Mass-market service providers such as CompuServe and America Online are a good alternative for businesspeople who have more to do than deal with teh Internet. A commercial service makes it easy to get online, take care of your mail, and get back to work. With the exception of MCI Mail, all of the services reviewed here offer news, hobby groups, reference works -- and e-mail.
Cost: $9.95 per month including five hours free access time (no per-message charge); $2.95 each additional hour.
Ease of Use: Good. Simply point and click to read and send messages. AOL popularized the use of graphics online, but it won't necessarily increase your productivity. You can still waste plenty of time searching through pretty menus.
Address Book: Poor. You can keep your own list of addresses here, but why bother? AOL doesn't alphabetize them and you can't add such details as phone numbers and business addresses.
Organizational Skills: Poor. AOL's software uses a folder approach, but if you receive and store a significant amount of mil its slow performance and inability to filter messages will frustrate you.
Messaging: Good. You can compose and read messages offline; use the "flash session" feature to upload and download messages automatically.
Attachments: Good. AOL lets you send any kind of large attached file, including Internet MIME files. This feature alone puts it ahead of CompuServe and Prodigy. One limitation: you can send just one attachment per message.
Bottom Line: With its cute graphics and reasonable prices, AOL is handy for occasional e-mail use and a real asset for sending attached files. Heavy users will quickly become annoyed by its disorganized post office and address book.
Cost: $9.95 per month for 3 hours (additional hours $2.95 each)or $24.95 per month for 20 hours (additional hours $1.95 each).
Ease of Use: Passable. Struggling to keep up, much of CompuServe's interface belies its age. One exception: forwarding and replying to messages is a snap.
Address Book: Poor. Like AOL, there's no consideration for adding phone numbers and regular mailing addresses.
Organizational Skills: Poor. Moving messages around among folders is difficult. If you need to track messages, the software won't help you.
Messaging: Adequate. You can compose and edit messages offline, as well as download e-mail and then sign off to save connection charges.
Attachments: Poor. CompuServe cannot handle Internet MIME attachments, restricting it to members.
Bottom Line: CompuServe has the most established online service, and its age shows. It has tried to keep its prices competitive. The regular monthly plan allows you to send 90 free messages of up to three pages each. But once you exceed the limit, you'll feel as if you're getting "nickel and dimed" to death.
Prodigy Services Co.
Cost: $9.95 per month for five hours of access time or $30 per month for 30 hours plus $2.95 for each additional hour (no per-message charge).
Ease of Use: Mediocre. Advertising tends to clog Prodigy's interface, although recently the company has done much to improve its look and performance.
Address Book: Adequate. As with CompuServe and AOL, you don't get a lot of detail in Prodigy's address book. But it does store Internet addresses.
Organizational Skills: Mediocre. You can't route your mail or search through stacks of stored messages.
Messaging: Mixed. To read mail offline you must download Prodigy's $14.95 E-Mail Connection software. It's worth it, especially of you have lots of mail traffic. But it should be part of the free software.
Attachments: Poor. Like many other service providers, Prodigy doesn't yet support MIME attachments for Internet mail.
Bottom Line: While it's improving, Prodigy has a way to go before it delivers full e-mail capabilities. You can easily set up mailing lists, however, and a spell-checker helps catch typos.
Cost: $35 a year; charges for each message start at 50 cents for the first 500 characters or bytes.
Ease of Use: Poor. To use MCI Mail's features with ease, you need to buy software from a third party such as E-Mail Connection (estimated additional cost, $20 to $90).
Address Book: Incomplete. Available solely with a third-party software.
Organizational Skills: Incomplete. Again, it depends on the software you buy. Sophisticated packages such as E-Mail Connection help you put all your messages in the right place.
Messaging: Good. With third-party software, you can compose and edit offline. MCI Mail offers extensive handling options, like separate billing codes, so you can itemize your e-mail costs to individual clients.
Attachments: Adequate. You can add as many attachments to a message as you like. While MCI doesn't support MIME files, it does handle the older Internet standard, dubbed "uuencoding."
Bottom Line: MCI Mail was the first to make a viable method of communication for business users. Offering the most extensive e-mail handling online, it lets you send an e-mail message as a fax, snail mail, or even as a page. Serious users will find it's still the best e-mail service option, although the charges can pile up quickly.
The Microsoft Network
Cost: $4.95 per month including three free hours of use per month (each additional hour is $2.50); or $39.95 per year including 3 free hours per month (each additional hour $2.50); no per-message charge.
Ease of Use: Mediocre. MSN's layers of windows can cause confusion and delays, but most of its e-mail handling is straightforward.
Address Book: Adequate. You can add plenty of details about your recipients, but MSN's penchant for displaying multiple folders is unwieldy.
Organizational Skills: Needs work. You can build folders and shuffle mail around, but you can't filter out certain messages -- much as Microsoft's self-aggrandizing notices.
Messaging: Good. Using MSN's in-box, you can compose and read messages offline. Single-click buttons also make it easy to perform common tasks such as forwarding a message.
Attachments: Adequate. Although the service's Internet connections can be shaky at times, you can attach a MIME file -- or any other type of document - with ease.
Bottom Line: Microsoft's muddled strategy as an online service/access provider is reflected in MSN's limited content, poor performance (it can take minutes for screens to pop up), and occasional Internet messaging hiccups. If you're serious about e-mail, take another route.