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A Few Email Basics

Electronic mail has been around since the late 1970s, although many folks didn't discover it until the mid-1990s. Originally, email was limited to short plain text messages, and users could only exchange email with other members of a given service, such as AOL or Compuserve.

Nowadays, however, email has become such an integral part of our daily lives that many of us have given up using traditional mail unless it's absolutely necessary. The downside of email, of course, is spam, although many of the various email services have gotten very good at filtering it out and putting it in a special folder. More on spam later.

Windows & Outlook Express

Since the mid-90s, all Windows 95/98/XP computers have been shipped with the Internet Explorer browser and the Outlook Express email program. Ergo, if you have Windows 95/98/XP, you have Outlook Express, even if you've never used it.

Users of Windows 7 and later can download Windows Live Mail from

Outlook Express should not be confused with Outlook, which is also a Microsoft product, but which is a business-oriented "contact management database" that also has email capabilities.

Nowadays there are dozens of free  web-based  email programs, including Microsoft's Hotmail, Google's Gmail, and AOL's AIM, along with similar services by Yahoo, and Juno.

What is Web-Based Email?

Well, nearly all email is sent and received via the WWW (World Wide Web) nowadays. However, users of email programs such as Outlook Express, Eudora, Incredimail, and Thunderbird have all incoming messages arrive in an Inbox on their own computers.

If you are using Gmail, however, your incoming messages remain on a Google server somewhere in cyberspace until you get online and download them. The same applies to Hotmail, whose messages are on a Microsoft server. Yahoo, and AIM email likewise have their messages on sites with corresponding names.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Web-based Email

ADVANTAGE: Web-based email, such as Google's Gmail, can be accessed from any computer connected to the Internet, whereas Outook Express was designed to receive and store messages on an individual computer. Bear in mind that messages stored on a particular computer could be lost forever in case of theft, fire, flood, or hard drive failure.

Nonetheless, although OE messages are destined for one computer, they can usually be retrieved from your ISP's web site. For instance, Cox subscribers can log onto In the Find It Fast box there will be a link to Webmail.

POTENTIAL DISADVANTAGE: Since webmail can be accessed from any computer with an online connection, your inbox could be accessed by anyone who knows your user ID and password. With someone you trust, however, this could actually be an advantage. If you and another person want to exchange messages using a single email account, you simply write a message and send it to yourself. Since your correspondent has access the same account, he or she will be able to read any such message, and reply in the same manner.

Fancy Formatting

Nowadays everyone knows you can use fancy fonts in emails, along with special colors and/or graphics. This type of formatting is done with HTML (hypertext markup language), which is a code used to create web pages and which also underlies most of today's email.

However, not all HTML looks the same to all email programs. This is why sometimes the big red HAPPY BIRTHDAY you put in an outgoing message may appear as plain black to the recipient. Someday, hopefully, all HTML will look the same to everyone. For now, though, it usually does — but don't bet the farm on it.

Different Ways to Save Your Email Messages

It would be nice if all email systems worked the same way, so we could all learn just one set of rules for saving and backing up our messages. Sadly, things are not that simple. Here are some of the options:

Let's start with the easiest. Google was the first to offer users 15 gigabytes of free online storage space — way more than the average person is likely to use in a lifetime. Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, Netscape Mail, and AIM Mail were quick to follow with large, free online mailboxes. All these services allow users to create their own online folders for keeping messages filed in an orderly way.

However, if you want to back up copies of your web-based email on a disk, there are a few things to consider:

There was a time when web-based email services provided relatively little storage space, and would bounce incoming messages that exceeded the limit. They would also tell subscribers they could have more storage for an annual fee. Google changed all that when they began offering 2.5 GB of free storage, and caused other services to offer similar benefits.

Since these services offer to maintain our email forever (as long as the account remains active) saving copies on a disk may be less of an imperative than it was in years past. Nonetheless, individual Yahoo, Hotmail, and Gmail messages can be saved by clicking File>Save As, naming the message, choosing a location for it, and designating it as either a Plain Text file or an HTML file.

If TXT is chosen, a copy of the web page on which the message appears will be downloaded, with graphics and special formatting removed. Choosing HTML will download the web page complete with all its animated graphics, links, and colorful advertising displays.

Save Important Email in a Word Processing Document or, better yet, in an online Google Docs file.

My preferred method of saving messages stored on remote servers is to copy and paste only the actual message onto a word processing page, and to ignore all the Web site's advertising. Simply mouse-select the important text, right-click the selection, and choose COPY. Then, right-click into an open text document and choose PASTE. You can then save the text document as a separate file, or you can stack your messages so that many are saved in a single document.

Turn Multiple Messages into a Single File

You can, of course, stack received messages in one document and copies of sent messages in another and/or create documents containing only mail from a particular friend or business contact. Such backup options are limited only by one's own imagination.

If such a document becomes so large that finding a particular message is difficult, you can use Ctrl+F to generate a FIND box, and then type in a target word or phrase.

Regarding the File>Save As options explained above, they don't exist in Netscape or AIM web-based email, but Copy and Paste commands work just fine.

If you later want to open one of these saved messages, simply double-click it. Messages with a .txt extension will launch Notepad and display plain black text on a plain white page.

Double-clicking a message saved with the extension .htm (or .html) will launch Internet Explorer (unless you have designated another browser as your default) and will display the file as a web page, complete with any special formatting it may have contained.

Outlook Express Has Even More Backup Features

Messages created or opened in Outlook Express have two additional backup solutions — one happens automatically, while the other is left to your discretion.

Let's Start with the Easiest Method...

Every message in an Outlook Express Inbox (or inside any other OE folder) has a filename and an extension of EML. The filename is whatever text is in the message's Subject Line.

For instance, an incoming message with, say, Special Reminder in the Subject Line will be named Special Reminder.eml.

If you click anywhere on a message's name, you can drag the message onto your Desktop (or into a folder on your Desktop) where it will be shown with a white envelope icon, along with its .eml filename.

When a message is dragged onto your Desktop, it is actually a copy of the OE message. The original message remains unaffected in your OE Inbox (or whichever folder it happened to be in).

This means you can drag copies of all your important messages into a special folder, which can then be copied onto another disk, while all the originals will be left in their original OE folders.

How Do I Make a Special Folder on my Desktop?

Right-click anywhere on your Desktop, choose New>Folder, and type in a name for the folder. Now you can grab the folder with your mouse pointer and move it to any location you prefer on your Desktop.

You can drag multiple emails into a folder all at once by pressing Ctrl as you click on them one at a time. Finally, when you left-click any selected message and drag it, all the others will move right along with it.

If all the target messages are contiguous, press Shift while you click on the top one. Continue holding down Shift as you click the bottom one and all the messages in between will be selected as well. Then you can click anywhere into the selection and drag all the files at once, as explained above.

Watch Out for Duplicate Filenames

If you have lots of emails to place in a given folder, you may have more than one with the same Subject Line. If you try to drag a message into a folder that contains one with the same name you'll get a warning that the previous message will be overwritten by the newer one if you continue.

You can get around this by clicking Forward on the message you want to add to the folder, and sending it to yourself. The term Fw: will be added to the Subject Line text, thus changing the email's filename. If you have lots of messages with the same Subject Line, you can change the text on each one after clicking Forward.

Can I Drag OE Folders onto the Desktop?

Would that we could. Sadly, Outlook Express does not allow this.

DBX Files

Outlook Express's automatic backup system  compresses  all the files in a given folder into one large file, gives the file the same name of the folder, and adds the extension .DBX to it. As an example, all the messages in your Inbox will be crunched into a single file and named Inbox.dbx. This encrypted file will then be placed in a folder named Outlook Express, which is nested deep within several cryptically-named folders.

Likewise, compressed files with names such as Outbox.dbx, Sent Items.dbx, and Deleted Items.dbx will be placed in this folder, along with similarly-named files matching any special folders you created. This compressing and storing of DBX files normally happens quietly in the background — however, you may occasionally be told this procedure needs to take place, and be asked if you would like to do it now or later. Either way, the end result is an ongoing compressing and backing up of all your Outlook Express messages as DBX files.

Do We Actually Need These DBX Files?

Well, They Might Come in Handy...

1 - It's conceivable that your Outlook Express program and/or its messages could become corrupted or unusable in some way. If this did happen, you could reinstall Outlook Express and copy your DBX files into the newly created program.

2 - Because DBX files are compressed, they take up less disk space. However, with today's huge hard drives and flash drives, this is less of an issue than it used to be.

3 - If moving all your Outlook Express messages from one computer to another is important, it may be easier to move a few DBX files than to move hundreds of individual EML files.

Copying Outlook Express Folders to a New Computer

Although your DBX files are in a folder buried several layers deep on most computers, they can be found by clicking Start and going to Search>All Files & Folders (or Find>Files & Folders on Win98 PCs) and typing Outlook Express into the Name or Partial Name field. Once found, the folder can be copied onto a CD or a flash drive or an external hard drive, whereupon it can be copied onto the new computer's hard drive.

Of course, they can also be copied onto a 3.5-inch floppy disk, but most new computers don't have a floppy drive. The floppy has basically gone the way of the 8-track and the Betamax. (And you never know — CDs and DVDs could eventually be obsoleted by a newer technology.)

If the target computer already has Outlook Express installed, the Outlook Express folder can be pasted to replace the existing one, meaning the user would be able to have all his or her previous message folders ready for use on the new PC.

If, however, you has already begun using OE on the new computer, here's how to avoid overwriting files and folders with others of the same name: Copy and paste the Outlook Express folder onto your Desktop, and then open it with a double-click. Rename all the .DBX files you see by adding, say, -old to their filenames.

Next, copy and paste all the old .dbx files into the new computer's Outlook Express folder. Now inbox-old.dbx will appear right along with inbox.dbx. The latter would receive all new incoming messages, while the former can be double-clicked to access all the older inbox files.

It's important to understand that all .dbx files are compressed and encrypted in such a way that they can only be read when opened within OE. Double-clicking a .dbx file will only produce a bunch of illegible code. It's also a good idea to backup all your .dbx files onto another disk periodically, in case of a computer crash, or if you ever need to copy them onto yet another PC.

The text on this page was created with a
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(purchased at
and edited with Google Drive & Google Docs.

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