The Norman Transcript

June 30, 2013

How do you email?


The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — How do you “do” your email? Do you use a dedicated email program, or do you visit a website and “do” your email there?

It seems like I ask this question of a customer at least once or twice a week. They call me, wondering about a particular email problem and, in an effort to troubleshoot the situation, I ask them how they handle email chores in the first place. Your email method determines the answers to your email questions and problems.

A surprising number of people have no idea how they do email; they just click on “the thing” that says “email” and off they go. Someone — usually a well-meaning friend, relative or computer manufacturer — put “the thing” there and made it to where it somehow takes them to the land of email. Sadly, nobody ever bothered to explain how any of it really works, what “the thing” is (usually an icon or shortcut), or what actually happens when “the thing” is clicked.

In a nutshell, there are only two ways to do email: (1) Use a dedicated email program, such as Outlook, Apple Mail, Thunderbird, etc., or (2) use your browser to visit your email provider’s website; then, you login (or “sign in”) and access your email through whatever interface your provider has given you. This second method is called “Webmail.” If you don’t know which one you use, read on.

Email programs, also known as “applications” or “clients,” excel at one thing: email. Many have additional functions, such as calendars and in-depth contacts (or, “address book”) functions, but the main focus of the program is email. One of the most popular email programs is Microsoft Outlook, which is generally part of the Microsoft Office productivity package. Other widely used email programs are Apple Mail (included with Apple Mac computers), Thunderbird (from Mozilla, the makers of the Firefox browser), Windows Live Mail, Opera and Incredimail.

Dedicated email programs require some configuration before they are ready to use. In addition to telling the program your email address and email password, you also must tell the program what email “servers” to use. Email servers are powerful computers used by your email provider (Cox, AT&T, Yahoo, etc.) to “serve” your email up to you, and they have Internet addresses, or “names,” that your email program needs to know about.

For example, if your email provider is Cox, then your email servers are pop.cox.net and smtp.cox.net. Once your email program has been instructed these are the server names, it can then visit those servers and get your email for you. Other email providers, like AT&T, use different server names, such as inbound.att.net and outbound.att.net.

I think the hassle of properly setting up an email program is well worth the effort. Once configured, you are rewarded with powerful features and convenience. When you start the program, it automatically sends your user name (email address) and password to your provider, signs you in (no repeated password typing) and downloads your email. Email programs are also faster than webmail and are free from annoying display ads and popups.

In contrast to dedicated email programs, email method No. 2, “Webmail,” requires virtually no knowledge of anything other than your email address and password. Using your favorite browser (the program that lets you look at websites), be it Internet Explorer, Firefox or Safari, you visit your email provider’s website, such as yahoo.com, sign in and access your email.

The tradeoffs for such simplicity are that most Webmail interfaces don’t give you much in the way of features, speed suffers and you are forced to endure ridiculous ads as part of the experience. Webmail is drop-dead easy to use, though, because there is no setup required.

So, what happens when you click on “the thing?” Does an email program open, or are you taken to a website? The answer to these questions can lead to solving your email problems.

Dave Moore has been performing computer consulting, repairs, security and networking in Oklahoma since 1984. He also teaches computer safety workshops for public and private organizations. He can be reached at 919-9901 or davemoorecomputers.com.