Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

There are several options to accessing email, but they all have various tradeoffs depending on how you like to work with your email. We'll compare.

My brother-in-law asks me "if I buy a laptop for use at the cottage, can I access my computer at home to read my email?" Not having a cottage or a laptop, I'm not sure.

Your brother-in-law is asking an increasingly common question. With connectivity nearly ubiquitous, and people relying heavily on email it's not at all uncommon to want to access your email from someplace other than your desktop at home.

The question is: how?

The answer depends on the email solution you use, and the tradeoff's you're willing to accept.

Webmail Always

Accessing your email via a web interface is perhaps the easiest solution by far. If you already use webmail exclusively, then you're done. Just login to your webmail account from wherever you happen to have a computer and an internet connection.

That's pretty darned convenient, but there are downsides. For one, it's webmail ... no internet connection, no email at all; you can't even work on email messages "offline", as they're all stored on the internet in your webmail service provider's servers.

"Accessing your email via a web interface is perhaps the easiest solution by far."

And of course, I wouldn't be me if I didn't mention that if you use webmail all the time, you should be taking extra care to back it up somehow to avoid massive data loss should you ever lose access to the account.

Webmail When Traveling

This is a very common alternative. Many people will use a desktop email program at home or at the office, but then use a webmail interface to access mail while elsewhere. Most email providers offer a web mail interface for just this purpose.

While you'll be able to send mail and to access email that arrives while you're traveling, if you normally download your email to your desktop email program at home or work, you won't be able to access those messages already downloaded before you leave. They've been downloaded/moved to your PC, and your webmail interface will see only messages that arrive after the last time your PC downloads. (Make sure your PC isn't automatically downloading while you're away, otherwise you'll likely see none of your email while traveling.)

The other drawback is that it's not uncommon to want to save the mail you send in a "sent mail" folder in your desktop email program. If you send email using the web interface while you're traveling that doesn't happen, or it's saved in a separate web-only "sent mail" folder.

Remote Access

Another approach is to continue to send and receive email on your desktop at home or at the office, even when you're not there, by accessing the machine remotely. Programs like Remote Desktop (perhaps used in conjunction with Hamachi or other VPN solution), RealVNC, GoToMyPC or other remote access services allow you to connect to your home machine from any PC on the internet as if you were at the machine.

Having done so, you can just fire up your email program on that home PC, read, send and receive email as much as you like.

Once set up (occasionally a stumbling block), the drawback to this approach is typically speed. Remote desktop solutions are fantastic, particularly when they have lots of bandwidth. While they work over slower connections, the lack of speed can sometimes be an annoyance.

Leave On Server

An uncommon, but workable approach when using desktop email programs is to configure a second computer (at your brother-in-law's cottage, perhaps) to also get your email, but make sure it's configured to "leave messages on server" after doing so.

This approach allows you to download read and send email from your remote location using a normal desktop email program.

By leaving the mail on the server, once you return home to your primary computer when you check email it'll download everything you read while away as if it were new. That's important, so as to keep that computer as the "master copy" of all your email. But it's slightly annoying to have to see all those emails again.

It also suffers from the same separate "sent mail" folder problem for any emails you send from that other PC.

This is actually how we handle my wife's email when we travel. We don't take her computer, but we do take mine, where I download her mail in addition to my own, taking care to have her account configured to leave the messages on the server. That way she can stay on top of incoming mail while we're away. Once we return home she downloads it all again to her computer.

Remember, if you don't configure to "leave on server", then anything you download on the second (or third or ...) computer will not appear on your own computer when you return home. It'll have been downloaded and moved to the computer you were using at the time.

Bring it With You

Honestly - this is what I do. My laptop is the machine on which I run my email program, and when I travel I simply bring it along. (Yes, I can access email on my Blackberry - much like the "Webmail while traveling" solution above, but for me that's not a solution for lengthy trips or large amounts of email).

At home, where I use my desktop computer for most of my work, I actually access the laptop "remotely" via a remote desktop solution - even though "remote" in this case means the next room. Since it's on my local network the speed is simply not an issue. When I leave, I simply throw the laptop into a backpack and I'm good to go.

I suppose that the biggest downside to this approach is that I'm lugging a laptop with me. In my case, given what I do, it makes sense and is an important part of how I travel. The good news is that there are so many laptop and portable device options that if this solution appeals at all there's likely to be something that fits your needs without being overly bulky or expensive.

IMAP

IMAP is solution that combines some of the best aspects of the solutions above, but also includes a few of its own issues.

The default for most desktop email programs is to download email using a protocol known as POP3. This protocol literally downloads, or moves, the email you receive from the mail server where it's been collected to your PC. Once downloaded it's only on your PC.

IMAP, on the other hand, leaves the email on the server. You use it pretty much the same way you use POP3, but your email program constantly coordinates with your email server to fetch and manage individual messages.

Multiple computers can then access the same account via IMAP and maintain a consistent view on the messages. In fact, if you have or use a Blackberry, that's how it accesses your email - via IMAP - so that when you later download your email to your email program it's not been affected by having accessed it on your portable device (unless you specifically tell it to).

The biggest issue with IMAP is that it leaves the email on your server. Depending on your email service, if you get a lot of email that can accumulate and push you into problems with email storage limits or quotas.

Other?

I've touched on a few approaches on accessing email from multiple locations, but this is an area where I know people also occasionally get fairly creative. I'd love to hear other solutions people have used successfully; just leave a comment.

Article C3804 - July 4, 2009 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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12 Comments
Eli Coten
July 4, 2009 12:23 PM

GMail now offers some offline access for those with Gears installed. This might enable people to use a Webmail only solution.

Mark Jacobs
July 5, 2009 1:56 PM

I use Gmail and another freemail provider with pop and smtp access. I can access my email from the web but since I have a few accounts, I use Thundirbird portable on an USB stick when I use a computer t work or elsewhere. One very important caveat: when setting up your email client eg. T-bird, go back to the setup and CHECK THE LEAVE MAIL ON SERVERBOX otherwise you will not be able to download these again on another machine. I made that mistake once and solved the problem (sort of)by forwarding these emails back to myself. It got them back on the serve but it messed up the dates and the senders as the date was the date I sent it and the sender was myself :-(

Art Bracher
July 7, 2009 9:55 AM

My wife gets mail from her two accounts on her desktop via Outlook Express, leaving ALL mail on the web (to be deleted when deleted at the desktop). When traveling, she uses my (our) laptop and ccs herself so that the desktop gets copies of sent mail -- moved to sent mail folder when she returns.

I use four web accounts, funneled into one, leaving mail on that one (deleting on the others). I access my mail from several computers while at home, and our laptop when traveling. I check the secondary accounts to see if something shouldn't have been trashed.

Dale O
July 7, 2009 10:08 AM

On my desktop, on one of my accounts I have it set to delete items only after 2 days (using Outlook 2003 settings [More settings ... Advanced tab). This allows me to use Thunderbird on my laptop to handle that account's email if I choose, leaving it on the server.

Of course the downside, is what I reply with on my laptop doesn't get to my desktop where the "master" records are. I get around that by ccing myself. The cc comes back to my laptop, but also remains on the server to get pulled in next time I'm at my desktop.

Steve
July 7, 2009 10:54 AM

If I leave messages on server and then buy a new or additional computer, can I then download only those messages that I want, or do I have to download all the messages on the server to my desk top application (Outlook)

kptech
July 7, 2009 11:04 AM

You might consider using a laptop as your primary system. I'm also in the I/T buisiness and that's what I do. These days, you can get laptops with large displays and large or multiple hard drives. (Mine will even allow dual hard drives configured as a RAID-0 or RAID-1 array). If you travel frequently, you could opt for a smaller laptop and use a docking station or port replicator and an external monitor and keyboard/mouse just like you would a desktop system. As far as backups go... The best use you could put your old desktop to is as a file server to house your backups.

Daniel Warrener
July 7, 2009 4:29 PM

A trick to use when using POP3 to avoid that "sent items - web only" caveat is to do the following once you return home:

Before doing the following, get your desktop email client to download all incoming mail first as not to get your sent items confused with incoming mail. You might probably want to read all your inbox mail also first, as marking your sent items "UNREAD" as below is to distinguish them and allow them to download obviously as well.

1. On the web based system, mark all the items in the web sent folder as UNREAD.

2. Move them to the inbox.

3. Tell your desktop client you wish to retrieve your email (usually SEND/RECIEVE in Microsoft Outlook)

4. Once downloaded move those items into your Outlook sent folder, highlight them all, and mark as READ.

There you go, that's how you get around that, it's a bit of a pain, but it won't take as long to do as you think. It's probably not practical but it works.

Dan.

Michael Horowitz
July 7, 2009 8:38 PM

I use portable Thunderbird.

When home, I run it off an internal hard disk on my desktop computer. When traveling I copy the portable Thunderbird folder to my laptop. When I get home, I again copy the portable TB folder back to the desktop machine.

In theory it can run from a USB flash drive, but I've found it to be annoyingly slow. On the laptop, the portable TB folder is encrypted with TrueCrypt as are all my data files. As the computer I take with me on trips has changed over time, the system adapts well.

Fred
July 8, 2009 2:47 AM

Whenever I sent messages from Gmail web, it Outlook express would later download these in to inbox, and I'd drag it to sent items. Worked simply and easily.

Of course the reason I sent webmail was to save uploading a video I was forwarding, so I was made to download it instead :(

Ursula
July 8, 2009 3:01 AM

I have found that Mail2Web lets me access my emails from any computer, anywhere. Even once I've read the emails in Mail2Web and deleted them there, apparently they stay in my Outlook Express Inbox, so if necessary, I can access them there later on. This could potentially create a problem if one is not able to delete emails out of the Outlook Express Inbox very often. I don't know if there is a limit on how many emails can be in the Outlook Express Inbox. When I'm home, Mail2Web comes in handy also, because if I delete emails out of my Outlook Express Inbox and realize later on that I should not have deleted one of them, I can go to the Mail2Web program and it will still be there ....... unless, of course, I deleted all emails out of the Mail2Web inbox already.

F Mitchell
July 8, 2009 9:31 AM

When in Spain&Greece i go on to Yahoo Mail log on and thatis it,no problems up to now.

Tom Russell
July 8, 2009 11:11 AM

I use Outlook 2003 and a file synchronizer program to keep my .pst files synchronized between my laptop and desktop. That way all of my downloaded gmail mail (plus my calendar and contact info) is always concurrent on both machines.

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