My brother-in-law asks me “if I buy a laptop for use at the cottage, can I
access my computer at home to read my email?” Not having a cottage or a laptop,
I’m not sure.
Your brother-in-law is asking an increasingly common question. With
connectivity nearly ubiquitous, and people relying heavily on email it’s not at
all uncommon to want to access your email from someplace other than your
desktop at home.
The question is: how?
The answer depends on the email solution you use, and the tradeoff’s you’re
willing to accept.
Accessing your email via a web interface is perhaps the easiest solution by far. If you already use webmail exclusively, then you’re done. Just login to your webmail account from wherever you happen to have a computer and an internet connection.
That’s pretty darned convenient, but there are downsides. For one, it’s webmail … no internet connection, no email at all; you can’t even work on email messages “offline”, as they’re all stored on the internet in your webmail service provider’s servers.
And of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t mention that if you use webmail all the time, you should be taking extra care to back it up somehow to avoid massive data loss should you ever lose access to the account.
Webmail When Traveling
This is a very common alternative. Many people will use a desktop email program at home or at the office, but then use a webmail interface to access mail while elsewhere. Most email providers offer a web mail interface for just this purpose.
While you’ll be able to send mail and to access email that arrives while you’re traveling, if you normally download your email to your desktop email program at home or work, you won’t be able to access those messages already downloaded before you leave. They’ve been downloaded/moved to your PC, and your webmail interface will see only messages that arrive after the last time your PC downloads. (Make sure your PC isn’t automatically downloading while you’re away, otherwise you’ll likely see none of your email while traveling.)
The other drawback is that it’s not uncommon to want to save the mail you send in a “sent mail” folder in your desktop email program. If you send email using the web interface while you’re traveling that doesn’t happen, or it’s saved in a separate web-only “sent mail” folder.
Another approach is to continue to send and receive email on your desktop at home or at the office, even when you’re not there, by accessing the machine remotely. Programs like Remote Desktop (perhaps used in conjunction with Hamachi or other VPN solution), RealVNC, GoToMyPC or other remote access services allow you to connect to your home machine from any PC on the internet as if you were at the machine.
Having done so, you can just fire up your email program on that home PC, read, send and receive email as much as you like.
Once set up (occasionally a stumbling block), the drawback to this approach is typically speed. Remote desktop solutions are fantastic, particularly when they have lots of bandwidth. While they work over slower connections, the lack of speed can sometimes be an annoyance.
Leave On Server
An uncommon, but workable approach when using desktop email programs is to configure a second computer (at your brother-in-law’s cottage, perhaps) to also get your email, but make sure it’s configured to “leave messages on server” after doing so.
This approach allows you to download read and send email from your remote location using a normal desktop email program.
By leaving the mail on the server, once you return home to your primary computer when you check email it’ll download everything you read while away as if it were new. That’s important, so as to keep that computer as the “master copy” of all your email. But it’s slightly annoying to have to see all those emails again.
It also suffers from the same separate “sent mail” folder problem for any emails you send from that other PC.
This is actually how we handle my wife’s email when we travel. We don’t take her computer, but we do take mine, where I download her mail in addition to my own, taking care to have her account configured to leave the messages on the server. That way she can stay on top of incoming mail while we’re away. Once we return home she downloads it all again to her computer.
Remember, if you don’t configure to “leave on server”, then anything you download on the second (or third or …) computer will not appear on your own computer when you return home. It’ll have been downloaded and moved to the computer you were using at the time.
Bring it With You
Honestly – this is what I do. My laptop is the machine on which I run my email program, and when I travel I simply bring it along. (Yes, I can access email on my Blackberry – much like the “Webmail while traveling” solution above, but for me that’s not a solution for lengthy trips or large amounts of email).
At home, where I use my desktop computer for most of my work, I actually access the laptop “remotely” via a remote desktop solution – even though “remote” in this case means the next room. Since it’s on my local network the speed is simply not an issue. When I leave, I simply throw the laptop into a backpack and I’m good to go.
I suppose that the biggest downside to this approach is that I’m lugging a laptop with me. In my case, given what I do, it makes sense and is an important part of how I travel. The good news is that there are so many laptop and portable device options that if this solution appeals at all there’s likely to be something that fits your needs without being overly bulky or expensive.
IMAP is solution that combines some of the best aspects of the solutions above, but also includes a few of its own issues.
The default for most desktop email programs is to download email using a protocol known as POP3. This protocol literally downloads, or moves, the email you receive from the mail server where it’s been collected to your PC. Once downloaded it’s only on your PC.
IMAP, on the other hand, leaves the email on the server. You use it pretty much the same way you use POP3, but your email program constantly coordinates with your email server to fetch and manage individual messages.
Multiple computers can then access the same account via IMAP and maintain a consistent view on the messages. In fact, if you have or use a Blackberry, that’s how it accesses your email – via IMAP – so that when you later download your email to your email program it’s not been affected by having accessed it on your portable device (unless you specifically tell it to).
The biggest issue with IMAP is that it leaves the email on your server. Depending on your email service, if you get a lot of email that can accumulate and push you into problems with email storage limits or quotas.
I’ve touched on a few approaches on accessing email from multiple locations, but this is an area where I know people also occasionally get fairly creative. I’d love to hear other solutions people have used successfully; just leave a comment.