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What's the difference between using Outlook Express versus my ISP's email?

Is there an advantage using Windows Outlook Express email service
over an ISP such as Comcast? What is the difference?

The question shows a very common point of confusion.

In a way, it’s kind of like asking “which is a faster way to get
home, taking Main Street, or driving a Ford?” The two things being
compared kind of relate, but in fact are two very different things that
don’t compare to each other at all. In reality you might take your Ford
down Main Street, or perhaps your Maserati traveling on Elm St. would
be faster.

Let’s sort out this whole ISP, Email Program mess.

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Regardless of what service you use for your email, messages sent to
you are collected on a server, waiting there until you choose to access
them.

Accessing your email falls into two broad categories:

  • POP3/IMAP: POP3 and IMAP are protocols designed to
    let email programs running on your PC download or view your email on
    your PC. Examples of such programs are Outlook Express (on XP or
    earlier), Windows Mail (on Vista), Outlook, Thunderbird, Eudora, and
    perhaps hundreds more. The key here is that it’s a separate program for
    email management that runs on your computer.

  • Web: If you are using web access, you do not run a special
    program, all you do is point your web browser to a specific URL to
    reach your email service provider, where you can then access your
    email. Examples include the default interfaces for GMail, Hotmail,
    Yahoo mail and the like. The key here is that the mail is accessed
    through your browser but remains stored on the web; it is not
    downloaded in the same sense that a POP3 client would download to your
    PC.

“Most ISPs provide email services with the
intent that you use a POP3 email client to download your email
…”

Most ISPs provide email services with the intent that you use a POP3
email client to download your email to your PC. Which email client you
use is up to you. So in the case of the person asking the question,
you’re quite welcome to use Outlook Express, Thunderbird or any of the
many other email programs available. It’s not an either/or situation,
as they’re two different things: you might use Outlook Express to
access your Comcast email.

Now, here’s where things get a little confusing: many ISPs also
provide web access to your email, and many web mail services provide
POP3 access to your email.

But not all do.

But for those that do, it’s simply an alternate way of accessing your
email. It can be convenient, or it can be critically important,
depending on how you choose to manage your email.

There’s an important difference between POP3, IMAP and web access
that many people overlook:

  • POP3 downloads your email to your PC, removing it
    from the mail server. EMail can be read whether or not you are
    connected to the internet.

  • IMAP downloads portions of your email to your PC,
    but accesses and leaves the messages on your server. You typically must
    be connected to read email.

  • Web access does not download your email, leaving it
    on the server at all times.

So if you’ve downloaded your email via POP3, it will not be
available to your web access. (Caveat: even here things can get
confusing, since a POP3 client can typically be instructed to “leave
messages on server”, but that’s not a default or common
configuration.)

Another important side effect of this “download or leave on server”
distinction is disk space. If you download your email you are limited
only by your own available disk space. If you leave email on your
server, then depending on the restrictions in place on that server, you
can fill up your mailbox and run into other limitations that might
cause email sent to you to start bouncing or just not arrive.

And of course anything you do download you have full control over.
For example, you can back it up so that you never lose it. Mail stored
on a server, once lost, is often lost forever.

I think most major ISPs actually include some form of web access to
your email, so I won’t try and call any out specifically. As I said,
traditionally email is accessed from your ISP using a POP3 email
program, but web access can provide an alternate way to get at email
that hasn’t already been downloaded when you’re not at your computer,
or if you prefer, as your sole means of accessing your ISP’s email.
It’s up to you.

Web-based email services are a little dicier.

GMail provides POP3 and IMAP access, which is great – you can choose
to access your GMail via the web, via the email program of your choice,
or some combination thereof.

Hotmail does not support POP3 or IMAP. However, the
mail program Windows Live Mail can access Hotmail, and Outlook can
access Hotmail with the “Hotmail Connector”. Unofficial solutions for
other email programs exist; for example, there’s a Hotmail add-in for
Thunderbird that seems to work quite well. But again, I have to stress
Hotmail itself does not provide POP3 access – any solutions
that do so are unofficial and unsupported by Hotmail. Hotmail is
intended to be web only, unless you use one of the Microsoft mail
programs that have been modified to support it.

Yahoo mail is even more interesting. As I understand it, last I
checked POP3 access is available only in certain countries, and the
U.S. isn’t one of them.

As you can see, web based mail services are really intended to be
accessed via the web. The ability to use a PC-based email program is
often an after-thought, and support varies from very good to none at
all.

So the bottom line looks like this:

  • Email sent to you is collected on a mail server, provided by your
    ISP or whatever other mail service you choose to use.

  • PC-based email programs like Outlook Express are most commonly used
    to download your email from the mail server to your PC where you can
    read, archive and backup your email, offline or on.

  • Web-based email access provides direct access to the email stored on
    your server without needing to download.

  • Most ISPs intend that you use a PC based mail program to download
    your email, but may also provide a web-based interface to access email
    that has not yet been downloaded.

  • Most web-based mail services like GMail, Hotmail and the like intend
    that you use their web based interface to access your email stored on
    their servers. The ability to download email to a PC based program may,
    or may not, be available.

And for the record: my recommendation is to use a PC based program,
no matter what service you use. The reason is simple: I hear too often
of lost email that was stored only on an email service’s server. If you
download – even if only to copy as a backup – you control what happens
to that email. You can back it up or do whatever you feel is
appropriate to make sure it never gets lost.

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10 comments on “What's the difference between using Outlook Express versus my ISP's email?”

  1. Hi Leo

    Another well explained article, thank you.

    However, this reminds me of another question I sometimes wonder about:

    If I’m using an email program to retrieve my mail; be it, Outlook, Outlook Express, Windows Mail or whatever, the likes of Hotmail (for example) require me to log-in, I think, once in 30 days or my account gets marked for deletion.

    Does using a program of this nature mean I *still* have to log-in via the Web once a month to avoid being ‘marked’, or does using the client ‘overcome’ this. e.g. If I *only* use my client to retrieve mail & do not log-in via the web, will my account get marked for deletion?

    I hope that makes sense!

    Thanks again.

    p.s. I understand the whole ‘marked for deletion’ thing & Hotmail does not support POP3, but I wonder on the principle of it, regardless of the provider being used. (If they too employ a ‘use it, or lose it’ policy)

    I don’t think there’s a single answer here.

    With Hotmail, for example, if you’re using “officially supported” methods to access it via Windows Live Mail or with the Outlook Extender, I would assume you don’t run the risk of some kind of inactivity deletion. Since other POP3 methods are not officially supported, I would not be surprised if you did need to login via the web every so often to keep the account active.

    Other services, like GMail, Yahoo and so on … it’s unclear. I would hope that those that provide POP3 style access would take that as “activity”, but it’s never been made clear.

    -Leo

    Reply
  2. the other advantage of using Outlook (or equivalent) is you only need internet connection for long enough to download/upload your mail.
    Once downloaded, you can read at your leisure and compose replies, etc offline.
    If you’re in a location where you pay per minute for connection this can save you a few pounds. (or “bucks”!)

    Reply
  3. At least one ISP’s mail cannot easily be exported to other mail programs. In my case, it is EarthLink mail. The downloaded mail can be exported in two ways: Earthlink Mailbox DAT file, for importing into another Earthlink Mailbox, or a CSV file for exporting to a completely different mail client. The problem with the latter (the CSV file) is that dates are not included. Therefore, when importing into another mail program, the messages are not organized by any recognizable order. I have complained several times to Earthlink about this, but apparently there is no interest in tweaking their export program to include dates.

    Reply
  4. I have both a Hotmail and Yahoo account. Yahoo use to allow you to have POP access if you signed up for their mailing list. I did and have been getting POP access ever since. Otherwise there is a program called YPOPS from http://ypopsemail.com/

    For a few years now I’ve been using a program called Hotmail popper from fitsoft.com (site seems to be no longer active) to access my Hotmail. Its still active, my account that is.

    Reply
  5. I don’t understand why my inbox for email on thunderbird program has nothing but “dots”….for everything……all characters, numerals, etc. If I hover the darker of emails(newer ones) it will tell me who sent the email….also can click on any row of dots to pull in the email for reading nicely.
    Anyone else ever hear of such a problem?
    Thanks for reading. Hope someone can help this great granny!!

    Reply
  6. I have microsoft outlook express installed on my computer but have never really used it. I have comcast as my regular email provider, but recently when they upgraded to “smartzone”, my email is automatically downloaded to outlook as soon as I read a message. I don’t like it because I cannot access my old mail from another computer ie at work. This just started happening. How can I correct it so that email remains on my comcast account until I delete it, or put it in a folder etc.
    Thanks

    Reply
  7. What are the comparisons between web-based email service and Outlook? I guess what I am asking is functionality wise what are the differences? I am new to computers in general and I am trying to be informed.

    The specifics depend entirely on which web based service you’re talking about. The biggest difference, though, is that with a desktop email program like Outlook your email is downloaded and stored on your PC, whereas with a web based program it remains on the service’s webservers.

    Leo
    03-Oct-2009

    Reply
  8. Which of the two is safest for internet banking. I don’t know whether to stick with Outlook Express, change to Windows live mail or use my Gmail account.

    Reply

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