Email Clients and Webmail
There are two ways to get email from the Internet into your computer. One is to actually make a copy of the email from the server onto your local machine by using an email client like Apple Mail or Mozilla Thunderbird. The second method of checking your email is a web based interface such as Gmail or Hotmail. This is called webmail. Your Internet service provider (ISP) may also have their own webmail interface for their email system.
Using an installed email client on your computer has some distinct advantages over simply using a webmail interface. However, none of the advantages may be significant enough to cause you to want to try to install and configure an email client. The good news is that you don't have to use one to the exclusion of the other.
Installed Email Client: Advantages and Disadvantages
An email client is a piece of software that is installed on your computer. Examples of email clients are Thunderbird, Outlook and Apple Mail. There are many more email clients than these three, but they are the most common.
An installed email client is more capable of complicated mail handling rules. For example, with a webmail interface you can tag a piece of mail and have it moved to a separate folder. With an email client you can set up a rule like the following. "If a mail message comes in from anyone in your company which mentions product XYZ, the message needs to be moved to the pink folder. However, if any email arrives from anyone outside the company mentioning product XYZ, a copy is put in the blue folder and the message also is forwarded to your mobile phone as a high priority message."
With an email client, you always have a copy of your email on your computer. If you are on an airplane and don't have access to the Internet, you are able to reply to mail, which will be sent the next time you connect to the Internet. No live Internet connection needs to be present to look at and respond to mail.
Having all the messages on your computer because of using an email client allows you to batch your email tasks. You can turn on your email client to grab all incoming messages and then choose when and where you will process your mail. Productivity experts say that you can accomplish more by batching tasks and working on one thing at time. Using an email client allows you to focus on your email when you choose to make it a priority.
Installed email clients are faster than webmail interfaces. Stever Robbins, the Get it Done Guy, estimates that it takes as much as 30 minutes a day longer to use a webmail interface than to use an email client like Thunderbird to process his mail. That translates to 7.6 days a year of his life wasted if he were to wait for the webmail screen to refresh. You may not need to process 200 messages a day like he does, but you will save time with an email client.
You can easily write more than one message at a time with an email client. While you can open up multiple tabs to work on different messages in Gmail it is not easy. You can't open each message in a new tab by right clicking on it as you normally do to open new tabs. You have to manually open multiple instances of Gmail.
You can have an email client check and send emails from multiple addresses easily. Some email clients have what is called a unified inbox which takes email from different addresses and present them to you in one inbox. Webmail can have unified inboxes as well, but there is not an easy way to switch from a unified inbox to individual inboxes.
Email clients have to be installed on the computer. Once they are installed, they have to be configured. While it is not hard to do, it does take a little bit of work and reading to get it right. It is easier for your ISP to tell you to use their webmail interface than to help you configure an email client.
An email client exists on individual machines. If you have multiple machines, you need to install and configure your email client on each of the machines. Webmail is easily accessible from any Internet connected computer.
If you are using POP email and your computer dies an unrecoverable death, then you could lose all of your email. This is because POP email is designed to download and delete the messages from your mail server. The only copy of each message is stored in your email client. This is not a problem with IMAP email, which is why IMAP is the recommended method of using email.
Webmail: Advantages and Disadvantages
Webmail is a way of interacting with your email through a web interface. Your ISP will have a special address where you can log into your email and send and receive mail from any Internet connection. Services like Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo! mail are all webmail services.
The biggest advantage that webmail has over an email client is that you can access your mail from any web browser. If you often need to access your mail from public computers, like at a library or school, then using webmail is easy since there is nothing to install. Webmail is easy.
Webmail interfaces have evolved in the way they present email. Some have creative ways to show and read email. This is not true with all webmail systems (many look just like an email client interface), but Gmail has been praised for its ease of use.
There is nothing to install and configure for webmail to work. You simply log in to your webmail account and you are looking at your mail.
Since mail is not downloaded to your computer, there is no fear that you will lose your mail in the event of a catastrophic hard drive crash.
If you are not connected to the Internet while using webmail, you cannot access your email. Mail is not stored on your local machine. This means you cannot batch email for reading and replying to while not connected to the Internet. [There is a feature in Gmail for offline use, but it does not work on all operating systems and all browsers.]
Webmail is slow. Even if you have a fast Internet connection, a webmail interface is still considerably slower than an email client.
Managing multiple inboxes requires multiple logins. You can open several tabs to view multiple inboxes, but there is no way to view all of your email on one screen if you have more than one email account.
While it is unlikely that someone at your ISP, or any webmail service, is reading your email, some security experts are concerned that they could be read (it is also unlikely that anyone would care about the vast majority of the information sent through email). There is also the concern that if the webmail server crashed that you would lose all of your mail.
Using an Email Client and Webmail Together
There is no reason you must use one to the exclusion of another. While not always easy, there are ways to set up an email client to check various webmail services. Gmail is probably the easiest to set up with an email client like Outlook or Apple Mail. There are plugins available for Thunderbird for almost all of the major webmail providers. Your local ISP's webmail can also be configured to use an email client.
Take advantage of both methods of checking mail. The speed and flexibility of an email client can be used when you are at your own local machine, and a webmail interface can be used when away from your computer. If you are using an IMAP email server, then you will always have all of your sent and received mail available on all the interfaces you choose.