April 19, 2004

Free E-mail Utilities for Your PC

When traveling, I've often used web-based e-mail services to check and respond to e-mail. It's handy and ubiquitous, but the problem is that unless I remember to CC: myself, my outgoing messages are saved somewhere else (unless I happen to be using an integrated system like Outlook and Outlook Web Access, in which case it's all stored on the same Exchange server). In some cases, however, it's just plain convenient to send e-mail from your regular e-mail program.

If you're a mobile user and use a standalone e-mail program like Eudora, you may eventually encounter the need to turn your PC into your very own outgoing mail server without having to be a certified network engineer. This is useful if your ISP locks its outgoing e-mail server and you're trying to access it without being logged in their system. For example, you might be trying to send e-mail from within another network (corporate LAN, Wi-Fi, hotel broadband provider, etc.) and denied access. Some ISPs do this to prevent spammers from accessing their e-mail servers from the outside and exploit them as open relays. Another reason could be that you need to do some mass-mailing of e-mail newsletters, and some systems put limits on the number of concurrent recipients per e-mail.

I'll describe the above mail server software in a moment, but here's yet another goodie I recently discovered: YahooPOPs!. Yahoo! Mail disabled free access to its POP3 service in April 2002, which left a number of people with e-mail stranded on their system unless they wanted to ante up for the paid service, or manually forward all of their Yahoo! e-mails. From its web site:

"YahooPOPs! is an open-source initiative to provide free POP3 and SMTP access to your Yahoo! Mail account. YahooPOPs! is available on the Windows and Unix platforms.

YahooPOPs! emulates a POP3/SMTP server and enables popular email clients like Outlook, Netscape, Eudora, Mozilla, IncrediMail, Calypso, etc., to download and send emails from Yahoo! accounts.

How do we do it you ask? Well, this application is more like a gateway. It provides a POP3/SMTP server interface at one end to talk to email clients and an HTTP client (browser) interface at the other which allows it to talk to Yahoo!"

Now with this said, I'm not an IP attorney, nor do I play one online. It's possible that YahooPOPs! usage could be adverse to Yahoo!'s terms of service, especially since Yahoo! provides POP3 access as a paid service (and frankly, the paid service is not that expensive). So I'm going to let you, the reader, make the call for yourself and even go so far to tell you to obtain legal advice at your option. All I'm saying is that it's available for download as an open source SourceForge project. I haven't tried it myself yet, having just stumbled across it while searching for free SMTP software, and found it to be sufficiently interesting to comment upon here.

Getting back to the mail server programs for your PC: There are two free programs, Free SMTP Server and the freeware version of the PostCast Server. Both are SMTP server programs for your PC, which means that you can send e-mails directly from your PC without needing to connect to your ISP's or web host's outgoing mail server. (SMTP = Simple Mail Transfer Protocol). After installation all you generally need to do is change a single setting in your desired e-mail program: Change the SMTP server name to "localhost" (without the quotes), and you're ready to go. Need to change it back? Just type back in the setting you used previously (usually something similar to smtp.yourispdomain.com).

I tried both Free SMTP Server and the free PostCast Server. Free SMTP Server is tiny and basic, doesn't muck up system files, and works on all flavors of Windows (95/98/ME/NT/2000/XP). It only has two sets of options, one for the DNS server, and one for the SMTP port to use. As such, it doesn't put any noticeable strain on the PC. It was drop-dead simple to use and it worked well. I just needed to configure a very simple firewall rule to let Free SMTP Server send data out port 25, the standard port used for sending e-mail. For security reasons, I did not configure it to allow any incoming traffic.

However, you may have more sophisticated needs depending on the network you're using and your particular setup. In that case, the free PostCast Server may be worth a look. Like Free SMTP Server above, it runs on Windows 95/98/ME/NT/2000/XP. It is definitely more fully-featured and sports a familiar Outlook-style interface. However, I noticed it uses more CPU resources by comparison and its 15MB program download installs many Windows system files. But if you're looking for a free SMTP server option for your PC with some flexibility and muscle, you might just want to check it out.

Both of these freeware programs have even more fully-featured commercial versions, Advanced SMTP Server and PostCast Server Professional. You may have need of these if your environment is more sophisticated. For example, Advanced SMTP Server provides the following features not found in the free version, but these generally require a higher level of tech knowledge:

- SMTP gateways
- Multiple mail folders
- DNS caching
- Firewall and proxy support
- Automatic detection of DNS addresses
- 50 parallel threads for sending
- More control in system tray mode
- Balloon tooltips
- Client-server communication logs
By the way, it's easy to forget which e-mail server types are for sending or receiving e-mail. For a very quick primer on e-mail server jargon, here's an easy mnemonic: SMTP servers start with an "S" which I remember for "Send". Conversely, you "Pull" (or download) e-mail from a POP server, which starts with a "P". And as you learned here, you don't need to use servers from the same provider to use e-mail bi-directionally. Sending and receiving e-mail messages are two independent functions, which is why these the above programs can come in handy. Of course it helps if you're also somewhat tech savvy.

Topic(s):   Mobile Tech & Gadgets
Posted by Jeff Beard