Mail hosting may not be at the top of your priority list when you’re deciding on a Web hosting package, but it is a really important piece of the jigsaw. If you’ve yet to find somewhere to host your website, why not take a look at our in-depth hosting reviews?
Alongside your website, you need a reliable way for people to get in contact with you (or your business), and this means you need one or more email accounts.
Many fledgling businesses start off by setting up a free online email account, using a service like Gmail to create an address like email@example.com. While this ticks the box on some level, for me and many others, seeing a business with only a Gmail (or similar) address creates the impression of something thrown together on a budget. Frankly, it’s just not that professional.
Thankfully, it’s actually quite easy to create addresses like firstname.lastname@example.org. In fact, almost every hosting company out there includes at least basic mail hosting free with even a low-end hosting account. As an example, Site5, a provider who did rather well in our recent review, include various email options – complete with spam protection – completely free with even their most basic hosting package. So there’s no reason not to have a professional-looking email address.
Mail Hosting Options
There are various mail hosting options available to you, all with advantages and disadvantages. I’m going to introduce you to all of them here, so you can make an informed decision on what’s right for you.
HOST BASED WEBMAIL
Most hosting firms offer one or more webmail options so you can get to your domain’s email via a Web browser. Webmail platforms include Squirrelmail, Roundcube and Horde.
While using one of these is arguably the simplest of options, it’s far from sophisticated. These webmail systems are distinctly “old-school,” and require you to log into a clunky system via your browser.
Furthermore, if this is all you use, you’re not going to have easy access to email from your smartphone or tablet.
As an “IT guy,” all I ever use these platforms for these days is for troubleshooting purposes. I’d go so far as to say this method of collecting email isn’t really a good fit for anyone in this day and age – but it’s there if you want it.
POP3 email is a simple way to download email collected by your Web host to an email program such as Microsoft Outlook or Apple Mail, or the email app on your smartphone or other mobile device.
It’s almost always included for free, and is relatively simple to set up. People who want to use the most simple of mail hosting services often choose this, but it’s not without its disadvantages.
Here’s how it works: Mail sent to your domain is collected by your web host and sorted into the mailboxes you create. You then connect to your web host regularly using your email app or software, and “pull down” any email waiting for you. There’s usually the option to delete mail from the server once you’ve downloaded it, or to leave it on the server (albeit usually subject to quite a small storage limit).
Back in the days when people typically used just one computer to access their email, this was a reasonably good system, but nowadays people expect rather more. When it comes to accessing mail from multiple devices, the limitations of POP3 really begin to show.
As there’s no synchronization between devices, mail can become hard to manage. You can download a bunch of mail to Outlook on your laptop, and leave it on the server so it also downloads to your smartphone. BUT – deleting an email on your laptop won’t delete it on your phone. As you can imagine, things can soon get rather messy and difficult to manage.
In addition, once mail is downloaded, it’s down to you to make sure it’s backed up safely. Due to low typical storage limits, you can’t just store years worth of mail with your web host. (For your info, you’ll find a useful article on backing up Microsoft Outlook over on our sister site, BestBackups.com).
While I wouldn’t say POP3 doesn’t have its uses in some scenarios, I would also point out one further disadvantage, which is that the settings to connect to a POP3 mailbox can sometimes be quite involved and intimidating for non-techies, with usernames, passwords and server names to remember.
IMAP email is rather like “POP3 but better,” and is increasingly offered as a free mail hosting option by many web hosts.
As with POP3, mail is delivered to your web host and distributed to your mailbox. The difference is that the mail does remain on the host’s server. This means you can configure multiple devices to access it, whilst maintaining a reasonable degree of synchronization.
However, there are still some disadvantages. IMAP often only downloads basic email headers, without all the attachments and extras, making it a bad fit if you’re someone who often composes and sorts emails while offline.
Configuration is also arguably more complicated than POP3, with lots of fields to fill in that may be obvious to techies but rather intimidating for beginners (see image above). Performance can sometimes be a little sluggish too.
That said, IMAP is arguably the best fit if you want your mail hosting free, but want the flexibility to manage mail from your phone as well as your computer. Just accept that you may need an “IT person” to assist with the configuration if you’re not that technical.
GOOGLE EMAIL HOSTING
If you want to take things a step further, and gain some flexibility and ease of use as part of the bargain, you have the option of using Google email hosting, as part of the Google Apps for Work package.
This allows you to use the online Gmail interface to access and manage your mailbox (including sorting mail into folders). In addition, you can also use the POP3 and IMAP methods described above in parallel, should you wish, or connect directly to your account via a mobile device using the Gmail setup method, which is handy, because it generally only requires you to remember a single password alongside your email address.
You’ll need to budget about $5 per month, per user for this, but you do get a lot more than just an email address at your domain. You also get access to Google’s cloud storage for up to 30GB of mail, sorted into folders, and the ability to store calendars and contacts, as well as documents and spreadsheets.
Several web hosts integrate very well with Google Apps, allowing you to easily complete the set up from your hosting control panel. When we reviewed InMotion, we noticed their integration was particularly slick.
Managing your email this way may cost a little, over and above your hosting cost, but essentially gives you the foundations of everything you need to run a growing business right from the start.
HOSTED MICROSOFT EXCHANGE
Hosted Exchange is something of a “gold standard” for email hosting. If you’ve ever worked for a medium or large company, there’s a good chance they used Microsoft Exchange as their email platform.
With Exchange, your entire mailbox, and your calendar, tasklist and contacts, are all stored online “in the cloud.” You can connect to the mailbox using Microsoft Outlook or another email program, or connect using a mobile device. Another option is to use the Outlook Web App to access it from any Web browser.
Hosted Exchange is arguably the most sophisticated way to manage your email, although the Google Apps approach discussed above comes close. Wherever you are, you are connecting to the same mailbox, and everything remains in sync; Delete something on your computer, and it’s immediately deleted on your iPad, for example. You can even sit and file your emails during a train journey using nothing but your phone.
The bad news? Unsurprisingly, Hosted Exchange is the most expensive option, typically costing around $10 per month per mailbox on top of your hosting charges. However, if you plan to run a very professional business and travel around a lot, it could be worth every penny. 1and1 is one hosting provider that offers Hosted Exchange.
Mail Hosting: Conclusion
Hopefully, my descriptions above have helped to demystify your options for email hosting. If you need some help to choose a provider, why not check out our detailed hosting reviews.
IMAGE CREDIT: Wikipedia