There are basically two different ways you can access your email: use a browser to access your email (Webmail) or use a PC email client. Outlook, Outlook Express (which is free and pre-installed on Windows systems), and Thunderbird are examples of PC email clients. Email clients must be downloaded and installed as new software on your PC (unless they are pre-installed). Webmail applications such as Google Mail (GMail), Yahoo! Mail, HotMail and others are typically offered through hosting services or free email services.
You do not download and install Webmail systems. These services provide a web address where you can signup for an email account, and then login to your email account to retrieve messages using a web browser.
When you receive an email from someone, it arrives at the email server responsible for accepting and storing email addressed to your domain (or your email address). If you signed up with Gmail for example, Google is responsible for accepting email addressed to your account. If you have a website hosted somewhere and have a related email address, the hosting service is responsbile for accepting email addressed to your account. Being somewhat similar to the way ground mail arrives at a post office, the email message sits on the email server until you tell it what to do with the message.
When you use PC email client software, you initially have to setup the username, password, email server incoming and email server outgoing addresses for the software to access your email server and retrieve messages. When you start up the PC email client, your email messages are downloaded (unless you specify otherwise) and you can view, forward, or delete them. Other configuration options allow you to set the time interval to check for new messages that have arrived, and remove messages from the email server once they have been downloaded. You set these options in your PC Email Client software.
PC email client software provides a configuration option to delete messages from the email server when they are downloaded. Wheather you use this option or not, you will wind up with a local copy of the email message on your PC. Configuring your PC email client to delete messages from the email server prevents your email account from exceeding its quota (and possibly having your email account shut down until you remove the messages).
Using Webmail to view your email does not download the messages to your PC. Instead, you are using an email program on the server designed for viewing, replying, deleting, and sending email directly from the mail server. Webmail is not designed to be a place for saving or storing email for long periods of time because hosting accounts and free email accounts have maximum email storage limitations.
Which approach is better? It's really a matter of taste but most people that I've been in contact with seem to prefer using a PC email client such as Outlook or Outlook Express to access their email. A PC email client will run faster than a web based email system because it is running on your local PC. However, if you spend a lot of time on the road, Webmail gives you really easy access to your email wherever you might be, even if you don't have your PC with you.
An ideal solution, of course, would be to use both. When you are on the road, use Webmail to access your messages and don't delete them. When you get home, use your PC email client to download your email. Configure your PC email client to delete messages from the email server after they have been retrieved. To configure your PC email client, for instance, in Outlook Express, go to Tools->Account Settings->Server Settings where you can control how and when messages are deleted from the server.
Remember, also, that losing email can be disastrous to your online business. Make sure to have a backup system in place. Either provide a complete backup system for your PC, which includes your local mail, or export your email to files that can be easily stored and retrieved on/from a removable device.
Microsoft Outlook provides an Import/Export Wizard and Outlook Express also provides an export option. Thunderbird, on the other hand, has an Import option but uses the standard "mbox" format with no export option. The standard "mbox" format allows for message folders to be compatible with other "mbox" format clients such as Eudora, but coping and saving message folders for backups can be technically challenging for anyone.
If you are running an online business, look into getting a matching email address for your domain. Any hosting company providing web space will also provide some number of email addresses with your account. Nearly all hosting services will also provide a Webmail application that you can use to access your mailbox through a web browser. Although free webmail accounts are easy to setup, running an online business suggests getting an email address that relates to your domain. For instance, email@example.com is orders of magnitude more professional than firstname.lastname@example.org.
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