Email is email, right? Understanding the differences between various types of email service...
When you're looking for free email, there are some things you need to know before signing up for an account. While it won't cost you anything to sign up for the wrong type of service, the time lost can be frustrating...
A) Web-based Email
The first type of email service (and the most widely offered) is web-based email, sometimes also known as HTML email. In many ways, this is the simplest kind of email to have, since you can access your email at any time, from any browser, anywhere in the world. Whenever you want to read your email, you simply go to the email provider's site and log in through the web interface.
Web-based email services often offer a good selection of features, that may include message attachments, multiple recipients (the ability to send an email address to more than one person at a time), support for "rich" messages that contain graphics and colors, and sometimes various kinds of stationery (in reality, these are templates that format your email according to predefined styles)
The main downside to web-based email is the storage limitation: because your emails are permanently stored on the email provider's machines, you're going to run out of space for new email messages after receiving a few hundred to a few thousand messages (or much more quickly than that if you receive messages with picture files and other attachments!) While careful management of old messages, including regularly deleting what you don't need, can help a little, the constant need to keep "emptying" a rapidly filling mailbox can be frustrating - especially since most web-based email providers will "bounce" (refuse to accept) mail messages if your mailbox is full.
Web-based email services are also more likely to come with a heavy advertising burden: because you log in each time via the provider's website, you're essentially a "captive audience" for banners, buttons, popups and other advertising. (NOTE: This advertising is usually essential to ensuring a provider's survival, so it should be regarded as a "necessary evil" - but this doesn't stop it from becoming tiresome, especially if you have a slower connection!)
B) POP Email
The second type of email service is POP email (POP stands for "Post Office Protocol" - and that's as technical as we're going to get here, folks!)
With POP email, you use your favorite email software client (Outlook, Outlook Express, Netscape Mail, Eudora, Pegasus Mail and so on...) to download your messages from the provider's server onto your computer. Since this process removes the email from the server (unless you go out of your way to specify that it should be kept), this means that instead of being limited to a few MB of storage space (like web-based email services) you've suddenly got ALL the space on your computer's hard disk to play with (generally, this means you can store hundreds of thousands of messages...) Your chosen POP mail provider will generally provide instructions on how to configure your email software to download email.
Generally, POP email will have a lighter advertising burden, since at worst the email provider is limited to sending you sponsored messages from time to time - you're no longer logging into any central site, so you won't have to battle the banners and popups any longer.
It's also worth considering that since you will be working with your email from inside your email software, you're usually going to have access to many more features than you would when working remotely over the web, such as a comprehensive spell-checker, templates, automatic mail formatting options, multiple signature files and whatever else your particular software has to offer.
On the minus side, an unavoidable side-effect of downloading your mail to your computer is that you're going to be stuck when away from your computer (e.g. on vacation), since all your stored messages (and your address book!) are sitting at home. However, you can at least use a POP Gateway service to access your newest messages, even if you're not sitting at your computer.
C) Mail Forwarding
The third main type of email service (although the least common) is mail forwarding. To take advantage of a mail forwarding service, you MUST already have an existing email account somewhere (this is an unavoidable requirement)
Mail forwarding services work by automatically passing on (forwarding) any messages they receive to your existing email address. An example may make this clearer: You have an email address firstname.lastname@example.org and you set up email forwarding from email@example.com. This means that every time somebody sends mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, it will be automatically sent on to email@example.com.
Mail forwarding services don't have storage quotas, since they don't hold on to email for any length of time. The main benefit of a forwarding service is to have a simple, easy to remember email address to share with friends and family - while at the same time being free to change Internet Service Provider without fear of them losing track of you (all you need to do when you change your underlying email address is to change where mails are to be forwarded to, and you'll immediately start receiving your mails at that new address.)
Hopefully, this brief overview has given you enough information to make an informed decision about which email provider will suit your needs most closely. It's also worth remembering that many email providers offer multiple types of email service on the same underlying email account: you can check your email via their web interface OR download it to your computer OR forward it somewhere else...