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Is webmail faster than downloading with POP3 over dialup?


I routinely send a monthly e-mail to multiple addressees some of
whom use a telephone modem. They complain that it takes a very long
time to download the e-mail in order to open it. If they were using a
web based e-mail server such as Hotmail or Gmail would they have the
ability to view large file e-mails faster than by using a POP server
which downloads the e-mail to their computer?

It depends.

It depends on whether they actually read your mail. If they
don’t, then it’s possible it’ll make deleting your mail much

I’m guessing that’s not the scenario you want to optimize for,


At least 2% and perhaps as a high as 5% of all visitors to Ask Leo! are on dial-up. The number of people on dial-up has been steadily decreasing, but they’re definitely still there.

Here’s the kicker: dialup users download at a speed that is around 2% of what we consider to be standard DSL speeds these days (1.5 megabits per second compared to about 30 kilobits per second).

Put another way, downloads take roughly 50 times longer when you’re on dialup.

“Put another way, downloads take roughly 50 times longer when you’re on dialup.”

It’s no wonder that dialup users – who often have no other, faster option – feel frustrated.

Many services and websites consider that 5% not worth spending effort on, particularly since it consistently continues to shrink every year. On the other hand, many mobile devices also don’t approach DSL speeds – even those that are advertised as doing so – so even if dialup were to go away completely, low speed connections are still worth considering.

Low speed connections are worth considering, particularly for email.

In your case, it’s even clearer; you know you have recipients that are dial-up, and they’re complaining.

Yes, if they were to read your email via a web interface it could be faster, but only if:

  • … they never open it (they delete it before it’s displayed)

  • … they never enable pictures (which means they’re not seeing all of your message)

  • … they don’t page down through the entire message (which means they’re not seeing all of your message)

If you don’t mind those actions, and more importantly, your recipients don’t mind, then sure – they can read via a web interface and delete or skip your message content much more quickly.

Unfortunately, it’s not a helpful option for people who want to read your entire message. In order to read your entire message using a webmail client not only do they have to download it to their screen one page at a time, but they’re downloading it alongside all the webmail UI. That will be slower – often much slower – than simply downloading the entire message via a POP3 client.

If your goal is to make your message accessible to people with slow connections, you have only one option: make the message smaller. That doesn’t mean put in less information, it means do so in a way that takes up less space, or gives the reader the option of choosing what they want.

For example:

  • Reduce or remove images. This by faris the biggest problem in periodic emails. In an effort to “look pretty”, the email is formatted with lots and lots of graphics. The appearance can be visually stunning, but the results can often get extremely big without adding much real content value.

  • Stop using attachments. This is by far the most common problem in individual or forwarded emails. People are constantly forwarding pictures and even movies around. That 4 megabyte movie that takes half a minute to download for you might take 20 minutes for your friend on dialup to download.

  • Resize Images. If you must send an image, don’t send the full-sized 12 megapixel original photo – take the time to pop it into a photo editing program, or even MS Paint – and resize it down to a smaller size. A smaller size on screen means a smaller file, which in turn means a smaller email if you do have to include it.

  • Move attachments to the web. Rather than attaching a document or an image to your email, put them up on a website somewhere where they can be downloaded, and just include the link in the email. Rather than attaching a PDF, for example, include a link This gives your readers a) an email that downloads quickly, and b) the choice of if, and when, to download your additional information.

  • Consider plain text. As I mentioned above, many people get caught up in making their email “look good”. That’s nice and all that, but besides making the email larger, it also diverts focus from the content. Plain text forces you to focus on your message, what it is you’re saying, rather than how it looks. As a bonus, it’s smaller and faster to download.

As I said, it’s tempting sometimes to dismiss dial-up users. If we could just ignore them we could do so much more, right? Well, there’s a cost: those users. If you’re ready to lose them, then absolutely ignore them. But if they matter, or if other slower-speed devices that aren’t going away any time soon matter, then it might be time to reconsider the design of your email.

Do this

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2 comments on “Is webmail faster than downloading with POP3 over dialup?”

  1. As a dial-up user, I totally agree with your
    suggestions. I consider all your suggestions
    to be just good e-mail manners. Most people
    don’t want to spend hours reading their e-mail
    or waiting for it to download. As a matter of fact, most people don’t often have time to wait
    5 min. for the download. So, when someone sends
    an obnoxiously large e-mail they tie up their
    recipients’ e-mail and they are just slowing
    down the Internet.


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