From the January 2000 issue of Startups

Quick: What e-mail application do you use? More to the point, did you choose it, or did it force itself upon you by asserting itself as the default tool? If the latter is the case, it's time to rethink your allegiances-after all, putting up with a lame e-mail program is no way to start 2000. Unfortunately, many people will do just that, as some of the most popular apps are slow, cumbersome, even buggy.

All of this is important because, at the end of the day, what we do most on the Net is send and receive e-mail. Tell me I can't browse the Web today and I might growl a bit--but shut down my e-mail and, whoa, I'm into the serious shaking stage. If you haven't experienced it, let me tell you: Withdrawal from e-mail is a painful thing.

Face it: E-mail is a critical business tool. Done right, it portrays us in a good light to prospective and current clients. Done wrong, it sucks up too much of our time and leaves us looking unprofessional.

For starters, you probably have Netscape Messenger--the app built into Communicator--and Microsoft's Outlook Express (the freebie that comes with Internet Explorer). You may also have the free Eudora Lite (if you don't, get it at http://www.eudora.com). It's possible you have Microsoft Outlook, too. My advice: Put them all through a test in the next week. Send attachments, play with the address book, set up a group e-mail list. Why? Some work better than others, and some suit particular individuals more than others. Because e-mail is probably your critical app, you have to consciously take control of it and use a program that works for you.

This isn't "one app fits all." Different e-mail programs have different strengths (and weaknesses). Put the main apps through their paces and you'll see which suits your needs.

While you're testing, get a copy of Poco, a shareware program that bills itself as "the tiny mailer that delivers." For five years, I've downloaded and tested pretty much every e-mail app I've come across and, for now, Poco wins my highest score. A 1.31MB download, Poco doesn't do calendaring, it's not the place to store contact phone numbers and addresses and there's probably lots more tricks it won't do, but none of that matters because Poco excels at getting, sending, filing and creating e-mail. Small and therefore very fast, it doesn't scrimp on key features. A spellchecker is built in. So is a "scripting" tool that, with a little tinkering, lets you create filters that automatically file incoming and outgoing mail into designated folders. E-mail backup can be automated, so it happens at intervals you select. A "see mail on server" switch lets you do as it says-and when a huge image, movie or slide show is causing you fits, a single click deletes it. Have multiple e-mail servers? A click lets you send mail from whichever server you wish-and another few clicks let you check mail on all your servers.

Pretty much whatever the big boys can do, Poco can do, too, and that makes this "less is more" program ideal for small businesses. Want proof? A trial download is free to use for 30 days (http://www.pocomail.com); after that, you pay $25.

Prefer Eudora Lite or Outlook Express? That's OK--in fact, that's the whole point: So long as you're choosing your e-mail app, whichever one you like best is the best.