Chapter 21 - E-mail

Why do retirees buy computers? In numerous surveys, the number one cited reason is so they can keep in touch with friends and family.

It might be a little intimidating at first, but when you can save 39-cents and the three-day wait time over the postal method, what's not to love?

If you're using an online service like AOL, your e-mail software is likely built into the service. If you're connecting to the Net through an ISP, you'll likely be either accessing your mail on the Web or using one of two e-mail programs - Outlook (or Outlook Express) or Mozilla Thunderbird.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser doesn't handle e-mail, instead leaving it to its companion program, Outlook Express (although the two are closely intertwined). An enhanced version of Outlook Express, called Outlook, ships with Microsoft Office and adds many different features such as an appointment calendar and task manager. To start either, double click the icon on the desktop.

Mozilla Thunderbird is made by the same group that created Firefox. To start Thunderbird, simply double click on its icon.

Anatomy of an e-mail address

Ask many new users what their e-mail address is, and you're likely to get a few blank stares. It's a good item to memorize, because once your friends and family know that you're on the Internet, they're going to ask you what your address is.

E-mail addresses are structured in two parts with the "at" symbol (@) in between. They typically look something like this:

The first part before the @ identifies the person on a particular e-mail provider. It could be their first name, first initial and last name, first name-dot-last name or something completely unrelated.

The second part after the @ identifies the e-mail provider, and that will be determined by your ISP or online service. It could be,, or any number of other providers. They'll all be "something-dot-something."

A couple of other e-mail address conventions: If someone uses the phrase "underscore" while telling you their e-mail address, they're referring to the "_" key, which is SHIFT-hyphen. If they say "dot," they mean the period key. There can be no spaces in an e-mail address.

Here are a few examples:


Try to choose a user name that's easy to remember as this will be the first part of your e-mail address. Once you've established a connection to the Internet and have launched your e-mail program, you're ready to send and receive mail.

Composing an e-mail

To create a message, click on the new message icon. It will bring up your electronic "stationery," which consists of the "To:" field, the "Subject" field, the body of your message and a couple of other fields we'll discuss later.

The field labeled "To:" is where you type the e-mail address of the person to which you're sending the message. The "Subject" field allows you to hint to what the message will be about, kind of like the "Re:" on an interoffice memo. You type the main part or body of your message in the large box.

By the way, you don't have to be online to compose a message. You could fire up your mail program and craft your message before signing on, then connect, send the message and disconnect.

E-mailing more than one person

If you want to send your message to more than one person, you can list multiple e-mail address in the "To:" field by separating them with semicolons.

You also can add e-mail address to the "Cc:" or carbon copy field. That signifies that the persons listed here are not the main recipients, but are receiving a copy as well. You still have to list at least one person in the "To:" field as the main recipient. Anyone receiving the message will see that it was sent to all those people.

Adding addresses to the "Bcc:" or blind carbon copy field works similarly, but each will not know it was sent to multiple people.

Sending the e-mail

Once you're done composing your e-mail, you can mail it by clicking on the Send. This moves the message to the Outbox for delivery.

Depending on how your e-mail program is configured, the message will be sent either instantly or when you click on Send/Receive. Of course, the recipient might not see it right away if they're not online.

Receiving e-mail

Most mail programs check to see if you have mail on the server when you launch them, but the settings can be adjusted. If you're already in your e-mail program but want to check if you have any recent mail, click on "Send/Receive" (Outlook) or "Get Mail" (Thunderbird).

Although the settings are customizable, most e-mail programs are set up to check for mail periodically while you are online. Most online services will let you know if you have mail through sounds such as AOL's trademark "You've got mail," and once again you can typically customize these settings with your own sound clips.

Once your mail is downloaded to your computer, click on the Inbox to browse what you've got. You'll see the sender and subject of each, and the e-mail you highlight might appear in a preview pane. To open it in full, double click the e-mail you want to read.

Printing e-mail

To print an e-mail, open it and click the Print icon. It's just that easy.

Replying to e-mail

If you want to respond to an e-mail you've received, the easiest way is to hit the Reply button. It will create a new message and even fill in the recipient's e-mail address for you. It will also put the text from the original message under your cursor so you can send it along with the new e-mail for reference.

Be careful of the "Reply to all" button. If you've received one of those forwarded e-mails that went to dozens of people, clicking it would involve sending replies to all of them.

Deleting e-mail

To get rid of an e-mail message, highlight it and click on Edit - Delete. Or, you can drag the e-mail to the Trash or Deleted Items folder. As with your trash can or recycle bin, the e-mail is not really gone until you empty the Trash or Deleted Items folder.

Address book

Let's face it. Long e-mail addresses are not easy to remember. Wouldn't it be nice if you could assign a nickname to each of the people you regularly correspond with and use that instead?

Well you can, using your mail program's address book. Just add a new contact (Outlook) or card (Thunderbird) to your address book. You can type in a person's name and e-mail address and assign them a nickname.

It's a very handy feature. Rather than type my mom's full e-mail address every time I send her and e-mail, I've assigned her the nickname, "mom." So when I want to send her an e-mail, I just type "mom" in the to field and it looks up her address for me!

Both Outlook and Thunderbird can be configured to automatically add any addresses with which you send or receive e-mail to the address book. Of course if you receive a lot of junk mail, those addresses will also be added so it might be better to add them manually.


If you receive an interesting message and you'd like to pass it on to someone else, the button to click is "Forward." Doing so creates a copy of the e-mail, letting you enter a new e-mail address in the "To:" field and send it along.


An attachment is a separate file that is sent with your message. It could be an image, a word processing document, a program or any other file.

To easiest way to attach a file to an e-mail you're sending is to click on the paper clip icon in the message composition toolbar and browse your hard drive for the file you want to attach. Or, you can use the pull-down menus to choose Insert - File (Outlook) or File - Attach (Thunderbird). When you send the e-mail, the file you choose will be sent as well.

If you receive an e-mail with an attachment, you'll likely see a paper clip or program-specific icon within the message. You can double click the icon, which will prompt a dialog box asking whether you want to open the file or save it. If you choose save, you can tell it where you want it stored on your hard drive. If you choose open, it will use the appropriate program to launch the file.

Some attachments - such as images - are shown "inline," meaning you don't have to explicitly tell your e-mail program to open them each time. That's fine, because images cannot contain viruses.

But you wouldn't want to have programs or Word documents open automatically, because that creates some security holes. (We'll talk more about viruses in "Chapter 21: Play it safe.")

Speaking of security, e-mail is not a very secure medium, so never send anything like credit card numbers or social security numbers through e-mail. Reputable online stores will have secure sites set up to properly handle this type of information.

Organizing your e-mail

Your mail program is set up with some standard folders:

  • Inbox: Where all of your incoming mail appears
  • Outbox or Unsent Messages: Where all of your outgoing mail is store until it's sent
  • Sent: Where all of your outgoing mail is store after it's sent
  • Deleted items or Trash: Where all of your outgoing mail is store after it's sent
  • Drafts: E-mails that you are composing but have not yet decided to send.

But you can create additional folders to better categorize the mail you're saving. For instance, if you wanted to keep all correspondence about your family tree in one area, you could create a folder called "Genealogy" and move all your messages from your inbox into it. Whenever you receive any new related messages, you could drag those to that folder.

Free e-mail services

Your online service or ISP likely gives you an e-mail address, but there are offer numerous Web sites such as Microsoft's hotmail, Google's gMail or Yahoo! that offer free e-mail addresses.

You'll still need an Internet provider to access these mailboxes, but they do provide a free alternate e-mail address if you're in need of a second one

Why would you need more than one e-mail address?

It's a good way to cut down on "spam," which is the online term for unsolicited e-mail. You could share your main address with friends and family, then use the alternate address whenever a Web site asks for an e-mail address. Or you could use one for work related correspondence and the other for personal. It's kind of like having multiple identities.

Another benefit of many of the free e-mail services is that they're Web-based, which means you can access your mailbox from any computer with a Net connection and a Web browser. It's a great option if you're traveling.

NEXT - Chapter 22 - Browsing the Web