Pros: Your e-mail is available at any Web-enabled PC worldwide, without configuration hassles.
Cons: Handling of online mail is slower and less reliable than that provided by standard POP3 accounts; security remains a concern.
Best use: A good supplement to business or personal e-mail accounts, especially for frequent travellers.
These Web-based e-mail services provide a permanent e-mail address to call your own, paid for by banner advertising that appears on each screen you view. Your mail is accessible from any Web-ready computer and you can even use your Web e-mail account to check messages from another account - except those protected by a firewall.
Then again, Web-based e-mail takes longer to collect and read than paid POP3 mail (because free e-mail providers usually use slower servers); ads litter your screen; and every message you send bears an intrusive tagline touting the service. Even worse, using Web-based e-mail can expose you to security risks (see "Add a Security Blanket to Free E-Mail" on page 94). If you seek a business account, stick with the POP3 e-mail hosted by your ISP.
On the other hand, if you just want an e-mail account for personal messages, you're in luck. Almost everyone with a domain provides free e-mail these days - it's a good way for companies to promote a Web site, generate repeat visits and boost advertising revenue. So whose name should follow the @ sign in your Web-based e-mail address? Choose wisely and you may never have to change your e-mail address again.
Our favourite free e-mail services are veterans Yahoo Mail and Hotmail. In addition to providing the usual features, both let you save your user name on your PC (Hotmail will also save your password) so you can log in instantly (this shortcut is not recommended for shared or portable PCs because of security concerns). They also provide strong filtering tools for incoming messages, including a filter that bounces e-mail from known spam merchants. And both sites' interfaces are well laid out and easy to use. Better yet, you can download e-mail for offline reading: you can collect mail from Yahoo with any POP3 e-mail software, including the popular programs Eudora, Netscape Messenger and Outlook, while Hotmail integrates with Outlook Express 5.0.
In contact management, Yahoo has a slight edge over Hotmail - it can import address book info from Outlook, Organizer and Palms, as well as from other sources that can export their data in comma-separated value format. Yahoo Mail can also notify you of incoming messages via a signal to Yahoo Messenger, an instant-messaging app that you install on your PC. But Hotmail shines in two other areas: it can scan incoming mail attachments for viruses before you download them, and it offers a dictionary and thesaurus, in addition to the standard spelling checker.
Each of the other contenders has its own strengths. One standout is Malcolm, which provides free e-mail service for a gaggle of other portal sites, including IWon.com and NBC.com. The service's best feature is its large selection of domain names. Instead of tethering you to firstname.lastname@example.org, it lets you opt for such alternatives as @aus.com, @consultant.com, or @cheerful.com.
Another plus is Mail.com's 5MB mailboxes - 2MB bigger than those most free e-mail services offer. Mail.com will also forward your messages to another e-mail address for free (as will Yahoo Mail). Even with such solid features, however, Mail.com could not overcome its two chief impediments: distracting advertisements and a so-so address book that lacks a nickname field and won't let you import multiple addresses at once.