To Outlook or not to Outlook and the benefits of Gmail.
One of the most common problems I see as a computer technician is a user that has been hooked into using Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express. I say hooked because Outlook is prevalent in the work place and people turn around and think it must be good for home use also. They also get hooked because Outlook Express was installed as an email reader when Windows XP was most popular. It is a matter of comfort when using either Outlook or Outlook Express, it is tough to get used to something else when all you’ve ever used is a standalone email reader.
Let’s spend some time talking about the problems of using a standalone email client like Outlook when you do not have an IT staff down the hall to help you out. This article is pointed at the home user and not a business user who has support, or a business user using an Exchange server. Number one on the list is whether or not you are backing up your Outlook or Outlook Express in the case of a hard drive failure, theft, or damaged computer. More than likely you are not, even finding the proper file to backup is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
The main file that contains all of your email, contacts, calendar, is called a PST file. You would think that Microsoft would make it easy to find this file, but think again. It is buried deep inside a folder in your User profile, not to make it too easy Microsoft also made this folder hidden so you must unhide all hidden files first before you go on your voyage to find your precious PST file. Finding this file is how you would back it up using backup software, like Fbackup, Dropbox, or external hard drive software from Western Digital, Seagate, etc. If you feel like shelling out $5-7 per month, Mozy will automatically back up your PST file.
The other way to back up your PST file is by walking through the “Export a file” process Microsoft has within Outlook. This may be easier than the above mentioned way, but cannot be part of an automated process of backing up files on a regular basis, so it is a bit clumsy in that regard. Outlook Express also hides their files in a hidden folder named Identities, I’m sure you’re familiar with it right? Outlook Express will allow you to walk through an export wizard to back up your mail, but is anyone out there doing it?
Create new or Archive
We’ve now gone over how no one is backing up their email using these two programs, what else can we dig up on why you should not be using an email client… Well let’s say you happily use Outlook for a year or two and love getting the high res photos attached to an email from Cousin Ted depicting a moose charging through the woods at you, when suddenly Outlook grinds to a halt and takes five minutes to open up.
You wonder to yourself “what the Hell is going on with this?” Well more than likely your PST file has grown oversize from all of the sweet photos people send you, and is way over the 2gb tipping point for a healthy PST file. Yes I know Outlook 2003 and above is supposed to have a maximum 18gb PST size, but I’ve seen multiple problems with far smaller PST files and would not recommend going much over 2gb in size. To remedy this problem you should archive data on a regular basis or make a new PST file every year while keeping around older PST files if you need to go back and reference something. Sounds like fun right?
Another option to make sure you don’t lose your email in case of a catastrophic hard drive failure or something similar is to leave a copy on the server. Let’s start from the beginning, when you are using Outlook you are pulling your email from somewhere. Most home users pull mail from their ISP servers hence the @ISP.com email address they have. Mail comes to your ISP’s mail server and sits there until Outlook or Outlook Express comes and gets them.
Unless you specify to “leave a copy” on the server the mail is no longer on the server once it is received in your Outlook inbox. Inside of Outlook there is a check mark box where you can specify to “leave a copy of messages” on the server. This doesn’t help back up your saved contacts, calendar, and the all important pop up reminders. But at least you can retrieve your email messages again if something were to happen. Be careful of the maximum size you are allotted by your ISP for storing mail, some ISP’s only allow 100mb of storage.
Now I’ve just typed 800 words giving you reasons why you should not use Outlook unless you have an IT staff at your disposal. I have not even touched on how to setup the send and receive settings initially for the beginner / novice computer user. Most ISP’s provide directions on how to do this but if you have a mail server setting incorrect, port setting, or user name / password incorrect it can be a real pain
The million dollar question is what should I use for email? Well the number one email right now is Gmail. It is a web based email and very easy to use. Mail can be accessed in the “cloud” which basically means a ton of servers all there to store your stuff and maintained by professionals who know what they are doing. Gmail can be accessed on any computer in the world (unlike Outlook) and there is no worry about losing your email should something bad happen to your computer.
Gmail is the leader when it comes to integrating with smart phones, and has a great reputation about always being on top of advancing technologies. Gmail can be configured to mimic Outlook very closely so they are almost identical with features and layout. Gmail is free unlike Outlook which requires you to buy into a Microsoft Office suite of some flavor which range from $100-300. If you run a small business you should have your own domain name at the end of your email address, it looks more professional and you can still use Gmail to send and receive using that name.
Making the move to Gmail is relatively easy. Gmail can easily be setup to send and receive messages using your old email name (@ISP.com), and you can export from Outlook and Import into Gmail your contact list in the form of a .csv file. Gmail provides instructions for all of this, and walks you through the process. Gmail also has calendar features, pop up reminders, intense spam fighting, integrated chat, labels, and the ability to search your mail.
Edit – If you insist on using Outlook you should implement a free program like Mailstore to easily back your mail up.