Advantages Free SMS, Call Minder and SpeechMail all integrated.
Disadvantages Server can fail quite regularly, slow site, avergage e-mail system.
Being an internet user who has never had a home connection, I think I can fairly regard myself as something of an expert in the field of free e-mail services. I've been through most of the field in my time, and found some good services and some not so good ones.Talk21 first attracted my attention around a year and a half ago. At the time, I chose it because my current free web-mail service couldn't handle attachments. I was also attracted by the stability that the backing of a major telcom would provide - in this case, BT Internet, which operates the service. However, in all this time, Talk21 has never managed to work its way any further up my "free e-mail" list than third place. I've always found other services to beat it, but that said, Talk21 has always been there and it does have an impressive array of services.
Talk21 is part of the BT Internet network and as such the login page is littered with content from the various BT sites, not all of it relevant. There are better news portals out there, and if anything it only gets in the way of checking your mail. However, this is a minor point and some users may find the integration useful. The initial page design is average at best, but it must be said, also functional.The web-based e-mail system takes an unusual approach. The layout of the system is currently based around frames, with the top frame being used for advertising and the key navigation functions - read, write, preferences and help. This layout generally works quite well. Beneath this frame, the screen is split into two vertically, with the left listing e-mail and options, and the right displaying content. Although it looks unusual at first, after a while you find this to be very effective as you can quickly cycle through mail without having to constantly return to an index page.
The slight drawback to this, however, and one which also negates the advantages of the frames approach, is that each frame is constantly re-loaded when you would imagine there is no need for it. Although this does keep everything up to date and in sync, it can become infuriating as you are forced to wait for pages to load after every small operation.The e-mail aspect of Talk21 is very similar to every other web-based system you've ever seen out there - send, recieve, signatures, address book, and so on. It does have a couple of additional useful features which distinguish it, though, such as a preview button (very useful for important messages) and even better, a spell checker. This is fairly rudimentary but does a good job of rooting out the most obvious mistakes - a boon for the less gramatically skilled among us. Talk21 can also be used to send attachments, a capability not all free services offer.
Where Talk21 excels is with it's additional features, that very few other free providers offer. It manages to integrate these well, mainly thanks to the backing of BT which undoubtedly provides the support for all these extra services.In particular, SMS messaging is included and text messages can be sent to any mobile free of charge. Compared to the average of 10p per message when sending from a mobile phone, you can make great use of this. The system uses one number to send all messages, so every message you send is prefixed by your e-mail address @talk21.com - this eats into the available number of characters, and means the message cannot be directly replied to, but these are minor inconveniences from a free service. The advantage of Talk21's service is that SMS is incorporated into your e-mail, creating a central communications area (as opposed to using a free e-mail site and another free SMS site).
SpeechMail is also available - although this is expensive at national rates from a mobile - as is Call Minder notification. Best of all, though, is the SMS notification available. This free service sends an SMS message to your mobile when you recieve new mail, a very handy feature. The message includes the time, sender and subject of the e-mail, allowing one to decide whether to bother replying immediately or wait a while. Personally I find this feature fantastic as it allows me to use my Talk21 address selectively, and be notified when I recieve the few new messages I do get.Usually these services would come at a charge so anyone who uses these regularly would find Talk21 very handy.
Advertising is kept to a minimum and the site is tastefully designed, with easy to read fonts and minimalistic graphics. Perhaps the only drawback is the regularity of server problems - quite often, I have visited the site to find I cannot login due to too many users being on the system or some other mysterious ailment. For a site hosted by BT you would expect better than this, and it can become a major inconvenience if you have recieved an SMS telling you you have new mail. Also, BT apparently have deals with other websites, as when you log out of the site, you are immediately redirected to a seemingly random site which can become irksome after a while.This aside, Talk21 is a very competent service, if one with an unremarkable address. When it works, it works well, and the extra free features will be invaluable to some. The e-mail system itself has been bettered elsewhere, but nonetheless, Talk21 comes recommended.
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