Remember the good old days, when you only had one e-mail address to keep track of?
Those were good days all right. E-mail was a brand new method of communication for most people in the early 1990s, and finding others who actually had an e-mail address was a bit of a challenge. Spam — all that unwanted commercial e-mail — was practically unheard of, and no one cared to rudely ask if you were paying too much at the pump for gasoline, or if you wanted a date with a stranger.
Now it's pretty common for a person to have more e-mail addresses than they can comfortably keep track off. There's the account at work, then the personal account. Then there's the litany of secondary accounts, often on Web mail services like Microsoft's Hotmail or Yahoo!. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.) Then that old e-mail account from college is probably still around, thanks to your friendly alumni organization, and perhaps from one or two Web domains you happen to own.
If that scenario sounds familiar, you've probably found it a time-consuming chore to keep track of all these accounts. Some Internet mail services, including e-mail addresses on personal Web domains, will let you access your messages from regular e-mail programs like Microsoft's Outlook Express or Qualcomm's Eudora. Some also offer the option of having all e-mail forwarded to one address.
With Mailblocks.com's new service that we've tested for about one week, its best feature, we think, is its flexibility to work with other e-mail accounts. We got it working with accounts on Hotmail and imported not only new mail but the address book from that account and two additional accounts. We also forwarded mail from a few personal Web domains to our test Mailblocks account. Using the rules feature, we had mail for each account delivered automatically to its own folder. This worked perfectly. The interface is easy enough for novices and almost complex enough for power users, though more options for creating rules would make it better. Mailblocks also lets you set almost any address — it doesn't work with Hotmail or Yahoo! addresses — as you're "reply to" address, meaning people you send mail to don't have know you're sending from Mailblocks.
Mailblocks' main selling point, however, is its approach to handling spam, or potential spam. By default it uses an approached called "challenge and response," which some power users find more annoying than effective. Under this approach, anyone who sends you e-mail gets an automatic reply back asking the sender to click to a special Web address to prove they're a human, and not a computer sending automated messages. Once they jump through that hoop, the sender is authorized to send mail to that person.
Using Mailblocks to receive your e-mail, mail from unrecognized senders is directed to a mail folder labeled "pending." If you're the type of e-mail user who only expects to receive mail from a limited number of people you've already authorized, you can ignore this folder entirely, as mail that lands there gets automatically deleted after 14 days. But in practice you're going to want to review the contents of that folder regularly. We found ourselves doing so several times per day.
And therein lays our one major criticism of Mailblocks. Mail moved to a pending folder merely switches the battleground on which you fight spam. When spam arrives, your options are somewhat limited. You can "reject and delete," meaning that further e-mail from that sender will be ignored and deleted without going to your pending folder. But since spammers are constantly morphing the addresses they use anyway, this isn't as powerful a response as it might seem. The answer, as we said above is, to mostly ignore your pending folder and just review it every few days.
We also liked the trackers feature, which lets you create e-mail addresses with your base account name and a few extra characters that you can give to Web sites that might send you spam. This lets you sign up for various e-commerce sites. Should you start getting spam on that account, you can simply turn that address off, and further mail to them is simply bounced back as undeliverable. This feature in our tests worked perfectly.
Finally we can't say enough about the price. Mailblocks has a free service, but its premium service, which costs $25 for one year, gives you 100 megabytes of mail storage. That same level of storage costs $60 per year on Yahoo! Mail Plus and Hotmail premium services. Overall, Mailblocks is a great service that should attract some converts away from its two better-known rivals.