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

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.

"To many people 'web mail' is synonymous with 'free email', but that's simply not the case."

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

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.

Free Email

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.

Article C4203 - March 5, 2010 « »

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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.

Not what you needed?

March 5, 2010 7:59 PM

There's one other aspect that you didn't mention: webmail, especially from a third party service (gmail, hotmail, yahoo) have advertising that shows when you're looking at your mail. It's unlikely (but possible!) that a mail package on your computer used to download mail will have ads surrounding your mail window.

How "in your face" those ads are depends on the service. I occasionally use yahoo mail, and *hate* the ads that try to steal my attention away from the messages I'm reading. Truly awful ...which is why I rarely use it.

gmail's ads are there, but quite unobtrusive, and don't flash in your face. Like you, I use a hybrid: I download mail when I'm in my office (still on Eudora! But probably not for much longer) and gmail/blackberry otherwise; gmail keeps one of my mail backups too. I have fallback strategies should my server access fail, or should gmail fail. I consider mail quite important....

Summary: if you've tried webmail and hated the ads, try another one. It's likely you'll find one that's more to your style and liking.

March 7, 2010 2:43 PM

I use a strategy similar to yours, but have a niggling concern that if my webmail account is hacked, the hacker then has access to wealth of information that might be useful for identity theft, e.g. online order confirmations. How do you get round this? Do you filter what you keep in your webmail account?

A valid concern, but in reality it's just as true for almost all accounts. Replace "hacked webmail" with "infected PC" and we have pretty much the sme risks. Given the sensitive information we all tend to keep in our email accounts - accessed via web or PC - it's critical that we all understand and hold to strong security practices across the board.

March 8, 2010 4:25 AM

I wouldn't worry too much about hackers attacking your email account. The vast majority of accounts are compromised because the owner gave their password to someone they shouldn't have, or chose a weak password. If you choose a password nobody will guess, don't write it down, and don't leave it on your computer, your account will be fine. The biggest security risk with downloaded email is that someone could go up to your computer and read your email.

I also use a twofold approach. The best thing about downloaded email for me is that you can check multiple email accounts at once. I used to have to check a lot of accounts manually and, it's great to be able to click an icon and have your computer automatically check all eight accounts for you. If you have more than one account that needs checking regularly, a downloader like Windows Live Mail can make things a lot simpler.

Ken B
March 8, 2010 4:33 PM

Another possibility -- many e-mail clients have the option to leave the e-mail on the server after downloading. This lets you download it to your main computer, but still have it available via webmail if you're on the road w/o that computer.

Bill Chubb
March 9, 2010 10:14 AM

A great article, as always.
A downside to total reliance on web-based e-mail is that, should a provider close without warning, account holders would almost certainly lose everything. For this reason it is preferable, in my opinion, to use a PC-based e-mail program [or "client" as they are mysteriously known!] as a safeguard.
I have my own domain and web space that goes with a paid-for account but I still have everything auto-forwarded to a gmail account while simultaneously downloading everything to Outlook on my PC. I now have access to archived PC-based e-mail going back to 1998 and, since 2003 a "back-up" copy on gmail.

Eugene J Lee
March 9, 2010 2:18 PM

I have learned, much to my lament, that Outlook and Outlook Express have an upper limit storage of around Two (2) Gigabytes. This cap is somewhat variable and nefarious. I actually got to almost 3 Gigabytes of mail stored up in my original Outlook files....then it completely quit. At this time my Hard Drive had about 30 Gigabytes open. But Outlook completely quit.

I have set up additional Identities to deal with the problem, but a lot got lost.

The storage cap is documented by Microsoft.
Their help desk claimed that they could fix the problem, but they could not and eventually they refunded my $59.00.

So, what to do now ?

Does Thunderbird have a cap on total storage ?

The Microsoft Help Desk told me that Windows Mail (Vista) had the same 2 Gigabyte limitation.


You may be curious as to why I do this.
An example would be that I have a Mail folder, under which each Grandchild has a folder. Joe's folder is all sorts of mail that we have shared for about six years. Notes I have sent, thank you's for presents, skiing experiences that we've shared, miscellaneous photos that are particular to him or our experiences, gifts that I've given him, web site links for educational things we've shared, web site info for gifts, letters on what dog would be best, BB Gun accuracy, Hockey scores and stories, many other things, all pertinent to me and my Grandson.

This is what COMPUTING should be. It's not a computer, it's not an Atari, it's not some program, it's not a game, etc etc.

It becomes a computer based piece of my life. And his. It's active, we revisit things occasionally.

I just hate it when some weenie says something like it's "Just E Mail".

Enough said I supppose

Eugene J Lee
March 9, 2010 2:48 PM

I wish to download and manage my own E Mail

Outlook and Outlook Express have a storage cap of about 2 Gigabyte. This is not well known, not a precise limit, but the issue is documented by Microsoft and applies to Windows Mail as well.

What is the storage cap for Thunderbird ??

Thank you.
Gene Lee, aka Tennisyoda

To the best of my knowledge there isn't one, other than the limitations of the filesystem itself (FAT formatted disks are limited to 2GB per file, NTFS are not.)

However I would caution against huge files. Particularly in Outlook they can be problematic. As you've seen earlier versions of Outlook have a vague size limit around 2GB - newer versions do not. (Though you must explicitly convert the format of your PST to take advantage of it.) Huge files in email programs in general tend to be ... risky. Shouldn't be, but experience says that they are. In Outlook I recommend multiple PSTs, and in Thunderbird multiple folders (each folder is a file in Thunderbird).


March 9, 2010 11:19 PM

Thunderbird itself has no cap except for the size of your hard drive. And, as far as I know, there is no cap on the number of folders you can create.

I'm with Leo on this one. A free (or ISP) account, Thunderbird and a backup is the only way to go if you want to save any e-mail.

March 10, 2010 12:49 AM

And if you want to be able to use Thunderbird on a computer other than your own, you can always carry a memory stick with Thunderbird and other portableapps on it. See Wikipedia.

Bernard Winchester
March 10, 2010 7:43 AM

May I endorse Leo's point regarding an often disregarded disadvantage of webmail:
"•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".
Recently my Hotmail account was hijacked by a spambot: I got back control by changing the password, but the "Sent folder" had been completely emptied. If I hadn't had the messages stored in Outlook Express, they would have been permanently lost. Had the spammer changed my password, ALL of my other messages would also have been lost to me.
As Leo has pointed out, with a paid account it might have been possible to obtain more help with this.

Bob Meiser
March 10, 2010 8:30 AM

I use both desk top and web email, Outlook Express for the former and Verizon Yahoo for the latter, and I would mention one major advantage in addition to those mentioned to having the web based. It is that the Outlook Express limits on the size of attachments is too small, as I do have occasions when I need to send large pdf documents to a list of recipients. The Verizon limit is 25 megabites, versus only about ten or so for Outlook Express. Also the web based system seems to be much faster sending attachments. I learned to use the web based system for large attachments by frustratingly experiencing being closed out by Outlook Express two thirds or three quarters of the way through sending a message, this after a painfully long wait to get even to that point. Now I know I won'
t get cut off, and if my attachment exceeds even the web system's limits, I can split my load up into loads that do not exceed the limits.

March 11, 2010 12:58 PM

Get the best of both worlds. GMail and many other free and paid webmail services have POP/IMAP and SMTP options. Yahoo doesn't have pop3 access but a little program called freepops can download your yahoo mail and emails from about 100 other webmail servers to your email client.

I suggest checking the leave downloaded mail on server box so you can keep a backup of all your email on the web and also synchronize all your computers' emails.

Unfortunately this leave mail on server is not a default setting, and once when setting up Thunderbird, I accidentally wiped all the emails from my web account. I had to email them back to myself to keep the web backup.

March 13, 2010 4:48 PM

My work email is set up in Microsoft Office Outlook, but we also have web access if we are away from our own computers. I also use Gmail's Mail Fetcher feature to get it copied into my Gmail Inbox. Then I have my Gmail downloaded into Thunderbird on my home computer. I once also had it set up directly on my home Outlook but that got wiped when I changed from XP to Win 7 (because I don't backup as Leo suggests).

I have a Yahoo account as well but it doesn't have POP3 access so I can't include its contents in Thunderbird. That account isn't used for anything serious so it doesn't really matter.

My problem in all of this is the Sent Mail. If I am on my home computer I can read my work email by web access, through my Gmail account, and on Thunderbird via Gmail. Replies or new messages sent from any of these three locations will NOT be seen in the other two, nor on my work computer's Outlook. Is there no way around this?

Only by explicitly cc'ing yourself on all the email you send.

March 14, 2010 5:00 AM

I think - the very premise that internet would not be accessible - would look anachronistic in todays world. If internet would not be accessible - then not just email - but much of business and international trade and commerce would come to standstill. Just as we have taken for granted the supply of electricity and cable television - so is internet.

Having had large email correspondences for over a decade, I would say, webmail services like gmail is fantastic. At best one can have one or two additional providers of email where one can forward the email that is being received into one primary account.

Storing email onto ones hard disk is messy - managing it is even more messier particularly that relating to backup. The reason being - updates in operating system, changes in hard disk and more so changes in ones computer.

Harddisk of ones computer is at mercy of ones knowledge / ignorance - and one does not know when one gets attacked by virus or crashes. Given this - the best is to have webmail.

That is my experience.

Apparently you've not been in an airplane or traveled to a remote location wanting to work on email while there's no internet connection available.
March 15, 2010 1:41 PM

Re: The commenters above
Yahoo has POP3 access once enabled in the webmail preferences.

March 15, 2010 1:46 PM

The definite recommendation is to use IMAP for the account type if your webmail provider supports it and it's set up correctly. Synchronised email between multiple computers, server side folders and rules.

POP3 is great for archiving purposes though.

March 26, 2010 3:51 AM

An interesting technology that Gmail has brought out of their Labs in Offline Gmail - it is my understanding that Offline Gmail downloads a complete copy of your email onto your computer, specifically for the purpose of losing your internet connection - and then it synchronises again when you reconnect. I am considering using Offline Gmail if it does do this as I currently only use the Gmail website and do not have a backup.

Would this be a worthy alternative to a desktop client such as Thunderbird?

P. Eim
August 17, 2010 9:08 AM

I use Windows Live Mail for all accounts of the family. It even imports all our (old) gmail files as well through IMAP.
WLM is extremely simple to handle and you can make as many files as you want to. So what is the problem?

Bill Nelson
August 17, 2010 7:22 PM

My ISP keeps pushing me to strictly use the GMail that is now the basis of their email service. I have used "Outlook Express" since I began using email, but they take a dim view of it. I like to have any important mail on my own hard drive, but since we're limited to dialup, that's sometimes hard to accomplish. Large files simply won't download. Once a week, we have to go the library in town and open the big files and then archive them on Gmail. I back up my OE files once a week, but have to rely on Google to keep those archived files. Using their service directly at home is really clunky, because every time I look at a message, I have to wait for another download. My greatest concern is when the time comes for a new computer with a new OS. I know OE is no longer available and I'm wondering, how I'll be able to recover all the old messages?

As for the previous comment about not having an internet connection; I lost mine five times in an hour last night!

August 18, 2010 11:00 PM

One big disadvantage of downloaded email is that if you change your ISP, your email address changes too. That causes great inconvenience particularly if you're running a small business from home. Well, I am in South Africa and that's the case here - not sure if that's the case elsewhere too.

That's just as applicable for web mail. If you change your provider you change your email address. The only way to prevent that, really, is to own your own domain.

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