First, the good news: Spam stoppers don't get more effective than Mailblocks, which employs whitelists, or lists of approved senders, and a challenge/response system to sort the good mail from the garbage. Like Qurb and MailFrontier Matador, this service trapped 100 percent of spam in our tests (and a ton of legit mail to boot). And, unlike Microsoft Outlook plug-ins Qurb and Matador, Mailblocks' Web-based system works with up to three external e-mail accounts, including POP3 e-mail, AOL, MSN, and Yahoo. You can also use Mailblocks as a standalone e-mail service ($10 a year for one e-mail address and 12MB of storage; $25 a year for 50MB). Unfortunately, we had a lot of technical-support calls, and we found that Mailblocks is missing some obvious features. And while you may not run into the same problems we did, you'll have to pay to find out, as Mailblocks offers no free trial period. We'll pass on this service, thanks, and recommend SpamKiller or standalone app Qurb instead.
If you plan to use Mailblocks as your sole e-mail system, setup is a breeze. Just click the sign-up link on the Mailblocks site, fill out a screenful of information, hand over 10 bucks, and you're ready to rock.
But using Mailblocks to filter mail from other existing e-mail accounts is another story. After the sign-up procedure, you'll have to sign in on the Web site, click the Options tab, select External Accounts, then enter your username, password, and server information (for POP3 accounts). We tried to sign up accounts from AOL, MSN, Yahoo, and EarthLink. On our first try, only MSN worked. Only after sending several e-mail messages to tech support and futzing with our firewall settings were we able to add the other accounts to the service.
After you add an external account, you'll want to import your address book so that Mailblocks will add your contacts to your whitelist (a.k.a. the Accept Mail list). If you're adding a Web-based account such as Yahoo or MSN, this is a no-brainer; just click "Import addresses from contacts," and they're added automatically. But if you want to add contacts from a POP3 account, such as EarthLink, you must type in the addresses yourself.
Unlike many Web mail services, Mailblocks' interface is free from ads and other annoyances.
You could also send e-mail to everyone in your address book so that Mailblocks automatically adds everyone in the To: field to your whitelist, but this is a pain if you have a lot of contacts. Mailblocks says it's working on an automated way to add contacts from Outlook and Outlook Express but can't say when the feature will be available.
In operation, the Mailblocks interface looks like a stripped-down version of a standard Web mail client such as Yahoo Mail or Hotmail, with an in-box and several folders, including Deleted Items, Drafts, Sent Items, and Pending, where the service stashes challenged mail while it waits for responses. To check your mail, just click a button and wait a few moments. At first, nearly all your messages will go into the Pending folder.
Inexplicably, however, Mailblocks won't tell you when there's new mail in Pending. You could have hundreds of messages in there and not know it until you remember to check. This is one of several odd design decisions that makes Mailblocks difficult to use.
Mailblocks stops spam using a challenge-and-response system. When you get mail from someone not on your whitelist, Mailblocks e-mails that person a challenge. The challenge directs senders to a Web site where they must enter a series of numbers displayed onscreen. When the challenge is met, Mailblocks adds the contact to your whitelist and moves the message to your in-box. This means you will almost never get spammed, as most spam is sent via machine and can't meet the challenge. It also means that a lot of legit e-mail will be challenged, which may irk some of your contacts.
Unfortunately, this feature in Mailblocks is also buggy. When we added our Yahoo account, Mailblocks went through our Yahoo Mail in-box and sent challenges to every message, even some we'd read more than six months ago. Mailblocks should have added the names to our whitelist, unchallenged. Not surprisingly, this resulted in a fair amount of confusion among people who received the challenges. Fortunately, the company has identified the cause of this bug and says that a fix will be available by the time you read this.
But that's not all. We also sent mail to our Mailblocks in-box from several of our external accounts; the messages went into the Pending folder, but no challenge was ever sent back. At press time, Mailblocks was still trying to figure out what went wrong.
Mailblocks uses challenges such as this one to separate real mail from the junk.
The other problem with challenge/response is that you may get machine-generated mail that isn't spam, such as CNET's Software Newsletter. Here you have two options: You can manually add the sender's domain to your whitelist or create a Tracker that will automatically bypass the challenge/response system and funnel this mail into a special folder. Trackers require you to create a special e-mail address for each newsletter, then change the address on your newsletter subscription to match it. Unfortunately, this procedure is an essential piece of information that you won't find anywhere on the Mailblocks site. We learned it from technical support.
On a more positive note, Mailblocks is optimized for dial-up access and claims to be faster at 56K than most Web mail services are via cable or DSL. We tested this and found it to be mostly true, though the difference isn't substantial enough to really matter.
And we should remind you that Mailblocks stopped 100 percent of the spam headed for our in-box. It also blocked a lot of legitimate mail, and that's where Mailblocks still has issues.
We have to give Mailblocks credit for consistency--we also found bugs in its service and support offerings. First, if you want support, don't click the Help tab; for some reason, it's located under Contact Us instead. There, you'll be presented with five options; four of them lead to tech-support e-mail links, and the fifth ("I cannot access my account at all") leads you to a live chat session (available Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT). We found the sole support technician courteous, helpful, knowledgeable, and generous with his time.
If you need help with Mailblocks--and you probably will--skip the Help tab and click Contact Us, then proceed to the live chat session during business hours.
On the other hand, our e-mail queries went unanswered during the promised 24-hour turnaround period. Worse, the site's chat software didn't work correctly on our Windows 98 test system; every time one of the chatters entered text, the page jumped abruptly down and to the right, making the session impossible to read without a lot of scrolling. Your mileage may vary.