[Update: In December 2008 AOL made some changes to this service which I talk about here. Also, I never fully embraced this service. I still have the address and use it occasionally but it’s not a important account. If it went away tomorrow I wouldn’t miss it or the emails. While I never had any problems with this service I also never really felt AOL really wanted to support it.]
Registration is straightforward. On the first screen you pick you .com or .net domain. If it’s available you can proceed to the registration screen.
In addition to the typical ID, password and security question you need to provide a cell phone #, alternate e-mail address, date of birth, country and zip code. The cell phone number is to limit registrations to one per person (well, one per cell phone number) and AOL says they will never give it out. (When I registered with Google Mail they used the same method to limit it to US subscribers) You also agree to to the terms of service on this page. No name and address are entered.
The full terms of service are here. Some highlights are:
- AOL owns the domains [Update: This is no longer true as AOL no longer registers the domain.]
- You don’t have an exclusive right to use the domain name with the service [Update: This is no longer true as AOL no longer registers the domain.]
- AOL promises nothing except to try (hey, it is free, it’s probably a bad idea to use this for business critical e-mail)
- AOL will delete the account if it becomes inactive (inactive is not defined)
After submitting the registration the page to verify the registration came up. The SMS message arrived at my cell phone in less than a minute and I entered the code. This completed the setup and the “Control Panel” came up. This allows me to “Invite” others to use the e-mail. “Invite” simply means set up e-mail accounts (address/password) and send an e-mail to a person to let them know it’s set up.
The alternate e-mail address was used to send two e-mails. The first told me to check my SMS messages for the pin and it included a link to the screen to enter the pin.
Once I entered the pin I got another e-mail telling me it was ready. It included a link to the control panel. It also said I needed to log into the mailbox and gave me a link and info for webmail. It mentioned I may not be able to send e-mail for 15 minutes and may take up to 24 hours to receive e-mail messages due to the normal domain registration process.
I log onto webmail and there’s a welcome message in my inbox.
The main e-mail screen that appears when opened seems to be a subset of what I saw on the AOL main page. Some news highlights and links along with an add or two. The inbox also displays a banner add along the bottom. The adds aren’t really intrusive except for the one in the welcome e-mail. Maybe it was only there because it was a message from AOL, but it was annoying to see a vertical banner add down the right side of the message. I also wonder about the bandwidth used to feed those ads if the browser is left open.
- Firefox (on my Mac) crashed when I tried to sign-off AOL mail (twice). Also crashed when navigating away from the mail page. Safari also crashes when logging out. [Updated Jan 1, 2007: The web interface works fine on a second Mac which is an Intel based iMac]
- Need to find out how to turn off that “You got mail” announcement – under display settings I unchecked “Play sound when new mail is received”.
All banner ads appear to change regularly so there’s regular network traffic. I’ve gone through other screens and there are ads everywhere. Like in the above screen shots they tend to be off to the side and out of the way. So far I haven’t had to clear any ad screen just to do something.
I search the AOL help on how to set up Outlook Express to get mail. From there I get the server names and settings so I can set up Thunderbird. I set up the demo AOL account as a IMAP mailbox.
I set up both accounts (my main and the demo) and send/receive from both successfully. The only issue I found was that the SMTP server requires the ID to match the account doing the sending. So the first account I set up worked because I used that ID for the SMTP server setup. The second account failed when I tried to use the same SMTP server. Rather than setup multiple SMTP connections I just set the account to use one of my other servers.
The banner ads don’t show in the incoming mail messages when viewed in Thunderbird, even with image blocking turned off. So other than what’s embedded in the e-mail itself by the sender using Thunderbird avoids all the ads. This is probably true for any other e-mail client.
While it’s transparent, the registration for the e-mail account also gives an AOL ID (screen name). While I didn’t see exactly what this gives me access to, I could use it to sign in on other screens. At the very least it’s used for personalizations.
I’m pretty impressed by this free offering. Even the ads aren’t too bad on the web based e-mail, although I would complain about it if I was paying for AOL.
The browser crashes would certainly be a problem if I was tied to the browser. It appears to be a Mac (or my Mac) problem rather than a browser issue. Both Firefox and Safari crash on my Mac. But Firefox works fine on my Windows box. The problem appears to be navigating away from the mail pages rather than the actual sign off.
Sometime in the future I’ll have to take a look and see how much traffic it generates while sitting there doing nothing.