/ Technology

Stop using email clients like Outlook

Microsoft Outlook email inbox

Are you still using an email client program like Outlook? You can enjoy much more for less hassle with a web-based email account. It’s time to move on from a service that came with your Windows XP computer.

We get loads of emails about problems with email client programs, like Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express and Thunderbird, sent through to our Which? Computing Helpdesk.

They’re often awkward to set up due to their many settings, with some broadband providers requiring things like SSL (secure socket layer) to be enabled. ‘What the hell’s that?’ I hear you cry – well there you go, that’s what I mean! Email client programs are needlessly complicated and unreliable.

In fact, they can make your life a misery. These programs were created at a time when you were charged by the minute to be online, so it made sense to grab your emails as quickly as possible and get offline. But with broadband as it is now – this just isn’t relevant anymore.

Change your Outlook – move to webmail

The good news is that there is an alternative – web-based email accounts. You don’t have to know about all the weird stuff going on under the bonnet – webmail just works and that’s what we want, isn’t it?

Ceri Stanaway has already championed webmail services, like Hotmail and Gmail. But after over 1,500 votes, only a third of you said you used webmail as your main email account – worryingly over half admitted to using their internet service provider’s service (ISP).

Yet, the good thing about webmail is that you can access it from any computer anywhere in the world. They can even come with other features, like storage for your music, pics and documents. Plus, Gmail has a great spam filter, so you’re not going to be bombarded with useless messages.

Did you start using an ISP email account simply because they said it was free? Webmail’s free too! What’s the catch? Well you might have to put up with a few ads, but in reality they’re hardly noticeable, especially when Gmail’s ads only take up one line.

You don’t need emails on your computer

Messages to our helpline have also told me that they use email clients because they want a copy of their emails on their computer. To them I say that this is just putting them in harm’s way. If you download emails to your computer, you’re putting them at risk of fire, flood and theft like everything else in your home. It’s much better to leave your emails on the internet where you can access them wherever and whenever you want.

‘But I want to back them up.’ Why? Webmail providers back up your emails every day -they wouldn’t be in business for very long if they didn’t. If your computer has a meltdown then all those downloaded emails will be gone. But with webmail you can just get on another computer and off you go again – they’ll all be there waiting for you.

So why not throw off the shackles of email client programs like Outlook and get yourself a webmail account? Or are you happy with your out-dated attachment?

Mike Robertson says:
13 December 2010

I’m astonished an article as lisleading as this is allowed under the Which name.

I can only speak for Outlook which I have used for many years (now at Outlook 2010) and in most cases setting up an email account with a provider requires no more than entering your email address and password.

Webmail may be OK for most centres of population but for the other third of the country their Internet connection is not fast or reliable enough to make webmail better.

As for fire, flood and theft are you honestly suggesting that people do not need to back up their critical computer data? And, if they’re doing that anyway, it’s a small step to include email in it.

Undoubtedly webmail is going to more convenient for many people but let’s use realistic arguments for it rather than resorting to tabloid hyperbole.

Mike, I have to agree! Outlook etc are rarely, in my experience, awkward to set up, or “complicated and unreliable”.

Of, course there’s always the belt and braces approach: email clients and webmail aren’t mutually exclusive. Choose webmail (i.e. not an ISP’s email account), use it online as John suggests, but also, if you wish, have it accessible and backed up from your desktop using an email client. (I generally recommend Mozilla’s Thunderbird).

And being reliant on webmail means being reliant on the web being available. What happens when your broadband connection goes down? Or Gmail has a server issue – rare, but not totally unheard of…

I agree too. What happens if the webmail service provider decides to cease the service? You have lost all you archived emails. I know someone who spent days typing stuff into a web based notes service only to get noptice that it is closing. Because there was no easy download provision, she had to spend days more with a netbook cutting and pasting text into word processor files.

I entirely agree with Mike and others here. Webmail is fine for casual or low volume users but poor for most others.

For a start. it’s much slower than a local client, even on broadband.

More importantly, it can only be accessed and processed when you have a connection and not, e.g., on the train, unless you use expensive and unreliable mobile broadband. I download my email at home and sit on the train processing it in Outlook; replies get sent when I next connect. And, often, I want to refer to filed emails while offline.

I’ve never found Outlook technically challenging. The 2010 version is the best yet and I can’t imagine life without it.

I do use webmail while travelling without my laptop. It has its place but cannot replace a local client. Incidentally, I use and highly recommend the oft-overlooked webmail service from GMX, although perhaps not if you want to sync your phone with a webmail service.

Pickle says:
13 December 2010

I’ve had no end of problems with Outlook – can’t make out why…. Hotmail for personal e-mails and my Isp’s mail for everything else. Works best for me!

Peter Morgan says:
22 October 2013

I’ve had clients with Outlook and to me, it has been a pretty unfriendly and poor piece of software (compared with Outlook Express, the free cut-down version for home users). I see a lot on this topic have Outlook because of office use (and presumably also bought MS Office for home use, to be able to also use the calendar and other features).

I can see benefits and drawbacks for both e-mail clients (I was a long term user of Eudora, have used Outlook Express, Agent, and Thunderbird, to name a few {I have Mac, linux and various Windows systems}) and web based mail (I’ve had free and paid accounts with the likes of Fastmail, Runbox, GMail and so on, plus those associated with web server accounts such as Horde and Squirrelmail).

As an Android user, I’m happy to use GMail, and have had a number of accounts for 5++ years but would never dismiss clients like Outlook Express, Thunderbird, and so on. It’s for individuals to choose. Composing mail off-line was commonplace in the 90s, and still can have its place (encouraging a thorough re-reading just before sending, in case of spelling or grammatical errors, for example).

While I can see the point of view, I would actually suggest people get themselves free web-based mail accounts for completely separate reasons – namely the ability to switch ISP more easily. All too often over the years I’ve seen people resistant to switching “because of my e-mail address”, so they place themselves at the mercy of the ISP. I learned (after using a US ISP called UltraNet) just how painful it was when a company takeover meant I lost the mail address I had been using for around 8 years.

Web mail service YES!

Using browser to access your mail vs e-mail client ? Up to the user!

PS Ironic that (because this is a slightly older iMac system), Google Mail, creators of the Google Chrome browser, tells me each time I check mail that “my client is not going to be supported for much longer” and to “upgrade”. Glad I have Thunderbird (and other computers) for the day that comes when I can no longer read my mail from their mail service with their browser (because they have “enhanced” the website to a degree where their browser can no longer cope).

Sophie Gilbert says:
13 December 2010

I did have problems with Outlook at home and completely gave up on it. It plainly doesn’t work for everyone everywhere every which way. I now have webmail accounts, personal and business, and so far have encountered no problems with those.

I totally agree with Mike and Al. I have used Outlook for many years now and can honestly say that my life would be truly a mess without it. It was very easy to set up and is a dream to use (and I am no computer expert by any stretch of the imagination). I have set it up so that 2 web based email providers and my ISP’s all go into Outlook. I cannot understand how anybody can say it is difficult or unreliable.

I sometimes access my webmail directly, usually on holiday, but it is such a pain and not nearly as easy to personalise. I have also tried GMail, Yahoo and others and they are terrible, OK and complicated, respectfully.

Whenever I change my computer, the first thing I will have to buy is Outlook as it is my daily saviour. I cannot sing its praises enough, so don’t let the view of the ‘expert’ (John Boque) above turn you against this really excellent programme, as he is plainly wrong.

podra says:
14 December 2010

Put your data and email in the cloud using webmail and dropbox etc: access from anywhere and any internet device … agreed. Be aware of the risks tho’ – someone else looks after the backups yes … but who owns the data if the provider goes bust, blocks you’re access because you’ve breached the t&c; be aware the data is more accessible to others too … so use strong passwords and guard them well; think twice about putting very sensitive data out there. As to the idea that you don’t need to keep your own local copy just in case!! – sorry but that’s plain stupid imho!!

There seems to be no way to reply to John Bogue’s post BELOW here so I’m putting this here so it’s easily seen.

John is plain WRONG: the beauty of files such as .pst is that they can be accessed by the majority of e-mail clients and text (word) processors.
In the unlikely event that you are at a computer (PC, Mac or other) which doesn’t already have software that opens .pst and other standard mail files, you can download freeware that will open and / or convert for you.

Using iMail (Mac) or Outlook (PC) is dead easy unless you are so computer illiterate that you are likely to fall foul of traps like not backing up and also likely to be inept at transferring files anyway, so that chances of transferring to a portable device and then being unable to open them are slim!!!!

I’ve switched to Outlook from Outlook Express since I got my latest PC. Superb! Anyone suggesting the use of webmail is living in the past. Outlook’s just so flexible. Most webmail is slow, inflexible and unreliable. Setup is easy, all email providers show you step-by-step instructions for Outlook and all popular email clients.

And anyone suggesting your email provider will never lose your emails is just plain out of touch. It happens all the time, and it’s happened to me.

Obviously, I make sure that any email host I choose does have a webmail, so that I can use it when away from home. But I want my emails saved on my hard disk (and my backup disk, obviously) because, unfortunately, I can’t trust some anonymous webmail provider to keep them safe.

How the heck do you email merge without Outlook ?? and many other things too…Outlook is actually very versatile as it meshes so well with other MS Office applications.

I believe you can add other email accounts to gmail, even if they are not Google mail accounts. Though I’m willing to be proved wrong on this point.

I agree with everything Mike & Al have said. I don’t use my ISP’s email account because although Bethere provide an excellent and genuinely uncontended internet service their email account costs extra and is reportedly prone to frequent crashes. However I do use Pipex (left 3 years ago but they never stopped my email account) and the free Sky email account available to all TV subscription customers and had no problem configuring Outlook with them.

On what evidence does the author of this misleading article claim Outlook to be unreliable? Most ISP email clients provide detailed instructions on their website for configuring Outlook to their particular service. Just because someone is too thick to do a little basic research does not render Outlook unreliable, or complicated for that matter.
It is because of bland articles like this, coupled with others often containg inaccurate information and Which’s acceptance as fact of the junk science that is Climate Change that I’ll be cancelling my subscription before the next monthly payment is due.

Peter Ford says:
27 April 2011

John, my suggestion for their motivation is that it is an easy way for them to reduce spam getting sent through their servers. By only accepting connections from their own network, they can ultimately work out exactly which of their customers is responsible for any given email.

Terence, calm down and take a look at your address bar. This is “conversation.which.co.uk”. The original post was intended to start a *conversation* and has done so. I encourage you to maintain your “Which?” subscription. For my part in the conversation, I agree with you that “just because someone is too thick to do a little basic research does not render Outlook unreliable”. But I disagree with you bringing up Climate Change, which is completely unrelated. (P.S. What are your scientific credentials? Perhaps you should spend some time at realclimate.org.)

I suspect MSOutlook is OK for writing emails, as long as all recipients of these emails also use it to read them. For me, the biggest problem is its incompatibility with other mailers. I’m a member of a research group, with members using several different mailers. Attachments from members using MSOutlook are often unreadable by some others. (I think those on AOL have more difficulty than most.) The main problem seems to be MSOutlook generating a “winmail.dat” file, which is unreadable by and can mess up other email programs. (Google on “winmail,dat” to see comments on this feature.)

For my part, I use simple text in my emails, with lines of decent size (e.g 65 characters) and indents when I need to quote something; when I get replies quoting my emails from people using MSOutlook, the line structure is often completely changed, since (by default, I think) MSOutlook removes what it views as unnecessary line breaks. I object to an email program which thinks it’s clever enough to decide what I meant to write; when I send a text email, I want it to stay as I sent it.

Given that rant, you may want to know what I use! I always worked with the excellent exmh program on a unix box, but had to change when my employer moved away from unix. I now tend to use squirrelmail.

Sorry, but that doesn’t ring true at all. Attachments are attachments, however they’re sent. If a recipient has difficulty reading them, that’s down to the attachment, not the email tool. I send emails daily from Outlook to users of Hotmail, Gmail, GMX, AOL and others, and can’t remember the last time someone reported problems reading and email or attachment I sent.

As for line breaks, are we talking word processors or typewriters here?! I absolutely hate it when people insert line breaks in emails and documents – causes no end of problems, whichever tool is used to read email. Please don’t do it!

Peter Ford says:
27 April 2011

David, we are certainly *not* talking word processors. Plain text is the lowest common denominator … except it is actually not very ‘low’ at all because it suffices for email-level communication most of the time. And the fact that it IS a common denominator makes it incredibly useful.

Now, sending plain text by email involves line breaks. Problems only arise when email clients handle those line breaks badly.

As EEB says, Microsoft Outlook is certainly guilty. Its default setting is “Remove extra line breaks”. Microsoft’s definition of the word ‘extra’ is wrong, and the fact that it is the default setting is stupid. It’s one of the first settings I change when I am using Outlook. (Incidentally I quite like Outlook.)

MikeS says:
14 December 2010

Outlook is generally very reliable and easy to use, and really indepensable for work. I also use web email for personal things and have found that equally convenient. What’s wrong with both options?

Bechet says:
14 December 2010

I like Outlook and I’ve had few problems with it. My isp provides webmail access so I’m not blind when I’m away. It isn’t easy to back up emails from my hard drive, however, so I forward anything that matters to my Gmail account ~ simples! Having my emails on my hard drive allows quick access ~ the security around Yahoo & Gmail accounts can be irritating (although absolutely necessary). The main drawback of Outlook, Outlook Express etc using your isp account is that it would be inconvenient to change isps but I’m content with mine and have no plans for that.

I get a **** of a lot of spam and phishing on my Yahoo account and several friends have had their Hotmail accounts taken over by people/outfits advertising cheap web retailers. Their address book (to which they have lost access) has been plundered and all of their contacts sent junk emails in their name eg. “Whoopee ~ I’ve just bought an iPhone on XXXX for only £X etc”. To be fair, most of these also had Facebook accounts so that may have been where security went wrong.

The only spam on my isp account is my own fault ~ ie from M&S etc from whom I have ordered online. And no phishing.

The question of whether to use a Mail Client or Webmail, and the question as to whether it is advisable to use your ISP’s provided email account, are two different issues.

There are plenty of email providers, including the Gmails and Hotmails of this world, that you can use with any Mail Client, without being dependant on your ISP.

I have never been a fan of anything that says Microsoft on the box but I wouldn’t give up Outlook and rely on a web-based system. My Outlook is set-up to access several different email accounts and by using “rules” (which are actually quite simple) I can get all of my different incoming emails sorted into their own in-boxes. And when I send emails I can personalise them with different sender details. Emails are no different from the letters that I send or receive electronically so I want them all accessible, all the time, on my laptop.

Also Outlook synchronises really well with my mobile phone so my diary, my contacts and my tasks are all available on my phone when I haven’t got my laptop.

Outlook is something that Microsoft have got right – although I hate to admit it!!

Exactly the same facilities available in Gmail. I access several e-mail accounts. My oubound e-mails don’t use my gmail address but our personal e-mail domain. I have mine set up to use IMAP rather than POP so whichever device I use to look at my e-mails I see exactly the same thing. I don’t need to ‘synchronise’ – all my data is in the cloud so when I add a new contact on my PC it just appears on my phone, I don’t have to do a thing.
What’s the good of having e-mails available all the time on your laptop when you can’t send or receive anything anyway without an internet connection. I don’t find old e-mails that interesting.
Outlook is a dog – there has been an inconsistency between Outlook and Outlook Express for years that meant attachments from Outllok to Outllok express weren’t viewable.
I was never happier than the day I finally ditched it.

I use a mixture of different Hotmail, Gmail and ISP-related E-mail accounts including Outlook. I think that you need to distinguish between corporate business accounts, where the business is Microsoft based, and personal accounts. It seems to me that everyone primarily likes whatever they are used to using as it is familiar to them. Horses for courses.
I have about 70 different E-mail addresses which I basically use as filing cabinets; I find this much easier as I know that anything in a particular account relates only to a particular function or project.
Using an iPad is ideal for holding the most used accounts as one can just go into each as if one is entering a subfolder without the need to renter a username and password.

The advantages of web mail is that your email, contacts and calendar are stored on an Internet server. This lets you access your mail from any PC and many mobiles, anywhere in the world.

An off line mail client is usually customisable and ultimately easier to use that web mail. With an off line mail client, you can store your email on your local computer as well as on the web mail server.

Outlook is probably a little OTT for most home users and is more a work place tool when connected to Exchange Server. Even Microsoft (sort of) admit this as the free Windows Live email client has much of the look and functionality as Outlook. And for those that use Mail Merge from other MS Office apps (such as Word or Excel) will find that Windows Live 2011 will support MM with Office 2010.

Using one of the main providers such as Googlemail or Hotmail is fairly safe as neither are likely to go bust and close. For a great Calendar, users of Googlemail should add the calendar to their account. It is a great tool.

Rustum says:
14 December 2010

With a simple macro added to an Excel database of members I can get Outlook to email in one click from within the database to all of them with a fully formatted newsletter with or without attachments and without having to worry whether new members in the database have been added to an address list in my email system. Nobody has yet shown me that this could be done with a web based system.

I have used Outlook Express at home for years and will continue to do so whilst I use an Operating System that it works with. [ I’m still on XP as I like it and find it reliable ] Apart from a bit of trouble with OE spell checker at one time I have had no problems with it. I like the filing system that I have set up with it and the rules that I’ve created to process incoming mail.

I also use Outlook for accessing my firms e mail as that is what they provide and it has been good. I love the diary and appointment reminders on it but I am not so keen when colleagues look at my diary and schedule me in for a meeting that I don’t want to go to as I can no longer say that I am busy.

But I also use web mail! Why you ask? Simple! So that I can access my private e mail from work, hotel, airport lounge without toteing a laptop around and without leaving a trail behind me on the work computer.

I use web mail to access my BT Yahoo mailbox which is the same one that my Outlook Express accesses but I find it very slow and the filing system cumbersome.

Petrus Maximus says:
14 December 2010

The ability of Which to get it wrong these days never ceases to amaze me.
Webmail doesnt work if one wants to write emails “offline” so to speak and then send. It makes archiving more difficult and I could go on.

Once we have a world where the internet is always-on and access is perfect then I will move to the cloud, but not until.

Come on Which? – think it through

Petrus, thanks for your comment. It’s worth pointing out, for everyone, what Which? Conversation is about – it’s for us to produce our opinions based on the work we do here at Which? and for the community to then comment on. Each Conversation is an open debate that we’ll get involved in – the article is just the starting point. Thanks.

Gmail has an offline mode. You can have it sync all your email offline, compose an email offline and it will automatically be sent when you’re next online.

John –

you mean like 40% of the members of my charity? It depends entirely on your interests and needs – Many people have no need of the Internet – They are also happy balanced people.

Tuggers says:
14 December 2010

Perhaps John could explain what is unreliable about Outlook. I’ll go along with the comment about setting it up, it can be a bit messy but once it is done it is done forever and it is a really good program to use. It is easy to back up the data and I feel more secure knowing that I have the back up. I guess it depends on how you like to manage your correspondence, I have worked on emails, creating new ones and drafting replies when I have been offline, on an aeroplane for example, can I do that with webmail? I think it is good to make everyone aware of the alternatives but it’s a bit arrogant to title the article as a command – “Stop using email clients like Outlook”, one size does NOT fit all.

Well, yes, you can easily draft emails etc offline when using a web-based mailer. You simply
use your favourite text editor (even Notepad) to prepare the text, and store it in a file which
is simply pasted into the mailer once online. That’s what I’ve done for years
with squirrelmail (as supplied by my ISP as standard, and available on my office network).


Surely if you use a system and has never broken down – it is reliable – not just perceived as reliable??

Like if I have a car for 25 years and it has never broken down – it is reliable

You seem to be confused with “ease of portability” and reliability.

Certainly not in my opinion a reason to suddenly change a method of use – just because some people cannot cope with a particular program.

David Prime says:
14 December 2010

I use Apple Mail, similar to Outlook. Combine this with Apple’s mobile me and basically you have a fully integrated system that includes your calendar, contacts (plus music, pictures and documents if required) and is available on the web or downloaded to both your computer and phone. I cannot see any point in not using a download onto your computer since it is available and if your computer and backup were flooded or stolen at the same time as your iphone you still would be able to restore everything from Apple.

I have to say that setting up email mail be quite simple with Outlook 2010 the linking of outlook with a blackberry when using windows 7 64bit with outlook is a nightmare.
There are lots of issues that haven’t been addressed and sometimes very difficult to resolve, I know having sent hours onto support centres in India with Dell (new laptop).
Overall outlook is brilliant when working in harmony.