to switch quickly among multiple accounts will make it the best choice for some people. However, the service has some catching up to do if it wants to match the breadth of features provided by competing webmail services.
Like Yahoo Mail, Hotmail has a $20 version that gives you increased storage and attachment size as well as fewer ads and no account expiration. The differences are summarized at the Windows Live Hotmail Plus site.
| Free version |
Of the three webmail services I tested, Google’s is the most unique. The differences are apparent from the moment you sign up for a Gmail account. When you do, Google asks you to enable “web history,” which means the company maintains a record of the sites you visit and searches you conduct via its servers.
While your Web browsing and search history may be useful to you, letting this information reside on Google’s servers raises privacy concerns. (It’s also worth noting that Google posts advertising to your Gmail page based on the content of your messages.) Since the Enable Web History option is checked by default during signup, you need to opt out if you don’t want to be tracked.
The differences between Gmail and the competition don’t end with setup. Anyone who has used Gmail is aware of the significant paradigm shift the service represents in terms of how you organize your mail. Gmail eschews the folder-storage metaphor and instead lets you add labels or tags to each message so you can search for it later based on those keywords.
This allows you to “store” mail under multiple labels without having to copy it into multiple folders (which Yahoo Mail and Hotmail won’t let you do, anyway). Arguably, the Gmail approach makes it easier to search for and find mail later, though it makes for a very full — and messy-looking — inbox.
You can also organize your Gmail by using the service’s archive feature (effectively giving you one additional folder besides your inbox) or filters to auto-archive, label, delete, and otherwise process your messages.
Instead of sorting items, Gmail requires that you use its search feature to display a subset of your mail.
Gmail is different in still another way: The service lacks a separate reading pane to let you view your inbox and read messages simultaneously. Also, if you don’t like Gmail’s single pastel color scheme, you’re stuck.
However, Gmail is more flexible in other areas. For example, unlike the contact forms for Hotmail and Yahoo Mail, the handy “add” link following each field on Gmail contact pages lets you create a seemingly unlimited number of text boxes for phone numbers, e-mail and mailing addresses, and other information.
In addition, Gmail’s message-composition window includes an “Add event invitation” feature that schedules your event in your Google Calendar. Recipients who click the Yes, No, or Maybe links in the reply are directed to Google Calendar to register their response.
Although none of the three free services I tried offers truly disposable addresses, Gmail comes closest, letting you create a disposable address by adding the plus sign (+) and text after your name — for example, firstname.lastname@example.org. The message is delivered to your regular Gmail inbox but is easier to filter.
Note, however, that many Web sites do not accept addresses that include a plus sign, which seriously limits the ability to take advantage of this feature.
Gmail’s performance depends on the speed of your Internet connection and the amount of stuff in your inbox. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that Gmail’s minimal graphical elements and controls make it the speediest mail service of the three I tested.
Gmail is different, but the differences may suit you just fine. And if top speed is what you crave, Gmail is the pacesetter.
Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He has been a contributing editor of PC World since 1992 and currently writes for the Here’s How section of that magazine.