Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.
Web based and downloaded email both have significant advantages, and disadvantages, to managing email. Which is right for you depends on many things.
My wife and I once used Eudora where email was downloaded, but right now seem to be happy with the huge amount of space we have available for our web-based email on the ISP's servers. We do lots of housekeeping, retaining only what we need for as long as we need it. What other things should we consider? What does a traditional email program like Thunderbird provide that we might consider?
Web-based and PC-based or downloaded email are two fairly radically different ways to approach email. As you can imagine, there are arguments in favor of or against each, and which might be most appropriate for you depends on many things, not the least of which is what "feels" right to you.
I'll look at both, identifying what I think are the important issues, and also outline the approach I take.
Web-based email, as the term implies, uses a web site as a portal to your email. You visit the site - provided by either your ISP or a third party - log in, and the site allows you to read, send and otherwise manage your email on-line.
The huge advantage of web-based email is that there's nothing to install, and your email is available on any internet-connected computer at any time. All in all it's pretty darned convenient.
The downside, though, is that you're really at the mercy of that provider.
Some things to consider:
An internet connection is required. If you're not connected, for any reason, then your email is not accessible to you.
The interface is as slow, or as fast, as your internet connection. If you find yourself on dialup, for example, a web based interface may be excruciatingly slow to use.
You have no control over the interface used to access your email. If the email provider elects to change the way email is displayed or accessed, you may have no choice but to learn to deal with the new interface. (Many Hotmail users have faced this scenario, though they are not alone.)
Your email is stored in one place: the servers that belong to the email service you are using. Unless you take additional steps if anything happens to that email, contacts or additional information accompanying it, it's typically lost and gone forever.
You have restrictions in the amount of email you can keep. This varies (greatly) from provider to provider, as do the consequences of exceeding your allowance or "quota".
Downloaded email, once again as the term implies, uses an email program installed on your computer which connects to your email service to download your email to your computer's hard disk. You then read, send and otherwise manage your email on your computer, connecting to the email provider only to send and receive messages.
Downloading your email is, by far, the most powerful and flexible approach to dealing with email, with more different programs and utilities that I could possibly list here, all somehow related to managing email on your PC.
Various things to consider include:
You do not need an internet connection to read email you've already downloaded, or to compose messages. You do, of course, need a connection to download new messages, or to send the messages that you've written.
There are, as I said, perhaps hundreds of different email programs to choose from. For Windows the most common/popular choices include Outlook, Outlook Express (XP and earlier), Windows Live Mail, and Thunderbird. Many of these programs also include additional features that can be added as "extensions" or "addons".
PC-based email programs tend to have many, many more email management features than their web-based counterparts. This works both ways, making them more complicated to use at times, but significantly more capable of meeting various needs.
Since your email is downloaded to your computer, you have the ability - I'd go so far to say the responsibility - to back it up. With an appropriate backup strategy you need never lose email.
The amount of email you keep, and where you keep it, is limited only by your computer's own hard disk space, additional storage you might want to provide, and your ability or willingness to manage it.
While the actual upload and download of email is only as fast as your internet connection, everything else - including composing, searching and otherwise managing your email, is as fast as your computer.
To many people "web mail" is synonymous with "free email", but that's simply not the case.
Free email services like Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo and others certainly provide web-based interfaces - perhaps even as their primary or preferred interface - but many now also provide the SMTP and POP3 or IMAP access used by desktop email programs that will download your email to your PC.
Similarly, many services that you might pay for - such as the email provided by your ISP - might typically be used by desktop email programs but also often offer a web-based interface in addition.
Web based or downloadable is no longer a typical distinction between free and paid.
The important thing to remember about free email services is simply this: you get what you pay for, and typically that means little to no customer service, and not much help should something go wrong.
What I Do
I do both.
Email sent to any of my email addresses goes first to a Gmail account, for three reasons:
Gmail acts as my "webmail", should I need access without my PC being available.
Gmail acts as an additional backup for my email.
Gmail seems to have the best spam filter I've seen. It's not perfect, but it is better than most alternatives I've seen.
I then use Gmail's POP3 access to download email into Thunderbird on my laptop. That email is then backed up regularly, along with the rest of my data on that machine.
In my opinion, the best of both worlds. Even when I'm at my PC, I'll sometimes still use Gmail's archive of my email as a slightly easier to search reference if I need to look something up.
But I've always got everything - years worth of email in fact - on my PC ready for access whether I'm connected or not.
What Should You Do?
I can't say. It really depends, as I said earlier, on your own needs as well as just how comfortable you are with the various alternatives.
Regardless of which approach you take, I would caution you to pay attention to backing up your email regularly. By far the most common issue that I see relating to email losses would have been avoided had the individuals in crisis been backing up regularly. And that statement applies equally well to people using both web-based or downloaded email solutions.