Email Explained

We get frequent questions about e-mail so it may be helpful to explain (in a short, simple manner) how it all works. This may actually be way more than you want to know, but it makes good bedtime reading.

Sending and receiving mail

You type a message and hit send. Out it goes to the recipient. Most people think that this is all there is to it. It’s a little more complicated than that.

When data is sent, it is first broken down into packets. It is easier to transmit smaller packets of data than large messages. The packets are not usually transmitted together. They start from your computer and are routed over the network separately. This allows them to be sent over the least congested network route. Each packet has information telling the various network servers where it is going, like the baggage tag used in airports. Once all the packets arrive at the destination (your ISP, for example) they are all reassembled into the original message and delivered to you. They may have to go through several mail servers in different parts of the world, depending on network traffic, to finally be delivered. Your mail may take a minute or an hour or more to get where it is supposed to go.

Ways of sending and receiving e-mail


Many folks use webmail for their daily correspondence. This is when you log onto your e-mail
account using your web browser. If you go to or or AOL or or Gmail, you are using webmail. This is quite convenient, as you can send and receive mail no
matter where you are—at home or travelling. Your mail stays on the mail server until you
delete it.

There is a downside, though. If you are on a website where there is a button that allows you to send mail to someone in that company, you may get an error message that says something like “no local email client configured.” This makes it impossible to send a message directly from a website. This is because many sites rely on your computer using its own mail program to do the communication. An example can be found on our site—if you click on the link “Contact Us” your email client, if you have one, will open up so you can write us a message. If you don’t have an e-mail program on your computer, then you’ll need to set one up. If you don’t wish to do this, then you can always copy the e-mail address from the website and paste it into your webmail.

On some sites, clicking on “contact us” will take you to a form to fill out. This does not rely on an email program (or client) on your computer.

E-mail programs (mail clients)

Examples of these programs are Outlook, Windows Mail, and Thunderbird. There are a number of others that you may have heard of. These programs all do your sending and receiving for you. All you do is open the program and click on receive mail and you’re in business. After you write your message, you click on send and it’s on its way. These programs allow you to keep your mail on your home computer where you can store the messages in folders. One thing you cannot do, though, is use these when you are away from home. The only work when you are connected to your home network hooked to your ISP programs. For travel, you’ll need to use webmail.

Possible mail problems

You may find that when you log onto your mail program, it keeps working and working and
working—never really finishing. This is generally due to a bad (or huge) piece of mail it’s trying
to download from the server. A sure symptom is that, if every time you start up your mail
program you seem to get copies of the same mail over and over. This is why: When your mail
program asks the server for the mail, the server responds by telling your computer that the mail is being sent. As each message is received, your computer notifies the server that it has received the mail and asks for the next message. This continues until the last unread message has been sent. The server tehn tells your computer that you have all your mail. The catch her is that all of the unread mail must be delivered to you or the server treats it like none have been delivered. So next time you log on, it tries again.

The fix? Make note of the number of messages that actually downloaded to your computer.
Then log onto webmail. Count down to the last message that you got and the problem is quite
possibly the next message in line. Delete it. Then try your mail program again.

Mail servers

POP (stands for Post Office Protocol) server—this is the server (the computer) that has
your mail from someone and delivers it to you. It’s like the little mail box in the post office.
You send your authentication (username and password) to the POP server (you put your key in
the mailbox to open it) and the mail is delivered to your computer. POP servers can save your mail until you tell them to delete it through a setting in your email client. This type of server is best used by the home user who will be accessing their mail using only one computer. Once you download your mail, you cannot see it again unless you use webmail.

SMTP (stands for Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) server—this is the server that takes your mail from you for delivery (like the blue box outside your Post Office). Centurylink mail is an example.

IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) server—functions like a POP server but with some enhanced features. This type of server stores your mail so you can access it from several computers. It will not remove the mail from the server unless you tell it to.