AOL e-mail has come a long way since it was exclusive to paid subscribers of AOL Internet access. AOL opened up this free Web-based e-mail more than two years ago to anyone interested in signing up for it. Once you're in, the features of AOL Web Mail are competitive with those of its popular competitors, perhaps enough to keep current users from defecting.
Setup and interface
However, for several weeks, we could not set up a new AOL Web Mail account. This happened using Firefox and Internet Explorer on several different computers and types of Internet connections. To start, we could neither remember nor retrieve forgotten passwords from AOL and AIM accounts that we had established years earlier. Instead, we tried to create accounts with more than a dozen different usernames; some were similar to our old handles, while others were novel and new.
Unfortunately, AOL's signup process rejected each attempt without explaining why. Strangely enough, later we were able to sign in using the same new usernames that AOL claimed earlier to reject. But if we had not been able to speak directly as media with AOL staff--whom the vast majority of users cannot contact--we would have given up after the first few tries and gone with a rival service. We thought we were going crazy until we heard similar complaints from other users. That said, after nearly a month of frustration and littering AOL Mail's rolls with useless and rejected usernames, lately we've been able to establish new AOL Mail accounts within several short minutes.
But we were furious that AOL blocked our account for 24 hours after we tried only three times to sign in with an incorrect password. What if some vital message was trapped in our account? We weren't even able to get a password reminder.
When you do sign in, similar to Yahoo Mail beta and Windows Live Hotmail, AOL Mail displays news alongside an ad within a "Today curtain" you can open and collapse without leaving the mail interface. Firefox crashed a few times when we tried to expand this curtain to check up on the news, but that might have been the fault of Firefox, not AOL.
AOL Web Mail is relatively easy to navigate, with folders on the left and messages in the center. Past iterations of AOL Mail used to delete read messages after several days. Now AOL separates messages into New Mail and Old Mail sections, which confused us at first. While this wasn't our cup of tea, you might welcome this setup if you want to separate read and untouched messages automatically. Messages can be flagged manually for follow-up, although not color-coded, and they load faster than they used to, thanks to AJAX coding, but not as speedily as in Gmail.
When you read a message, AOL either displays it all within the in-box or lets you pop it out within a new window. An Action drop-down box provides options for organizing messages. In case you're interrupted, AOL lets you keep multiple messages popped out at the same time, although we prefer Yahoo's tabbed organization for this purpose.
It's easy to resize the columns to your liking. You can scroll through in-box messages rather than clicking from one page to the next. And we like that a narrow, right-hand column connects to lists of People, Events, and To-Do items. You can click any of those items to display and manage them. There's news from gossip site TMZ, but no integration (yet) with RSS feeds of your choice, which Yahoo Mail and Gmail allow.
A graphical banner ad tops the page, while smaller ads appear in the lower left corner of the screen. These may be distracting, but at least AOL does not serve ads based upon the text content of your e-mail, which Gmail does.