/ 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?

Jimmimac says:
14 December 2010

Best of both worlds for me is hotmail/live/msn family. This is because there is a set of programmes “Windows Live Essentials 2011” which includes a desktop programme “Windows Live Mail” which allows you to synch your hotmail/live/msn account(s) to a desktop based programme akin to Outlook Express. To say it’s a Microsoft Programme, I’ve been impressed with the flexibility and functionality of this programme including synching emails with your calendar and tasks, ease of sorting folders etc. Also, unlike the “cloud” versions, you can request a “read receipt” when you send an email,. This is handy when dealing with elusive customers.

Chilternphil says:
14 December 2010

Why the excitement? I have used Outlook at work and at home and synchronize to my PDA (one day I’ll read the manual and do it to my phone too.) No problems and useful features. Oh and I have used web mail for years too – especially when out and about on a net book and mobile stick.
Outlook is a software program that has some benefits and “features” so I cannot get emotional about it or see why a campaign is needed against (or for) it.

Teajay says:
14 December 2010

Like Daid Campion ,I use several e-mail addresses to distinguish types of correspondent. My client is Thunderbird and was easy to set up to automatically check for new messages on all my accounts but at different time intervals depending on their importance to me. I have chosen to use Thunderbird for RSS feeds and also have these set to be collected at set intervals. As far as I am aware I couldn’t do this using web-mail. I also find having my mail on my hard drive enables me to review messages whilst away from home without the expense of WiFi.

How? Do you carry your hard drive away out and about?

It is possible to use Flash drives – or even a small USB hard drive.

I use a 16Gb flash drive for important back ups.

Peter Ashley says:
14 December 2010

Whilst I am one of Microsoft’s greatest critics, I accept Outlook (now 2010) as my email client because, for me as a computing professional, it’s absolutely neccessary. Nothing is perfect and that goes for Outlook but for the majority of work it’s far better than going through the cloud to some web mail service I’m not sure can ever be trusted fully and be secure. Others have already clearly given the reasons so no need to repeat them other than to say, “I agree”.
I do also have a gmail account but it’s used selectively and in parallel with my email client, Outlook.

For John Bogue (sic) to suggest Outlook and other email clients are redundant is stupid and further within the annals of ‘Which’ is not appropriate. I rarely have problems with Outlook but do with network connections, Internet or VPN, I’m continuousely having problem with connectivity. To create and cache email locally to be sent one connectivity becomes available is far better than being beholden to no way of getting to webmail.

A little more thought is required before making statements, John

Oliver says:
14 December 2010

One thing nobody seems to have mentioned is that it’s quite possible to have the best of both worlds by using webmail linked to a desktop client via IMAP. In my case, I use Gmail as my primary mail service, which is set to pull in the (automatically labelled) mail from all my other accounts. I also use MS Outlook on my PC, Mac Mail on my Mac, and Android Mail on my phone, all of which are set up to have an IMAP relationship with Gmail so that the mail folders are automatically synchronized as soon as I open them and view a given folder.

This gives the best of both worlds in terms of the offline working, locally stored data and deeper functionality found in programs like Outlook, whilst still freeing you up to work just as well in the cloud. The only concern it doesn’t answer is worry about your data being replicated on external servers, but I’m not paranoid enough for that to offset the advantage the offsite backup brings.

Well all’s said and done though, despite partly hanging onto my old Outlook habit, I definitely see web-based mail services as the future and a hugely liberating move to make. If you make the move to the cloud you can sit down at pretty much any computer and function fully. There’s also no software glitches to contend with and the huge advantage of not having to export/import and set a whole load of things up every time you buy a new machine.. Wonderfully refreshing!

Peter Ford says:
27 April 2011

Yes, this is the best way forward. As Ceri Stanaway says, choose an email provider that is not tied in to your ISP. And as Oliver says, choose one that lets you access it from local email clients in addition to a web browser.

Many people will be perfectly happy using the web interface most of the time, but when this doesn’t offer the feature(s) you need, it’s nice to have the alternatives provided by email client software.

One of the most important features is personal backup. The original article is correct that the email provider’s own backups are likely to be more reliable than a user’s backups, from a technical PoV. But they are still not perfect:

if the user herself is ALSO taking backups, then that provides extra reliability from a technical PoV. And aside from the technical issues, there are also issues of trust, motivation, etc..

Trust keeping your emails on someone else’s computer? Privacy, safekeeping and immediate availability gone down the drain! Also they are obvious targets for attack and hacking as recent events have shown. Never! How can Which support such a view?

Webmail is slow and lumpy, because it needs to download and display a whole page of HTML (often plus graphics for ads.) just to see your Inbox list.. If your connection is down you can’t get access to info. you might want to just refer to quickly. Your view of a message is reduced by clutter and ads. Yes, it is good for when you are away from home and want to see any new messages.

Mail Clients are quick to download just the messages because the protocol is faster and frugal. You can look up something immediately in your kept messages at any time, even without connecting to the Net. You can see much more of large messages without any clutter.

Yes, Mail Clients may be harder to set up initially, but once it’s done you never need think of it again. Your mail provider usually gives you the words and numbers to fill in the various fields and often gives you step-by-step instructions on how to do it.

Nobody needs to know what things like SSL (secure socket layer) means; just follow instruction. As a computer expert, I’m not even sure what it is 🙂

Grumpy Old Dave says:
14 December 2010

I have the luxury of both but God save us from all that C**P that comes with Web Mail, there must be a limit to Capitalism who is paying you?

I disagree. I use both webmail and Outlook Express, and both are very convenient. It is easy to set up OE, and good to have emails on the computer. We have often worked on emails offline over many years, and it is good for printing out emails.

I always worry about web based email services possibly failing, and losing my emails. I find it best to use webmail for business emails, while OE is used for personal emails.

I use a variety of email clients including Windows Mail, Evolution and occasionally Thunderbird. I also occasionally use webmail using Squirrel Mail and Hotmail and briefly, gmail. I much prefer the clients to the web-based services

I avoid the web-based services as much as possible as I find them much less slick and attractive. I haven’t timed the responses, but the webmail services feel slow clunky and unattractive to me in comparison to the slicker POP or IMAP clients. The clients are all easy to set up and one can choose whether to leave mail on the server only, on the PC only, or to duplicate it between the two if you want to re-visit messages when away missing a speedy internet connection.

I agree totally with the article, web mail – given the right provider – is far superior to locally-hosted client software such as Outlook. Working in a job which involves frequent travel (Army officer) it is far easier to use the Google Mail web client than it is to mess around having files on a single machine, subject to being lost, stolen or damaged. The spam filter on Gmail is also excellent – far better than Outlook’s, and “it just works”. I have used Hotmail and Yahoo, and I can understand people’s annoyance with adverts on those services: I can’t recommend Gmail strongly enough, however.

I suspect this is an age-related thing, too: I’m early 30’s, and my friends in their 20’s and early 30’s almost exclusively use web mail. My parents and their friends have become accustomed to using Outlook either from work, or because it’s all they know. It’s only when their computers fail, or they come to move Internet Service Providers, that the limitations become apparent. Until that point it’s easier to stick with Outlook, because they understand it… I’m fairly technical (postgrad IT quals et al), but my parents aren’t and I moved them, and other relatives, to Gmail some years ago, and they’re now far happier with it, and when, inevitably, computers have died, it’s been a seamless process to migrate them, as data is online.

To the article’s author: ignore the critics, John – ageing Luddites, the lot of them! ;–)

Oliver says:
10 January 2011

I have to agree with this. I’d picked up my local mail client habit through years of being forced to use Outlook at work and couldn’t imagine functioning any other way. Like everything else in life, there are better ways of living if you can break out of old habits and embrace new ways of doing things. It took somebody ten years younger to give me a fresh technical perspective on my approach to email/calendar/contacts management and I strongly suspect that fewer people will be growing up wedded to Outlook. Machine-centric working is just no longer a relevant approach in today’s world.

There are pros and cons for both webmail & mail clients – shouldnt Which? be giving a balanced view ?

I use IMAP rather than POP to access my email – emails stored on my Email providers servers AND copied to my PC.
Easy to access an manipulate from any of my PCs at home or at work , and quite easy to access via mail2web.com from any internet connected pc.

Barry Tucker says:
15 December 2010

I’m surprised that a consumers’ organisation is promoting webmail services which leave your private information in the hands of big corporations that are able to exploit it for commercial gain. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. They won’t actually read your emails but they may scan them to identify your interests and this could result in targeted sales emails being sent to you. I’m very suspicious of the motives of big corporations pushing Cloud computing. They are not offering these services for altruistic reasons but want to exploit your personal data. If you want to lose control of your personal data then use webmail, Facebook and other Cloud computing services. I’m a retired IT manager who values his privacy and have no intention of using any of these services.

I agree that the various versions of Outlook and Outlook Express are unsatisfactory and in many cases very insecure but there are much better email clients available eg Thunderbird.

No it is certainly not time to ditch email clients. I use Thunderbird and it is far superior to the likes of Google mail. I have all my emails in Thunderbird organised in folders and sub-folders which would be impossible to replicate in webmail to be easily usable or understandable. I did try it once and the limitations were immediately obvious.

A more intelligent approach is to embrace the best of both worlds by using IMAP. This synchronises Thunderbird with Google, for example, so you can access your mail from a PC anywhere but still be able to file the important emails you wish to keep in Thunderbird or other email client.


Wow, what a lot of annoyed folk. You would have thought that to suggest they use webmail would have been to question their parentage! Actually, I don’t use webmail, even though my ISP does provide it and I have tried it out. I also have a Hotmail account which I hardly ever use. I use Window Mail and I back it up locally on an external drive. This works fine and if there is anything really important, I save an extra copy. I reckon that my main drive may go down, it has, and my backup drive may go down, it has. But the two together? Nah.

I used to use Outlook but it is a nuisance if you don’t need the other parts of the program like the diary. Mail does all I need and integrates well with everything else I use. Who wants ads, spam, complex passwords and increased risk of hacking? Lousy spell checker though, all mail is composed in Word.

Still it hardly matters does it? Some will prefer one way, some another? Surely there’s more relevant topics to get hot under the collar about? Interesting to consider the two as alternatives, though I think ISP based mail is here for a long time yet and anyway, what’s wrong with choice? Good for consumers I thought!

Bigles says:
15 December 2010

Tried hard to use it but it kept screwing me up so deleted it all and now use my ISP mail.You just try and get any sense out of the help line!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.

Helen says:
15 December 2010

I love Outlook

“There is another catch with ISP email which service providers like to keep quiet. Have you ever tried sending an email from your ISP account from a wireless hotspot or from a friends house who uses another provider? Its fine using BT mail in a BT OpenZone for example. But you try sending an ISP email on another ISP’s broadband service and you’ll run into problems. Its an SMTP relay block, a little annoying thing they do which prevents you sending ISP email if you are using
another provider broadband connection. What is the motivation for them to do this – suggestions on a postcard please. ”

This isn’t true of Virgin, who provide a POP3/IMAP email service with a web-based access system which I have never had difficulty using on any ISP.

Like others, I can’t agree with your condemnation of Outlook – it’s an excellent program and I still use it despite being a big fan of Mozilla.

Dac2u says:
15 December 2010

I prefer to use Outlook, I have three different email addresses (2 webmail accounts) that I receive stuff on. It’s important that I have access to each one, logging into three separate accounts to see my email is a pain. I spent a small amount of time figuring out how to set up Outlook to give me access to all three. I don’t know what I’d do if I had to go back to the old way, it’s so much easier using Outlook.

Both Outlook and email clients have their place. For me Outlook 2010 is superb and a step up from previous versions. Using a personal account on a Microsoft Server with 2gb memory for less than £4 per month it enable me to access all my data wherever I am. It’s not well advertised but it is possible to file anything as well as messages. The synchronisation approach beats any other filing system I know hands down. Add to this the Quick Steps, Rules and Search facilities and, if you take the trouble to set them up, the benefits are significant.

YorkshireJumbo says:
17 December 2010

I’ve used outlook for over 12 years, and recently upgraded to a new version. There are several reasons that I use it:

1. I have a Spam program (popfile) that I also use to categorise and filter my emails based on content. I’ve yet to find web-mail that can do anything but simple rules-based filtering. (Google may now have its priority inbox, but you can’t do anything clever with the results except look at them in gmail – it’s a small step in the right direction) Content-based filtering does remove spam, but it also weeds out duplicate unrequested messages from things like competitions I’ve entered, while allowing through the important stuff.

2. I like the way I can sync my calendar, contacts and notes with my phone, so that I’ve always got the information with me. I can also have these data stored in groups, so that I can archive old or less used data while still being able to access it easily. Contacts from previous jobs, dates of meetings for assignments, the list is endless.

3. As mentioned above, I can control the backups of my information. This isn’t just backing up the PST files, but also archiving older data to backup PST files to keep Outlook lean. Web-mail just stores all emails in a “heap”, which makes it unwieldy. You can go through and manually delete old messages you don’t want , but Outlook can do it automatically.