Email is up there with mobile phone coverage and broadband web access - it's now so pervasive that most of us take it for granted. We experience a mixture of bemusement, stupification and perhaps even a touch of relief when we're cut off from our inboxes.
We depend on being able to send and receive emails, much as we expect to be able to log on to the net and Google a query or consult the BBC site for the latest headlines. Not being able to get at your emails - or drowning in a flood of them on your return from holiday - can be awfully frustrating. Being unable to keep in touch this way can lose you friends as well as business.
Here, we look at the hows and ifs of being able to get at your email while on the road and away from the vagaries of Outlook. And it's not just keeping in touch with the office - getting at the fun stuff, or simply finding a means of staying touch with back home when work or leisure takes us far afield, is of far more interest.
With that in mind, we've provided a rundown of ways to access your email whether or not you've got a live web connection. You need never cut the lifeline again...
Access email offline
The web has become a staple in our everyday lives. Indeed, most of us would struggle to cope without internet access - and email in particular.
But what happens if you're going somewhere that doesn't have an internet connection, such as on a plane? If you're hyperventilating at the thought of a few hours offline, fear not. You can still partake in these online activities - you just need to be prepared. We've got some handy hints that will ensure that you can still read emails and surf the web, provided you plan ahead.
Fine-tune email settings: You obviously can't send or receive email without an internet connection. But you can read messages you've already received, and compose replies and new messages that will be automatically sent out as soon as you've reconnected to the web.
If you use just one PC for email and access all your accounts using POP, your incoming messages are automatically downloaded to your computer. If you set your email client to skip or partially retrieve large messages, make sure you change that before you go offline.
If you've got one or more IMAP accounts, your email client is still likely to download local copies of your messages, but you should check a few settings to be sure. If you adjust your mail client's settings, your email will automatically sync your server-based mail folders with their local counterparts. It doesn't hurt to check your email manually a final time just before leaving, however.
Streamline your accounts: If you've got lots of email accounts, you can often streamline things by routing them through one account. That's where a POP account earns its keep over and above a corporate IMAP one.
A web-based POP client such as GMX or Gmail can import messages from several sources - you just need to set it up for Forwarding and click on POP/IMAP. You'll find this under Gmail's Settings menu. Click Enable IMAP, Save Changes and then click on Accounts. Under Send Mail As, click Add Another Email Address. Enter your name and one of your other email addresses and follow the instructions to verify it. Repeat for any other addresses you want to be able to send from.
Next, to redirect mail through Gmail, turn on automatic forwarding and enter your Gmail address. If your main email client doesn't support this, there is a workaround. In Gmail, go to Accounts, Get Mail From Other Accounts, click Add Another Mail Account and follow the prompts to enter your address, password and other details.
Google Gears: Google Gears for Gmail provides offline access to your saved mail and queues new messages to be sent later. Install Google Gears and you'll be able to work with a range of Google apps offline.
Having downloaded and installed Google Gears, log into your Gmail (or Google Mail) account, click the Settings link at the top of the page, then click the Labs link. Look for the Offline option, select Enable and click Save Changes. Now click the Offline link at the top of the window. Click Next to confirm you want to set up offline access. If you want an optional shortcut, click Yes.
Now wait while your mail syncs; this can take several minutes. Depending on the volume of mail you store, Gmail may download only a portion of it. When synchronisation is finished, you can safely go offline.
On the road: Your email client will automatically know you're offline, allowing you to continue working with messages you've downloaded and queuing any outgoing messages for later delivery. Note that it may slow down for a while, trying (and failing) to connect to your mail servers. Other than that, you can work normally.
If you use Gmail's Offline feature, you can either double-click the Desktop shortcut (if you created one) or enter http://mail.google.com in your web browser's address field.
You can bring up any of the messages that Gmail stored locally, and any new messages you create will be sent when you connect to the internet again and load the Gmail page.
When you reconnect to the internet, your email client should automatically send any messages in your outbox, download new messages and update itself to reflect any filing and organisational changes you've made to your inbox.
Everything should sync automatically within a few minutes; if you still have messages waiting to be sent after 10 mins, quit the program and reopen it.
Web browsing offline
As well as accessing your email from afar, you probably also want to view your favourite websites. If all you need is information from a reasonably small selection of web pages, you can package up their content and take it with you to read, even when you lack internet access.
For example, the Safari browser lets you save a web page, including graphics, style sheets and other related files, in a ‘web archive'. To save an archive in Safari, simply choose File and Save As. In the Format pop-up menu at the bottom of the Save dialog, make sure ‘Web Archive' is selected. Select a name and a location to save the archive, then click Save. That's it.
Firefox can do much the same thing with the help of free add-ons. Once you install ScrapBook, you can save a page by choosing ScrapBook, Capture Page. The Breadcrumbs extension is even simpler. Browse to the pages you want to save and Breadcrumbs will save a copy of each one, which you can search for later.
Other options include Getleft, Webaroo and, for Mac users, Web Devil (£25). These can crawl an entire website and save it as a set of files on your hard disk. Bear in mind that you need to give these programs plenty of notice to get them to perform their tasks, however.
More email power tips and downloads
Bring Outlook into line: Many of us have a love-hate relationship with Outlook. Sometimes it crashes unexpectedly or takes an extra 20 secs to do something; but for the most part, many of us find Outlook a powerful, relatively intuitive email client.
Here are some of our favourite tweaks and lesser-known features for Outlook.
- Drag-and-drop anything: One of the biggest benefits in Outlook is that you can drag-and-drop almost any Outlook item from one folder into another. Drag an email into your contacts folder and Outlook will create the contact for you with the first and last names and email address.
Drag an email into the calendar folder and, again, an appointment is created for you with the body of the email entered into the notes of the calendar.
- Right-click anything: If in doubt, just right-click on an Outlook item and the menu that pops up will probably have the feature you want. Right-click the name in an email address and choose Add to Outlook Contact, and your contact will be created automatically. Right-click on a calendar item and you can print it and take it with you to your next appointment.
- Open multiple Outlook windows: Would you like to have your Inbox, Calendar and Contacts open all the time? You can: right-click the Calendar icon or Calendar folder and choose ‘Open in New Window' and another folder of Outlook opens. Do the same by right-clicking on the Contact icon and ‘Open in New Window'.
- Search for anything: If you get annoyed waiting an extra few seconds to find something, switching from an older version of Outlook to Outlook 2007 will pay dividends. It offers noticeably faster search. Just type any word into the Search box in your Inbox and/or any mail folder and Outlook immediately retrieves the right email.
You can do the same for Contacts, Calendar or Task items. The search box is in the upper left and will quickly perform your search. For example, in your Contact folders, just type ‘Edinburgh' and all of your Contacts that have Edinburgh in their address or notes will show up.
- Create extra folders of anything: You can create extra email folders by right-clicking on your folder list and choosing New Folder. However, you can also create other types of folders, such as another contact, calendar or task folder. To do so, right-click on any folder item and choose New Folder. Under ‘Folder Contains', choose Contact Items and select where you would like that New Contact Folder to be stored. The folder will then be visible.
Google Gears: Google Gears allows you to customise your Google home page and Gmail accounts. Crucially, it also allows you to access your email when you're not even connected to the web. Once you've downloaded it, you'll be prompted to download all your browser windows.
MailStore Home: Backing up email is difficult, and you can't search messages across multiple clients. MailStore Home solves both problems, importing messages from multiple systems and programs, storing them on your hard disk and letting you simultaneously search through them all. Once you've imported the mail, you can also back it up to a CD.
Outlook, Thunderbird, Windows Live Mail and other programs are supported. If you import from POP3 and IMAP accounts, some limitations apply - for example, you can import only your inbox. Additionally, you won't be able to import Outlook .pst files directly; instead, you'll have to import folders individually, which can take time.
If you've had enough of dealing with Outlook, it's easy enough to switch to an alternative email service. Mozilla Thunderbird 2.0 is yours for the price of a download and can import messages from multiple accounts. You'll need to know the address of your inbound and outbound email server and to have your user account details and password to hand.
Go to Tools, Import to acquire messages from other accounts. Here, you can grab existing address books, entries and settings. Also useful is the File, Offline option that allows you to work with specific folders and contacts even while not connected to the internet or a network.
Gmail: If storage is your main bugbear, try Gmail. Gmail's success was initially built on the fact that you had a near limitless inbox at your disposal and could quickly and easily search through it to find a message or conversation you needed. If, like us, this has meant you use your Gmail (or Google Mail) account as a junk-mail address as well as for personal email, it's probably time to get filtering.
If unsubscribing from a mailing list has no apparent effect, you can banish unwanted messages by going to Settings at the top right and choosing Filters.
Postbox: Postbox is an invaluable tool for email hoarders. It's a downloadable desktop application that focuses on ways to search and organise your messages.
It's based on the same code as Mozilla Thunderbird, which means it's light and fast, but you'll find it far easier to locate messages using Postbox. It has an amazing ability to sniff out every piece of mail you've ever sent, received or begun to compose.
A Picasa-style thumbnail preview pane lets you preview attachments, saving you the hassle of looking through lists of randomly named temp files.
Use CC:Betty to turn emails into an online message board
CC:Betty provides an elegant way to turn your emails into online discussion threads, complete with storage for videos, photos and files. It seems to do this both easily and well. Compose your email as usual, add attachments, then CC ‘[email protected]', letting the service know that the email and its attachments now have a place on the CC:Betty site.
Your friends can either reply to your email in the usual way, or go to the website and make a comment or upload new content. It works smoothly and clearly, with one minor caveat. As we were testing CC:Betty, we got a message from Betty: "Ed Albro just added a message to this discussion, but you weren't CCed on it." Then she proceeded to repeat the message we weren't CCed on. It's possible we weren't CCed for a reason, and the person who decided not to CC us might be a little fed up that we got the message anyway. Loose lips sink ships, Betty.
It's also not entirely clear why people would want to use CC:Betty. Presumably, by parsing images and files out of the emails in which you shared them, you make it slightly easier for people to lay their digital hands on them. But different users like to work in different ways, and such a tool may be of use to some people. That's why we've included it here.