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What are the Pros and Cons of Web-based Email Over Desktop Email?

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My wife and I once used Eudora, where email was downloaded, but right now seem to be happy with the huge amount of space we have available for our web-based email on the ISP’s servers. We do lots of housekeeping, retaining only what we need for as long as we need it. What other things should we consider? What does a traditional email program like Thunderbird provide that we might consider?

Web-based and PC-based are different ways to approach email.

As you can imagine, there are arguments in favor for and against each. Which is most appropriate for you depends on many things, not the least of which is what “feels” right to you.

I’ll look at both, identify what I think are the important issues, and outline my own approach.

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Summary

  • Web-based email is ubiquitous and easy, but puts you at the mercy of the provider.
  • Downloaded email gives you both control and responsibility, but is available on only one PC.
  • A hybrid approach can use both.
  • I use a variation of the hybrid approach.

Web-based email

Web-based email, as the term implies, uses a website as a portal to your email.

Using your web browser, you visit the site provided by either your ISP or a third party and log in to read, send, and otherwise manage your email online.

The huge advantage of web-based email is that there’s nothing to install, and your email is available on any internet-connected computer at any time. All in all, it’s pretty convenient.

EmailThe downside, though, is that you’re at the mercy of that provider.

A few things to consider:

  • An internet connection is required. If you can’t connect for any reason, your email is not accessible to you.
  • You have no control over the interface used to access your email. If the email provider changes their interface, you have no choice but to deal with it. (Many Hotmail/Outlook.com users face this scenario periodically, though they are certainly not alone.)
  • Your email is stored in one place: the servers of the email service you’re using. Unless you take additional steps to back it up, if anything happens to that email, it’s typically lost and gone forever.
  • You have restrictions on the amount of email you can keep. This varies (greatly) from provider to provider, as do the consequences of exceeding your allowance or “quota”.

Downloaded email

Downloaded email uses an email program installed on your computer, which connects to your email service to download your email to your computer’s hard disk. You then read, send, and otherwise manage your email on your computer, connecting to the email provider only to send and receive messages.

Various considerations include:

  • You do not need an internet connection to read email you’ve already downloaded, or to compose messages. You do, of course, need a connection to send and receive new messages.
  • There are perhaps hundreds of different email programs to choose from. For Windows, the most common choices include Microsoft Office’s Outlook, Thunderbird, and the Mail program included with Windows. Many include additional features in the form of “extensions” or “addons”.
  • PC-based email programs tend to have many more email management features than their web-based counterparts. This works both ways, making them more complicated to use at times, but significantly more capable of meeting various needs.
  • Since your email is downloaded to your computer, you have the ability — I’d go so far to say the responsibility — to back it up. With an appropriate backup strategy, you need never lose email.
  • The amount of email you keep, and where you keep it, is limited only by your computer’s own hard disk space, additional storage you provide, and your ability or willingness to manage it.

Hybrid: online and downloaded

With the proliferation of devices on which we access our email, the restrictions of having email downloaded and available on only one machine (the PC in our home) has  become cumbersome. Fortunately, there’s an approach that allows us the best of both worlds.

  • Use a web-based email service to access your email from any computer on the internet.
  • Use a PC-based email program to download a copy of your email, using a protocol called “IMAP”.

In the download-only scenario above, the desktop email program uses a protocol called “POP3”, which literally downloads the single copy of your email, removing it from the server. IMAP is designed to download a copy, and then keep the copy of your email automatically synchronized with the contents of your email on the web server. IMAP operates best with continuous connectivity, which we tend to take for granted these days.

As a bonus, this hybrid approach works as a great solution for backing up your email. By fetching a copy of your email to your PC, you’ve effectively created a backup. If you then also back up your PC, as you should, you’re covered even better.

A word about free email

To many people, “web mail” is synonymous with “free email”, but that’s not the case.

Free email services, like Outlook.com, Gmail, Yahoo!, and others, certainly provide web-based interfaces — perhaps even as their primary or preferred interface — but all can be used by desktop email programs that download your email to your PC.

Similarly, many services that you pay for — such as the email provided by your ISP — might most often be used by desktop email programs, but also often offer a web-based interface.

The important thing to remember about free email services is this: you get what you pay for. Typically, that means little to no customer service, and not much help should something go wrong.

What I do

Since this article was originally written, I’ve probably accessed email just about every way possible. Today, my approach is based on the hybrid approach I mentioned above:

  • Email sent to any of my email addresses is fetched by a Gmail account. Gmail has the best spam filter I’m aware of, and the web-based interface acts as my primary means of dealing with all my email.
  • I run Thunderbird, configured to use IMAP to download a backup copy of my email, on one of my machines .

What should you do?

I can’t say what you should do. It really depends on your needs, as well as how comfortable you are with the alternatives.

Regardless of which approach you take, I caution you to pay attention to backing up your email regularly. By far the most common issues I hear of relating to email loss could be avoided had the individuals in crisis backed up. That statement applies equally to both web-based or downloaded email solutions.

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32 comments on “What are the Pros and Cons of Web-based Email Over Desktop Email?”

  1. There’s one other aspect that you didn’t mention: webmail, especially from a third party service (gmail, hotmail, yahoo) have advertising that shows when you’re looking at your mail. It’s unlikely (but possible!) that a mail package on your computer used to download mail will have ads surrounding your mail window.

    How “in your face” those ads are depends on the service. I occasionally use yahoo mail, and *hate* the ads that try to steal my attention away from the messages I’m reading. Truly awful …which is why I rarely use it.

    gmail’s ads are there, but quite unobtrusive, and don’t flash in your face. Like you, I use a hybrid: I download mail when I’m in my office (still on Eudora! But probably not for much longer) and gmail/blackberry otherwise; gmail keeps one of my mail backups too. I have fallback strategies should my server access fail, or should gmail fail. I consider mail quite important….

    Summary: if you’ve tried webmail and hated the ads, try another one. It’s likely you’ll find one that’s more to your style and liking.

  2. Leo,
    I use a strategy similar to yours, but have a niggling concern that if my webmail account is hacked, the hacker then has access to wealth of information that might be useful for identity theft, e.g. online order confirmations. How do you get round this? Do you filter what you keep in your webmail account?

    A valid concern, but in reality it’s just as true for almost all accounts. Replace “hacked webmail” with “infected PC” and we have pretty much the sme risks. Given the sensitive information we all tend to keep in our email accounts – accessed via web or PC – it’s critical that we all understand and hold to strong security practices across the board.

    Leo
    08-Mar-2010

  3. I wouldn’t worry too much about hackers attacking your email account. The vast majority of accounts are compromised because the owner gave their password to someone they shouldn’t have, or chose a weak password. If you choose a password nobody will guess, don’t write it down, and don’t leave it on your computer, your account will be fine. The biggest security risk with downloaded email is that someone could go up to your computer and read your email.

    I also use a twofold approach. The best thing about downloaded email for me is that you can check multiple email accounts at once. I used to have to check a lot of accounts manually and, it’s great to be able to click an icon and have your computer automatically check all eight accounts for you. If you have more than one account that needs checking regularly, a downloader like Windows Live Mail can make things a lot simpler.

  4. Another possibility — many e-mail clients have the option to leave the e-mail on the server after downloading. This lets you download it to your main computer, but still have it available via webmail if you’re on the road w/o that computer.

  5. A great article, as always.
    A downside to total reliance on web-based e-mail is that, should a provider close without warning, account holders would almost certainly lose everything. For this reason it is preferable, in my opinion, to use a PC-based e-mail program [or “client” as they are mysteriously known!] as a safeguard.
    I have my own domain and web space that goes with a paid-for account but I still have everything auto-forwarded to a gmail account while simultaneously downloading everything to Outlook on my PC. I now have access to archived PC-based e-mail going back to 1998 and, since 2003 a “back-up” copy on gmail.

  6. I have learned, much to my lament, that Outlook and Outlook Express have an upper limit storage of around Two (2) Gigabytes. This cap is somewhat variable and nefarious. I actually got to almost 3 Gigabytes of mail stored up in my original Outlook files….then it completely quit. At this time my Hard Drive had about 30 Gigabytes open. But Outlook completely quit.

    I have set up additional Identities to deal with the problem, but a lot got lost.

    The storage cap is documented by Microsoft.
    Their help desk claimed that they could fix the problem, but they could not and eventually they refunded my $59.00.

    So, what to do now ?

    Does Thunderbird have a cap on total storage ?

    The Microsoft Help Desk told me that Windows Mail (Vista) had the same 2 Gigabyte limitation.

    ———————————————-

    You may be curious as to why I do this.
    An example would be that I have a Mail folder, under which each Grandchild has a folder. Joe’s folder is all sorts of mail that we have shared for about six years. Notes I have sent, thank you’s for presents, skiing experiences that we’ve shared, miscellaneous photos that are particular to him or our experiences, gifts that I’ve given him, web site links for educational things we’ve shared, web site info for gifts, letters on what dog would be best, BB Gun accuracy, Hockey scores and stories, many other things, all pertinent to me and my Grandson.

    This is what COMPUTING should be. It’s not a computer, it’s not an Atari, it’s not some program, it’s not a game, etc etc.

    It becomes a computer based piece of my life. And his. It’s active, we revisit things occasionally.

    I just hate it when some weenie says something like it’s “Just E Mail”.

    Enough said I supppose

  7. I wish to download and manage my own E Mail

    Outlook and Outlook Express have a storage cap of about 2 Gigabyte. This is not well known, not a precise limit, but the issue is documented by Microsoft and applies to Windows Mail as well.

    Question:
    What is the storage cap for Thunderbird ??

    Thank you.
    Gene Lee, aka Tennisyoda

    To the best of my knowledge there isn’t one, other than the limitations of the filesystem itself (FAT formatted disks are limited to 2GB per file, NTFS are not.)

    However I would caution against huge files. Particularly in Outlook they can be problematic. As you’ve seen earlier versions of Outlook have a vague size limit around 2GB – newer versions do not. (Though you must explicitly convert the format of your PST to take advantage of it.) Huge files in email programs in general tend to be … risky. Shouldn’t be, but experience says that they are. In Outlook I recommend multiple PSTs, and in Thunderbird multiple folders (each folder is a file in Thunderbird).

    Leo
    10-Mar-2010

  8. Thunderbird itself has no cap except for the size of your hard drive. And, as far as I know, there is no cap on the number of folders you can create.

    I’m with Leo on this one. A free (or ISP) account, Thunderbird and a backup is the only way to go if you want to save any e-mail.

  9. And if you want to be able to use Thunderbird on a computer other than your own, you can always carry a memory stick with Thunderbird and other portableapps on it. See Wikipedia.

  10. I use both desk top and web email, Outlook Express for the former and Verizon Yahoo for the latter, and I would mention one major advantage in addition to those mentioned to having the web based. It is that the Outlook Express limits on the size of attachments is too small, as I do have occasions when I need to send large pdf documents to a list of recipients. The Verizon limit is 25 megabites, versus only about ten or so for Outlook Express. Also the web based system seems to be much faster sending attachments. I learned to use the web based system for large attachments by frustratingly experiencing being closed out by Outlook Express two thirds or three quarters of the way through sending a message, this after a painfully long wait to get even to that point. Now I know I won’
    t get cut off, and if my attachment exceeds even the web system’s limits, I can split my load up into loads that do not exceed the limits.

  11. Get the best of both worlds. GMail and many other free and paid webmail services have POP/IMAP and SMTP options. Yahoo doesn’t have pop3 access but a little program called freepops can download your yahoo mail and emails from about 100 other webmail servers to your email client.

    I suggest checking the leave downloaded mail on server box so you can keep a backup of all your email on the web and also synchronize all your computers’ emails.

    Unfortunately this leave mail on server is not a default setting, and once when setting up Thunderbird, I accidentally wiped all the emails from my web account. I had to email them back to myself to keep the web backup.

  12. My work email is set up in Microsoft Office Outlook, but we also have web access if we are away from our own computers. I also use Gmail’s Mail Fetcher feature to get it copied into my Gmail Inbox. Then I have my Gmail downloaded into Thunderbird on my home computer. I once also had it set up directly on my home Outlook but that got wiped when I changed from XP to Win 7 (because I don’t backup as Leo suggests).

    I have a Yahoo account as well but it doesn’t have POP3 access so I can’t include its contents in Thunderbird. That account isn’t used for anything serious so it doesn’t really matter.

    My problem in all of this is the Sent Mail. If I am on my home computer I can read my work email by web access, through my Gmail account, and on Thunderbird via Gmail. Replies or new messages sent from any of these three locations will NOT be seen in the other two, nor on my work computer’s Outlook. Is there no way around this?

    Only by explicitly cc’ing yourself on all the email you send.

    Leo
    14-Mar-2010

  13. I think – the very premise that internet would not be accessible – would look anachronistic in todays world. If internet would not be accessible – then not just email – but much of business and international trade and commerce would come to standstill. Just as we have taken for granted the supply of electricity and cable television – so is internet.

    Having had large email correspondences for over a decade, I would say, webmail services like gmail is fantastic. At best one can have one or two additional providers of email where one can forward the email that is being received into one primary account.

    Storing email onto ones hard disk is messy – managing it is even more messier particularly that relating to backup. The reason being – updates in operating system, changes in hard disk and more so changes in ones computer.

    Harddisk of ones computer is at mercy of ones knowledge / ignorance – and one does not know when one gets attacked by virus or crashes. Given this – the best is to have webmail.

    That is my experience.

    Apparently you’ve not been in an airplane or traveled to a remote location wanting to work on email while there’s no internet connection available.

    Leo
    14-Mar-2010
  14. The definite recommendation is to use IMAP for the account type if your webmail provider supports it and it’s set up correctly. Synchronised email between multiple computers, server side folders and rules.

    POP3 is great for archiving purposes though.

  15. An interesting technology that Gmail has brought out of their Labs in Offline Gmail – it is my understanding that Offline Gmail downloads a complete copy of your email onto your computer, specifically for the purpose of losing your internet connection – and then it synchronises again when you reconnect. I am considering using Offline Gmail if it does do this as I currently only use the Gmail website and do not have a backup.

    Would this be a worthy alternative to a desktop client such as Thunderbird?

  16. I use Windows Live Mail for all accounts of the family. It even imports all our (old) gmail files as well through IMAP.
    WLM is extremely simple to handle and you can make as many files as you want to. So what is the problem?

  17. My ISP keeps pushing me to strictly use the GMail that is now the basis of their email service. I have used “Outlook Express” since I began using email, but they take a dim view of it. I like to have any important mail on my own hard drive, but since we’re limited to dialup, that’s sometimes hard to accomplish. Large files simply won’t download. Once a week, we have to go the library in town and open the big files and then archive them on Gmail. I back up my OE files once a week, but have to rely on Google to keep those archived files. Using their service directly at home is really clunky, because every time I look at a message, I have to wait for another download. My greatest concern is when the time comes for a new computer with a new OS. I know OE is no longer available and I’m wondering, how I’ll be able to recover all the old messages?

    As for the previous comment about not having an internet connection; I lost mine five times in an hour last night!

    • Outlook Express has been obsolete and unsupported for over a decade. It was replaced by Windows Mail in 2007.
      You can use Gmail both online and as a server to feed a desktop program. Unless you have really slow internet connections, the time to load messages should be very short. I quit using Outlook (the version that came with Office) many years ago and only use web access to Gmail. It only takes about a second to download each message.

      I use a gmail address so that I am not at the whims of an ISP on how much space I can use, or loosing the mail if I change my ISP (4 times). I have been on Gmail almost since the beginning and am using a small fraction of the space they allow. I can search all my mail from the beginning.

  18. One big disadvantage of downloaded email is that if you change your ISP, your email address changes too. That causes great inconvenience particularly if you’re running a small business from home. Well, I am in South Africa and that’s the case here – not sure if that’s the case elsewhere too.

    That’s just as applicable for web mail. If you change your provider you change your email address. The only way to prevent that, really, is to own your own domain.

    Leo
    19-Aug-2010

    • If you are running a business, purchase a domain. Not only can your address stay the same if you change providers, it looks more professional.
      Consider ignoring your ISPs mail service and use Gmail or other service. You can use the domain name you own. I use Gmail but my email address is the domain I have purchased.

    • Email forwarding is a way around ISP changes. My university has email forwarding service and I can program my university account (myname@alumni.xxxxxxxx.edu) to an email address of my choosing like myname@gmail.com or myname@comcast.net or ……

      There is a commercial service at Bigfoot.com that redirects email, similarly, that I have used. They will force feed ads in your email, though.

  19. I have a different hybrid approach. I use Thunderbird with IMAP on all of my computers. The advantage for me is that it’s always running, although I suppose you can set Gmail to open with your browser and always keep that tab open.

    All of my email accounts, including the ones from work and my web provider have a web interface which I use on other people’s computers. Another approach I’ve used is Thunderbird Portable which I can run on any computer.

    I have an email account from my ISP which I’ve never accessed, because after I lost my first email address after an ISP change in the mid-90s, I opened a Yahoo account which I still have.

  20. I used Windows Mail on my old computer for years and years. When that computer crashed and I replaced it with a new computer running Windows 10, I discovered that even though my mail was backed up, there was no program on the new computer to access the mail. I was able, with much contact with support, to finally obtain Windows Mail but it wasn’t fully functional (just as they told me). My most important mail was stored in Windows Mail, backed up regularly, but is gone to me forever. The only option I see is to use someone else’s computer that is still running Windows Mail, set up my account on their computer, and then extract my email from my backup. At this point, I’ve replaced some of what was lost (medical and genealogy correspondence were probably the most valuable to me) but I’ll never know what else is gone.

    • One of the reasons I prefer Thunderbird as a desktop email program. It uses standard file formats that don’t change from version to version and that can be read by other (though not all) email programs.

  21. Another advantage of (Windows) Desktop email: you can write vbs and cmd (batch) scripts to help manage your email (find instructions online). For example, I keep a vbs file on my Windows 7 and 10 Desktops to empty the Deleted Items folder when Outlook is open. Double-click and I empty the Trash. Similarly I have a .cmd (batch) file to delete word searches I made within my (hard-drive based pst or ost) email files. There are many other mail management possibilities using scripts to manage the Outlook that comes with MS Office.

  22. I basically do the same as Leo. Been using Thundbird for 15+ years. Just to add: I use two email addresses… Gmail for anything online because of its great spam abilities, and also isp based for those I trust like family and friends and of course Leo 🙂 Both download to Thunderbird and both store online… so really not any reason to backup. Having said that, I do backup Thunderbird 2-3 times a year.

    BTW Leo… wondering why Thunderbird always thinks your emails … ” This message may be a scam”. Its ironic because of all the messages I get, you are the only one I fully trust lol. I marked it as NOT JUNK but it still does it to your messages… and yet when a real threat comes along… it says nothing lol. Preferences are no help because its all or nothing of the choices. Maybe there is a quick fix I am missing.
    Thanks… Mike

  23. I would like to try using Thunderbird to backup my email. If I access my email at the library and delete emails will I need to delete them again when I get home? If Thunderbird syncs automatically to Gmail, what happens if something goes wrong with Gmail and everything is gone before I notice? Would all the email in Thunderbird delete so it matches the broken Gmail?

    • That would depend on hou you access your mail with Thunderbird. If you use IMAP, any mail deleted via the web interface would be deleted in you Thunderbird folders. If you use POP3, any mail deleted via the web interface would not be affected in you Thunderbird folders.
      To protect against loss of emails due ro something going wrong, take regular, preferably daily incremental, system image backups of your computer.This holds true for anything which can go wrong, not only lost emails.

  24. I’m not sure why for application (aka client) based email the statement is made “Downloaded email gives you both control and responsibility, but is available on only one PC.” While this may have been true with POP, IMAP clearly doesn’t impose this limitation, neither does Thunderbird. In fact, in the past, professionally and personally, I would default download all messages to bm Thunderbird, disconnect, then access the same messages via the browser through the web (corperate, private, and Gmail accounts). Rather than continue to accept comments I propose: you date your articles up front – information needs a context in time, and anytime there is content change, please update. I also suggest you reevaluate the contents as Google has the “account” context of sync. Since many people consider every word in their email private, Google is currently filtering and pilfering all Gmail to keep following in one place, “easily accessible only by you” and any hacker or government authority that asks (I will add that Google claimed this not true a couple of years ago, and I’ve never authorized G to do any of this): All orders, purchase price, dates, vendor (including line item detail of Amazon orders), restsurant reservations made online, all travel: airline, train, rental cars, hotels. I don’t use Uber, Lyft, Facebook, Twitter, so who knows what else.

    • If you read the article carefully, you’ll see Leo recommends the hybrid approach which includes IMAP:
      Hybrid: online and downloaded

      With the proliferation of devices on which we access our email, the restrictions of having email downloaded and available on only one machine (the PC in our home) has become cumbersome. Fortunately, there’s an approach that allows us the best of both worlds.

      Use a web-based email service to access your email from any computer on the internet.
      Use a PC-based email program to download a copy of your email, using a protocol called “IMAP”.

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