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What is Webmail?

Email is an essential communication tool used around the world, and most hosting providers include support for one or more email accounts with their hosting packages. Webmail, or email accessed using an online-only client, is emerging as an important tool for busy professionals as business on the Web becomes increasingly mobile.

Many hosting providers include support for email as part of their standard packages. As one of today's leading forms of interpersonal communication, email is an essential part of running a successful website—and business—and one of the most important parts of any modern email service is webmail.

Unlike traditional email clients that are installed on your machine or run from your local server, webmail is (as the name implies) accessed directly from the Web via the browser on your computer or mobile device. Webmail makes it easy to take your mail “on the go” without having to install a specific application or tinker with the mail settings on your computer, tablet or smartphone. You just type in the Web address provided by your host, enter your email username and password, and you're in!

As a rule, webmail has many of the same functions as standard email, including composing, replying, forwarding and support for attachments. More advanced webmail clients also offer synchronized archiving with your desktop client, allowing you to access your local archive from your mobile device or save attachments from previously-downloaded messages.

Some webmail clients, however, require a constant connection to the Internet to function, and so do not offer offline message downloads or archiving. This means you may not be able to read mail offline or even compose a new message, since the browser cannot load your mail environment to do so.

Webmail is email accessed using a web browser. Thanks to services like Gmail and Hotmail, most web users will understand how this works. Web hosts also offer webmail services so that their customers can log into their email accounts without using email software. But webmail is not equal on every hosting plan.

Why Use Webmail?

Most of us carry a phone or tablet that connects frequently to our email server. At specified intervals, the device may connect to your mailbox, look for new messages and download them to your device. You might prefer Push email, where a new message is downloaded as soon as it arrives. And with IMAP, you can synchronise your view across multiple devices.

Webmail is a little different. It allows you to access your email account using a web browser. Web hosting companies offer webmail tools so that you can access any mailbox without downloading or installing anything at all.

You'll normally find webmail options in your host's control panel software. For many hosts, that's cPanel, but it may also be Plesk, or your host's custom control panel. The way the webmail system works depends on how your host has provisioned it.

Pros and Cons

Webmail is handy to have on your account because:

  • You login using a simple form: just tap in a username and password
  • It allows you to check messages from anywhere
  • You don't need to have any email software installed
  • It's fast and easy to read and reply to emails

The main downsides of webmail are:

  • Features - or, rather, the lack of them. If you have a Gmail account, you might be surprised by how few options your host's webmail software gives you in comparison
  • Security - or lack of it. Your webmail account probably isn't provided over a secure server, unless you've set this up with your host
  • Non-standard or old-fashioned interfaces
  • Lack of modern features like HTML formatting
  • Clunky URLs to access the webmail tool
  • Vulnerability to slow speeds, depending on the quality of service you enjoy from your host

None of these cons are deal breakers, but they make webmail slightly less pleasant to use.

Types of Webmail

Your options will vary from host to host, but look out for the following webmail tools:

  • Squirrelmail, which has a very basic user interface. It works very well on slow connections, but is not very easy on the eye. On the plus side, it has industry-standard navigation, so you can use it without prior experience
  • RoundCube, an open source webmail client. The first stable release was published in April 2014 after eight years in development
  • Horde, a well rounded webmail client that has various quirks which won't sit well with everyone. It works fine, but requires some patience while you learn your way around
  • SmarterMail, a Windows-only application that can be accessed via the Plesk control panel

Many hosts have their own custom clients, too.

Do I Need Webmail Support?

Most of us have a webmail account we can access in a pinch - such as a spare Gmail account - and we can bash out a quick email in seconds. But could you access critical business email in a couple of minutes using the same method? It's still handy to have webmail access to your host's email accounts, even if it's basic and a bit unattractive. You never know when you'll forget your phone, or need to print something out from an internet cafe on the run.

There are other ways to access your email via a third party service, and you can also set up various forwarding rules. But as solutions go, none of them are as neat. For emergencies, or speed, it's worth checking that webmail is included in your web hosting service.

Webmail Frequently Asked Questions

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