Getting Started: Choosing mail account type

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This guide to choosing an account and account type will assume you already have an internet connection, whether it be dialup/intermittent, or fulltime (DSL, cable modem, ethernet, etc.) This page is geared towards individuals and end users. A guide to setting up e-mail for a company (many users or just your domain) is coming soon.

Terminology: Different types of accounts: (there are more, but I'll focus on four)

Shell:
A "shell" account is best understood with a picture. (click here later for shell screenshot)

If you have ever used a "dumb terminal" to a "mainframe" (or mini), this may look familiar. With a shell account, you access the account via a "telnet" program. Once connected to the machine on which your account resides, you then login with your username and password.

Once connected, your computer (Mac, Windows, etc.), or at least the telnet window, becomes a "dumb terminal" to the machine you are connected to. In other words, your computer, for most purposes, is not interacting with the remote machine other than to relay what you type, and display what the remote machine returns.

Thus, even though you are on a Mac or Windows (or other) machine, the operating system running on the remote machine is what you are interacting with via the telnet window. Even though this may be unix in many cases, for using e-mail you won't really need to learn unix for most purposes.

If the machine hosting your shell account has pine, this is the easiest option for most. Once one logs in to the account, typing "pine" without quotes and hitting enter should bring up pine. (pine screenshot soon). Note that you are then accessing your account with an IMAP4 client! (even though you may think of this as a shell account, IMAP4 is supported on both the PINE client and the mail server if you are reading mail this way.)
The average user getting started today does not need a shell account for day-to-day e-mail use. Sometimes it can be handy to have shell access if you are on the road, or need to set forwarding or vacation, etc. There is nothing wrong with shell accounts, but I recommend that new users start with a POP3 or IMAP4 account. It may still be a good idea to learn how to access your account via shell if such access exists on your system. But most people using shell accounts are either technical types who prefer it that way or people who need access from multiple locations and have not gotten around to investigating whether their campus/ISP offers IMAP or webmail. (list of free shells)

POP3: (or POP)

A POP3 account refers to a mail account stored on a server supporting the POP3 protocol.

Summary: With a POP3 account, the mail initially comes into and is stored on a server. On your desktop machine you would be running a POP3 mail client. Usually, after downloading the messages, the mail is stored on your desktop machine to be read by your POP client, and deleted from the server.

Setup: Although initially you would need to configure the settings of this mail client with the address of the POP3 server and your username and password*, after the initial setup, you do not need to keep entering such settings. You also need to tell your mail client the address of the "SMTP" server through which to send the mail. Your computing department or ISP can give you the settings you need (assuming they are running a POP server).

Usage: POP3 servers can store mail even after it has been read, but most POP3 servers and clients are used with the intent of downloading the mail to your desktop machine, and then deleting the mail from the server after the download.

There are, however, many people who use POP3 slightly differently.

Examples: But for such users, IMAP may be the more logical choice if they have access to an IMAP account.




IMAP4 (or IMAP):

An IMAP4 account refers to a mail account stored on a server supporting the IMAP4 protocol.

The IMAP4 protocol was designed for mail to be stored on the server even after being read. Although one can save the mail on their desktop machine and delete it from the server (and in fact, eventually one should delete ancient mail from the server to free space), it is ideal for storing mail on the server and just downloading messages temporarily for reading.

Summary: With an IMAP4 account, the mail initially comes into and is stored on a server, and usually remains there even after being read. On your desktop machine you would be running an IMAP4 mail client. The client usually reads minimal information about the new messages on the server, and only downloads the rest of a message upon your request.

Setup: Although initially you would need to configure the settings of this mail client with the address of the IMAP4 server and your username and password*, after the initial setup, you do not need to keep entering such settings. You also need to tell your mail client the address of the "SMTP" server through which to send the mail. Your computing department or ISP can give you the settings you need (assuming they are running an IMAP4 server).

Usage: Your IMAP client contacts the IMAP server and initially just downloads the headers of the new messages (who it's from, the date, the subject, etc.). You will see a display of these messages. Then, as you click on a message to read it, your mail client contacts the server and downloads (but doesn't delete from the server) the rest of the message so you can read it. Depending on your client and setup, the copy of the message may still be stored locally, or it may be deleted since it can always be downloaded from the server again later.

Say with your IMAP account, you either filter or transfer messages to another mailbox. The IMAP client then tells the IMAP server to move messages on the server to folders of the same name as you use. Deleted messages can be stored in a "trash" folder on the server. If you save copies of outgoing messages, similarly the outbox can be stored on the server. (or, some may store outgoing messages with the folder pertaining to the same subject or correspondent; this works too).



Webmail:

Simply put, webmail is a mail account whereby you read and send messages via a web browser.

Important distinctions: Using your web browser to read/send e-mail is distinct from using the e-mail component of your browser program to read/send mail. For example, Netscape Communicator includes both Netscape Navigator, a browser, and Netscape Messenger, a desktop e-mail client (to use with POP or IMAP accounts). You can use the Navigator/browser portion of Netscape to check whatever webmail account you wish. You can use the Messenger/(POP/IMAP client) portion of Netscape to access your POP or IMAP account(s). (And if the same mail account allows either webmail or POP or IMAP access, see below). Similarly, accessing webmail via MIE is different than accessing POP/IMAP via Outlook Express, Outlook, or Entourage. And accessing webmail via Opera browser is distinct from using the e-mail client portion of the Opera program to access a POP account.

Screenshots here



Not mutually exclusive: Note that a mail account may be accessible by more than one of the above options. For example, a mail account (POP3 or IMAP) may be on a machine that allows shell access. (Of course, once you are logged into the shell, you are going to be reading the mail with a POP3 or more likely IMAP4 client). The same account may be on a machine that has webmail installed. Finally, the account may allow both POP3 or IMAP4 access to the same account depending on your needs and preferences. Just because some accounts allow any form of access does not, however, mean all will. But with many of my accounts, I can access via all 4 methods.


Important features to consider in choosing an account or examining an ISP's mail features: Sources of accounts/aliases: Why POP or IMAP?

Neither POP nor IMAP is inherently better than the other.

The main factor in choosing IMAP is the need to read mail from multiple machines. (home and office, 2 offices, etc.) Right now, however, it is still most convenient when the two or more machines are under your control and thus have your settings and address book, etc. configured. But if you walk across the building and go to a colleagues machine, you could configure the IMAP client to retrieve your e-mail, but I don't know of any clients that have easy "guest" IMAP usage. Simeon, no longer sold, uses ACAP protocol to store not only mail on the IMAP server, but also each user's address book, preferences, etc., and also had easy guest access. Thus anyone could truly access their e-mail from anywhere, without having to disturb anyone's existing setup. (If you know of other client/servers supporting ACAP to this extent, let me know!)

Picking a program:

NOTE: Many ISPs say "we only support 'xyz' mail program" -- this may only mean they don't wish to give tech support for other programs. It doesn't necessarily mean that you can't choose from just about any program that supports their protocols.

Type of account:

Others types of accounts:
Above I list four standard types of accounts. There are also various proprietary account types:


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