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What You Said: Desktop vs. Web-based Email Clients

We clearly tapped into a subject you all have a strong opinion about with this week’s Ask the Readers post; read on to see how your fellow readers manage their email on, off, and across desktops and devices.

Earlier this week we asked you to share your email workflow and you all responded in force.

TusconMatt doesn’t miss desktop clients one bit:

Switched to Gmail years ago and never looked back. No more losing my emails and contacts if my HDD crashes or when I reinstall. No more frustration with not being able to access an email on the road because it downloaded to my drive and deleted from the server. No more mailbox full messages because I left messages on the server to avoid the above problem!

I love having access to all emails from anywhere on any platform and don’t think I could ever go back to a dedicated email client.

Before switching to Gmail, I used Thunderbird in Windows and Evolution in Linux.

Thunderbird got lots of love in this week’s Ask the Readers comments, Merriadoc was but one of the many, many, readers that based their workflow on Thunderbird:

I’m using Mozilla Thunderbird, it allows me to check several email accounts at the same time without having to open a web browser (and logging in).
It has also the lightning extension, wich I synchronized with my different Gmail calendars. Very useful and easy to use.
I use GMail on Android, only to read email.

I used Eudora, Lotus Notes, Outlook Express in the past. Not my cup of tea.

Anonymous Andy weighs in with the most detailed response in favor of ditching desktop clients for web-based email:

No. I don’t use a desktop email client. And for some good reasons:

1.) It usually costs money to use an email service provider who can provide POP access. (So far as I am aware, only GMail is free.) Of course, I could probably do it myself if I wanted to build a server somewhere but what a PITA!

2.) Although my ISP does provide POP email services I still don’t use it mainly due to spam. Personally, I find it easier to filter any spam/bacn with my (free) online account rather than actually download everything and then filter it with a client. Of course, I could do a half and half solution but who has the time to figure it all out? And can we say large “attachments”?!

3.) Viruses! If I open an email while online it’s likely prone to just infect my account – not my computer. Think Java script, flash, etc. with site re-directors here. However, attachments are still something to beware of as well as any bad add-on code. But since I already limit via my browser with various blockers and limiters I see no good reason to try and keep up with all the extra junk that keeps an email client safe too. In fact, email ports (110 & 25 usually) are just two more ports that need to be kept open – and are two more ways to let your computer get cracked.

4.) Free anonymous email accounts. Look around and it’s hard to not find a free online email service somewhere. Yahoo, MSN, Google just to name a few, will all give you a free online account. You can even tell them your name is Bozo The Clown while registering with a burner cell phone or even a temporary email address like what you get with 10 Minute Email – assuming they even go that far. And once registered, you can use your email until you grow tired of it. (Don’t you just love the idiocy of it all? Cause anyone serious about email security would probably be offering free POP-only service and making it much harder to get free online email.)

Of course, a downside might be that I don’t get the immediacy of an email. And I’m also pretty much tied to using an open browser with Internet access to get my email. But again, not being alerted every time an email comes in is also kind of nice. And for anyone who needs/wants to get a hold of me that urgently I usually just tell them to call me anyway (hopefully, from an unblocked caller ID number too).

For more reader comments, hit up the full discussion thread here. Have an idea for the next Ask the Readers question? Send us an email a tips@howtogeek.com!

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 11/2/12

Comments (12)

  1. Citrus Rain

    The only downside to a webclient is that the messages count doesn’t show in places other than extensions. I have the gmail extension for chrome, and when I’m on linux, it sits almost directly under the unconfigured email notifier built into MATE / GRUB 2 / Unity.

    Is K9 for android web or offline? I’m not sure.

  2. diiis

    Not a single one of Anonymous Andy’s points is – in my opinion – an argument for web-based email over desktop clients. The pros and cons he mentions have nothing to do with the webmail/desktop client discussion.

    1. There are countless free email providers that offer POP or IMAP access. Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, GMX, just to name a few.

    2. If your email provider doesn’t use acceptable blacklists or spam filters, you should consider changing your provider, not the way you are accessing your email.

    3. If you open HTML email, whether with your browser or your desktop mail client, you shouldn’t be surprised that you’re catching viruses. Also, your “email ports” are not open to attackers while your desktop mail client is running. In fact the mail server doesn’t initiate the POP connection to you through these ports by itself, but your desktop client would periodically fetch your mail from the server.

    4. Those free “online accounts” can be accessed via a desktop client, too.

  3. Ron

    Once, while composing an email through a web client on Gmail, I paused to collect my thoughts and noticed that one of the ads on the page had changed to a product that was related to something I had just typed. Needless to say, I was creeped out. I never have used email for anything truly private or sensitive, but that experience has caused me to be even more circumspect about what I send through any email service.

    In a related subject, I wish someone would make a free email client that implemented encryption in a way that was easy for even the greenest newbie to use. I don’t mind jumping through a hoop or two, but the people I correspond with are too computer illiterate/lazy/unconcerned to make the effort.

  4. add a bit

    Thank you diiis.

    But just to further clarify:

    If you are using POP, or IMAP through Gmail for a desktop client, Gmail still filters out SPAM. So your desktop client would reflect the same inbox as Gmail.

    Also if you read emails as plain text your threat exposure to viruses is less than checking email on line.

  5. hoyt purcell

    I have gmail as my principal address, but pick up that mail and other mail with Thunderbird. I’ve found that I need to keep a GMail web page open to find the mail that gmail incorrectly characterizes as spam (and there’s a surprisingly lot of it).

  6. selfassuredwithnorealknowledgebase

    @ hoyt purcell
    If you want a fix……

    Open your Gmail options. Delete your ‘filters’. Start fresh. Gmail only filters (sends to spam) what you instruct it to consider spam.

  7. Steve S.

    I’ve been a huge fan of Thunderbird for years. I use the portableapps.com version and use it on my desktop and laptop. I use Windows Live sync to sync the 2 and had issues when I had both clients open at same time on my machines. I would end up with multiple inboxes, etc. and it would just be a mess. I just recently switched to Gmail online and it wasn’t so hard to make the transition. I like that Google will actually allow me to enter all my Comcast email addresses into it and it will check them as well and show them right in my browser. It basically acts just like Thunderbird only it’s online. I always have internet so it’s not a big deal whether I use an online or offline client (they both require an internet connection to receive email so what’s it matter?). I guess it all depends on what you want, and/or are looking for in an email client.

  8. Don

    @diiis
    You only got one thing wrong. Yahoo mail pop/imap service is not free. I know. I pay for it.

  9. KevinR

    People who use web based e-mail are either dumb or simply uninformed johnny-come-latelys to the subject. There are plenty of downsides to using webmail, it would take a month of Sundays to list them. Here’s one: Gmail incoming e-mail filtering is USELESS and totally inadequate. It might sound amazing that Google with all its $$$ can’t get its filtering right, but it’s true.

  10. Steve S.

    @KevinR Not sure what you’re talking about and I’m not sure you are either LOL! I have only been using Gmail now for about 2 weeks and I have already trained their spam filter and have it working about 95%. I’m sure the longer I use it the better it will work, but I know you are incorrect and obviously have not tried it either.

  11. gldvorak

    It is exceedingly rare that gmail incorrectly assigns an email to spam, but on occasion it surprises me by sending a recurring email to spam. Something that I had been intending to do, but had not yet gotten around to doing. Gmail takes notice of what others are doing.

    I get a dozen or twenty spam emails every day.

  12. jimkiler

    I pay for POP access with yahoo but now want more cloud email functionality so I changed the delete on server option to keep messages for 3 days on yahoo. Now I have the best of both worlds access to recent emails in the cloud and the advantages of outlook on my desktop.

    Reason not to use the cloud for email: When you get hacked the hackers will spam all our contacts saying you are in Africa or Europe asking for money. It happened to my friend so i deleted all contacts from my yahoo address book.

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