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Three Free E-Mail Programs

I have used Eudora for over four years and am a big fan.

Review: Three Free E-Mail Apps

No money for e-mail software? You've got three free & and effective choices: Outlook Express, Thunderbird, or Eudora.

By Larry Magid InternetWeek

If you have Windows, you already have Outlook Express. Don't want it? Well, for no cost or obligation to send money later, you have the option to download Thunderbird from the Mozilla Foundation or a free version of Eudora from Qualcomm. Which of these three you end up using will depend on what you want from an e-mail client.

All three offer basic e-mail functionality. They allow you to send or receive e-mail either through a POP3 server or though IMAP4. They all store both your incoming and outgoing mail on your hard drive, and all have an address book that keeps track of your e-mail addresses and other contact information.

However, that's where the resemblance ends. Each of these programs has its own look-and-feel, feature set, and philosophy that make the experience of receiving, sending, and storing e-mail completely different.

Microsoft Outlook Express
Outlook Express lives in the shadow of its bigger (some would say bloated) sibling, Microsoft Outlook. Outlook, which is usually sold as part of Microsoft's Office suite, contains numerous features not included in Outlook Express, such as a full-featured contact management system, calendar, task management, and collaborative tools. Another difference: Partially because it contains less code that Outlook, Outlook Express tends to load and unload faster ? and, in my experience, it's less likely to crash than Outlook.

One thing that Outlook and Outlook Express do have in common is the way they display messages that contain graphics or enhanced text. Both programs render graphics by using Microsoft Internet Explorer's HTML rendering engine, ensuring a seamless, well-integrated approach to displaying graphics and linking to Web pages.

There are reasons to like Outlook Express. For one thing, the program has a simple, clean interface focused around the primary task of handling e-mail. Although you can sort and display your inbox in a number of ways, the default is to have your most recent message on top. The program can also be used to subscribe to Usenet newsgroups, though ? these days ? that's not a particularly compelling function for most users. Also, because of its close ties to Microsoft Outlook, it's very easy to migrate between the two programs ? though, in fairness, other e-mail programs are also able to import Outlook and Outlook Express settings and messages.

Like other e-mail software, Outlook Express gives you a quick preview of your messages even before you open them. As soon as you single-click on a message, you see a preview of the message in the preview pane at the bottom of the screen. Double-clicking opens the message. For security reasons, images are not shown by default, but you can click on the "some pictures have been blocked" bar near the top of a message to view graphics if you are comfortable that the images are from a legitimate source.

Although not a full-featured contact management system, Outlook Express does have an address book that allows you to store names, street addresses, phone numbers, and other information along with e-mail addresses. One little-known feature is the "view map" link that automatically takes you to a Web page displaying a map of any address listed in your address book.

Like the other programs in this roundup, Outlook Express allows you to create rules that can greatly help you manage your e-mail, especially if you're inundated with messages. You can, for example, create a rule to highlight messages from anyone from your company's domain in red, making sure you don't miss important mail from colleagues. Outlook Express also lets you set up folders within your inbox and create rules to automatically move or copy messages to certain folders based on criteria you select, including whether the message body contains certain words. (Interestingly, creating a rule to assign colors to mail is easier in Outlook Express than it is in the full-blown Outlook.)

Outlook Express is subject to some of the same security risks as Outlook and Internet Explorer.

One important note: Outlook Express is subject to some of the same security risks as Outlook and Internet Explorer, including the possibility of malicious code being executed within HTML e-mail. While the risk of someone exploiting a security hole in this software has been significantly reduced since Microsoft introduced Windows XP Service Pack 2, it has not been eliminated entirely.

Another problem is that many viruses replicate themselves by sending themselves to people in the Outlook or Outlook Express address books, so an Outlook Express user, if infected with a virus, is more likely to unwittingly spread it to other people. However, if SP2, along with all the latest Microsoft updates, is installed, and you have up-to-date anti-virus software, your chances of being attacked or damaged from an attack are greatly lessened.

There is some good security news about Outlook Express. The popularity of both Outlook and Outlook Express has spawned a number of plug-in or companion programs. For example, there are a number of third-party anti-spam filters such as Cloudmark SafetyBar and MailFrontier's software.

So if you have better things to do with your time than start installing e-mail software, you'll be fine with the Outlook Express package that your computer came with, as long as you pay attention to the security angle.

The Mozilla Foundation has received a lot of attention lately for its popular Firefox browser. But the not-for-profit organization also offers an open-source e-mail program called Thunderbird, which, like Firefox, serves as a free ? and arguably safer ? alternative to Microsoft's offerings.

Safety claims are based on the fact that Thunderbird doesn't use the Internet Explorer rendering engine to display graphics and that it also features "government grade security" such as digital signing, message encryption, and support for certificates and security devices. Also, because Thunderbird is newer and less popular than Outlook Express, hackers haven't had as much time or incentive to go after it.

The program's developers also brag that it has great spam filters ? however, my tests didn't find that to be the case. Yes, over time it the spam filters do an increasingly better job at trapping junk mail as you train it, but out of the box, the filters are not as good as some of the commercial filtering programs that work with Outlook Express. (However, they are free.)

Thunderbird, like Mozilla Firefox, allows programmers to develop extensions or plug-ins that enhance the program's functionality. These optional extensions can be downloaded from a link within the program, and add all sorts of extra functions such as dictionary lookup or improved contact management. They not only enhance usability but make using Thunderbird a bit more exciting and dynamic, because you never know what someone might do to make the program even better. Having said that, some of the extensions appear to be a bit limited in their usefulness ? just because there are a constantly growing number of extensions doesn't mean you'll find ones that you actually want to use.

Like Outlook Express, Thunderbird has a clean, uncluttered interface, making it easy to install and use. One of the more daunting e-mail tasks ? setting up a new account ? is handled via a step-by-step wizard that makes short work out of the task, assuming you already know your account settings.

Thunderbird's code is constantly being scrutinized and improved by a global community of programmers.

Also like most other e-mail programs, Thunderbird has a filtering system that allows you to automatically move, copy, or mark incoming messages based on content, including what's in the subject line or body of the message, or who it's from. You can use a filter to label your message as "Important," "Work," "Personal," or create your own labels. Labels can be associated with colors, making it easy to find certain types of messages by glancing at your inbox.

Thunderbird comes with a very basic RSS reader to allow access to subscribed content from blogs and other Web sites. Like Microsoft Outlook (not Express), it offers "saved search folders" that make it easy to find messages that meet certain criteria, such as who it came from or the contents of the subject line. The program also has optional "themes" so if you don't like the look-and-feel, you can change it by downloading and installing a user-supplied theme.

Because Thunderbird is open-source software, its code is constantly being scrutinized and improved by a global community of programmers. That helps assure that the software will be regularly updated and, one hopes, less likely to be prone to bugs and security holes.

Qualcomm Eudora
There are three versions of Eudora, two of which are free. The first, Eudora Lite, is truly light: few features, no spell-checking, no ads, no cost. The other free option, the Sponsored version of Eudora 6.2, is identical to the $50 paid version with two exceptions: there is a 1.5-inch square advertisement near the lower left corner, and it does not come with Spam Watch, Eudora's anti-spam filtering technology.

The lack of a spam filter is a pretty serious omission, but Qualcomm needed something to encourage people to pay for the full version. The advertisement, which is tucked into a corner of the program, is pretty benign, and I didn't find it terribly intrusive. (If you choose the Lite version, you will be repeatedly nagged to upgrade to the Sponsored version, which can be more annoying than the ad.) You can also switch between Sponsored mode and Lite mode from the menu without having to download or re-install the software.

While Eudora gets good marks in terms of features, it tends to be a bit harder to use than the other programs in this review. For example, by default, the inbox and outbox "float" so that they can be positioned in any part of the screen. That gives you flexibility, but it can also make it harder to navigate, especially for people who are accustomed to other e-mail products.

While setting up a new account is easy if you're dealing with a vanilla server, it can be maddening if you have to deal with exceptions. My ISP's outgoing (SMTP) mail server, for example, uses port 587 instead of the default (25). While both Thunderbird and Outlook Express have dialog boxes that allow you to make that change, the only way to do it in Eudora is to edit an .INI file ? a task not recommend for the technologically unproficient.

One unusual Eudora option is the ability to redirect mail. Unlike forwarding, the e-mail appears to come from the original sender rather than the person who forwarded it. You can also create separate Personalities from which to send and receive e-mail.

Another powerful tool that's not available in Thunderbird or Outlook Express is called Stationery. It lets you create a message template that you can use when you want to send out the same message repeatedly or when you just want certain attributes to be part of all or some of your messages. The Stationery settings not only let you assign any text you wish to the body of the message, but also enter data in the To, From, Subject, Cc, Bcc, or Attached fields. One handy use is to automatically send a Bcc of outgoing messages to a free Webmail service like Yahoo, MSN, or Gmail in order to archive copies of all outgoing e-mail away from your PC.

Eudora has a particularly strong text search component that is much faster than the search built into the other programs.

Eudora claims to have very strong security through its use of OpenSSL, an open-source implementation of secure sockets layer (SSL) for encrypting and transmitting private documents.

On a lighter side, Eudora now offers Emoticons such as smileys, small devil pictures, and other icons to illustrate and lighten up your mail.

Eudora has a particularly strong text search component that is much faster than the search built into the other programs. You can access search from the Edit menu or from within any message by right-clicking on a word to see if it appears in other messages. Eudora's search also offers a Web-words feature: Right-click on a word or phrase in a message, select "Web Search," and it searches for that text using Google.

Eudora has a number of other useful features including a "content concentrator" that organizes messages by thread. And like Thunderbird, it also runs on the Mac, making it an attractive choice for people who work in both platforms.

Any of the three programs will do a good job when it comes to reading and composing e-mail.

Outlook Express offers the bare necessities, but if you want to move beyond that, you're going to want to choose either Thunderbird or Eudora. Thunderbird's strongest point is its expandability through user-supplied extensions that you can download. It's also the only application that includes a spam filter, and will be attractive to open-source advocates. However, if you're looking for a strong, full-featured program, don't mind a reasonable learning curve, and can live with the ads, then the Sponsored mode of Eudora is your choice.

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