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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.
There's solid integration with other AOL services, such as blogging directly to AOL Journals. It's a snap to add photos from your AOL Pictures account. Just click the Insert Pictures button while writing a message, drag in a photo, and click the picture to change the size, alignment, and text wrapping.
You can link your AOL and AIM screen names, and also feed messages from third-party accounts into your AOL in-box. AOL is rolling out built-in chatting so you don't have to open AIM separately. However, for now, this beta feature is only available if you log into the e-mail at beta.webmail.aol.com instead of the usual mail.aol.com.
While composing messages, you can format text and--unlike Gmail--add emoticons, too. Click the Spelling button while writing a note, and AOL underlines suspect words in red and offer a menu of alternatives. AOL is also adding more keyboard shortcuts, so that you can send a message by holding down CTRL-Enter, and so on.
But if you receive MP3 and other multimedia files, you'll be prompted to play them with a separate application, such as the Windows Music Player. AOL Mail doesn't offer its own audio player, as Gmail and Windows Live Hotmail do.
Luckily, unlike the spam flooding our Yahoo Mail and Gmail in-boxes lately, we didn't receive a ton of junk in our AOL account. But it's hard to tell if our account was just too young to receive what seems like the inevitable flood of spam into any service's in-box. For instance, AOL did not block fake spam messages that we sent as tests from various other personal accounts, containing suspicious words and ad pitches in English, Hebrew, Russian, and French. But AOL Web Mail did filter some legitimate messages from a personal Yahoo Mail account as spam.
Service and support
AOL Mail's Settings pages provide clearly explained options for managing interface and security preferences. But security is tight--too tight--for reaching online support. We had to answer a personal question whose answer we had forgotten. After several quick attempts at accessing the support center, once again AOL shut us out of our account for 24 hours. Other services at least offer to send you a reminder to jog your memory. As long as you sign in properly, however, AOL offers well-organized, searchable FAQs.
Overall, the features within AOL Web Mail are competitive with those of its close competitors. The convenient integration with other AOL services such as AIM or AOL Pictures should keep current users from jumping to rival brands. Still, we won't rely on AOL Mail for personal use because we didn't run into a fraction of its sign-in suffering with either Yahoo Mail beta, Windows Live Hotmail, or Gmail.