BOOT CAMP 159 (25/01/01)


E-mail – the basics part 1


It's all very well for us to prattle on week after week about all the clever things you can do with electronic mail or 'e-mail' but for a very large number of people the whole idea of sending words and pictures anywhere in the world, over ordinary telephone lines, remains a daunting mystery. For the next couple of weeks it's back to basics, with a hopefully painless, plain English introduction to email.


It's not as complicated as some people like to make out, you don't need to understand the technicalities, nor do you need to be able to type or know how to work a computer in order to use email (though both can make life easier).


So what can it do for you? Email has very many uses, but one of the most practical applications, and the one that has caught most people's imagination is the facility to keep in touch with friends, family and colleagues anywhere in the world, at very little cost and messages are delivered to the recipient's 'mailbox' more or less instantaneously, (though like any mail system, or fax, there's no guarantee they will be read straight away).


Most email messages are in the form of text but they can be accompanied by pictures, diagrams any kind of visual image in fact, including movie clips. You can even send sounds and there's two-way videophone facility but we're getting ahead of ourselves. Most users confine themselves to sending or receiving text messages and the occasional family photograph, and that's the side of email we'll be focussing on this week. Suffice it to say that email has changed the lives of millions of people around the world; it's fast, cheap, effective, and easy to use and once you've got the hang of it, it can be a lot of fun!


The mechanics of email cause a certain amount of confusion, so we'll take a moment to look at how a simple text messages gets from one place to another. Basically there are four key elements to email. At both ends of the chain there are the 'terminals', the devices in your home or office on which messages are written, sent and received – more about those in a moment. Terminals are connected – usually by an ordinary telephone line – to powerful 'server' computers and these act as gateways or portals to the third component, the Internet, which is the infrastructure of computers and high-speed data links that connect the server computers all around the world to one another.


The fourth element is an account with an Internet Service Provider or ISP, which you must have in order to send and receive email. ISPs are the companies that operate the server computers and an ISP account will provide you with an email addresses, rather like a telephone number except that it's usually made up of letters that identifies you and your server. Incidentally, having an account will give you access to the Internet but there's no obligation to have anything to do with it if you don't want to, the Internet is merely a means of transporting messages. Server computers are where email messages that are sent to you are stored, in electronic 'mailboxes'. Messages remain in your personal mailbox until you log on to the server and download the contents into your terminal, so they can be read.


Until recently an email terminal meant a PC but in the last couple of years a bewildering number of gadgets have appeared that can also send and receive email. Some of them are quite good and appear to be very cheap or convenient but there are a few points to bear in mind. Firstly, email devices and systems that plug into or use domestic TVs (Internet boxes, digital TV, cable TV services etc.) are not usually very good at displaying computer text or graphics and messages can be hard to read.


Second, many non-PC devices (mobile phones, email phones etc.) are unable to display pictures or graphics and can only be used to send and receive plain text. Third, most of them have limited or no internal storage capacity for messages and may not be able to print them out or. Fourth, the keyboards on some devices are often small badly designed and difficult to use, and lastly, you will normally have no choice over which service provider you use, which can be expensive and inconvenient.


In short, if you want to use email I strongly recommend that you get a computer. It doesn't have to be the latest or most powerful model, in fact almost any Windows PC or Apple Mac made within the past five years, capable of connecting to the Internet will do. If you shop around you can pick up discontinued and end of range Windows PCs, with all the trimmings, for as little as £250. True you will have a slightly steeper learning curve -- compared with some of the simpler email devices -- but these days the operating software is quite user-friendly and you really don't need to know much about PCs just to use email.


Hopefully a friend or relative will be able guide you through the basics of buying a PC and choosing an ISP and in most areas there are beginners courses and clubs where you will find lots of friendly help and support – check at your local library – and remember age is not a barrier. So-called 'silver surfers' now make up a very significant proportion of email and Internet users. You may be surprised how quickly you can pick it up, and you will discover that a PC can do a great many useful things besides sending and receiving email.


Next week – E-mail, part 2





Many non-PC email devices cannot store email messages as they have limited memory capacity, instead messages are kept on the server computer, though there may be a limit on the number of messages, and the space that they occupy and in some cases old messages will be deleted to make way for new ones.



Storage space on a server computer where your incoming messages are kept



Short low-resolution video sequences can be 'attached' to an email message, however the image is generally small jerky and of relatively poor quality




Here's a tip for those already familiar with email. If you receive a lot of messages on the same topic, or from the same sender, maybe you print out a lot of emails then there is a very convenient but little known feature in Outlook Express that allows you to combine messages into one document, for reading or printing. Open the mailbox containing the messages you want to combine and highlight them by hold down the Ctrl key and clicking on each one in turn. Now go to the Messsage menu and select Combine and Decode. You will be asked if you want to change the order of the messages, if not click OK and the new combined document will be created, use SaveAs on the file menu to save it as a new document.

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