ChoiceMail One v3.1

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, August 2005
Published by: DigiPortal Software, Inc.
Requires: Microsoft Windows 98SE/ME /NT4, 2000 and XP; works with any POP3 e-mail client; works with AOL, MSN, Hotmail and Yahoo
MSRP: US$39.95 (download)

"Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam
Lovely spam,
Wonderful spam . . ."

If only life were as hysterically giddy and as utterly carefree as the old Monty Python skit. Unfortunately, the word spam is now used most often to describe unsolicited junk e-mail. We know it in many forms and we fight it on many fronts. Home users do battle on desktop and laptop computers. Office computer users and networks struggle mightily sometimes to beat back the deluge of unsolicited, virus-laden garbage. Tempers flare. Arguments ensue. Debates rattle on. Spam e-mail engenders every possible human reaction from hatred, anguish and rage to laughter, indifference and lassitude. No matter what the reaction though, the consequences of not actually dealing with incoming spam e-mail can often be catastrophic. There are a variety of methods and techniques for dealing with spam e-mail. ChoiceMail sidesteps the latest technology in favor of a simpler, less technically intensive approach.

ChoiceMail is a permission based spam e-mail blocker. That means ChoiceMail assumes e-mail is spam unless it's told otherwise, allowing only approved e-mail into your Inbox. The software automatically approves e-mail from people you know and trust and lets you create simple rules to approve new e-mail that is important to you. More important for new contacts, ChoiceMail can be set to automatically query unknown senders to find out who they are and what they want before their e-mail is allowed into your inbox. The idea is that in this day and age, only legitimate senders will (hopefully) always respond to the ChoiceMail query.

There are four main versions of ChoiceMail: a) ChoiceMail One is a single-user version that works with any standard POP3 e-mail program (Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora, The Bat, Pegasus, etc., etc., etc.), b) ChoiceMail Enterprise which works with Microsoft Exchange Server, Lotus Domino, Novell GroupWise and other enterprise e-mail servers, c) ChoiceMail Small Business which is particularly good for small business that have third-party e-mail hosting (which is true for most small businesses), and d) ChoiceMail Free which is a home user, feature limited version of ChoiceMail One.

Some explanations are in order. There are three main types of spam filtering (or if you prefer, three main ways to deal with unsolicited e-mail). First, there's the current King & Queen of the heap: Bayesian filtering and statistical analysis. This method is comparatively smart in that it can learn, progressively, and with little intervention on your part what constitutes spam in your view based on what you select as legitimate and what the software determines through analysis. Second, there's address and keyword analysis based on recognition filtering. This method is typical of what Microsoft was using in Outlook (up until Outlook 2003 that is) and also the basis of the very popular MailWasher software. Essentially, incoming e-mail is compared to a database of blacklisted addresses and domains. The accuracy and up-to-date status of the blacklisting databases is crucial. Third, there is permission based e-mail management—ChoiceMail in this case—which is based entirely on a whitelist literally comprised of only those addresses and domains you've approved, added or preset. There are three functional similarities between each of these three methods. One is the existence of a junk box, junk folder or trash bin of some sort which allows you to periodically review the contents to retrieve or rescue e-mail which has accidentally been deemed junk. Second, all of these methods allow you to use the e-mail program of your choice. Third, each method provides for customized rules which can be set up to enhance, circumvent or otherwise modify the basic filtering.

The obvious question to ask is . . . which method is best?

I don't have the answer. It's beyond the scope of this review mainly because I have no idea what your particular needs really are. I can tell you however that using ChoiceMail daily for almost two months only revealed that the software works well and just as advertised. Better than that you can't get, unless of course the ChoiceMail approach happens to be inappropriate for your particular type and load of e-mail. In any case too, that's why there are different spam filtering and e-mail management systems out there. I can also tell you that my goddaughter's mother installed ChoiceMail on the kid's computer and was successful in essentially reducing spam to zero. The kid's whitelist is only about 20 e-mail addresses long (school friends, neighborhood friends, family). What else does a 9 or 10 year old need? Her mother keeps the antivirus software fully up-to-date too. No worries.

ChoiceMail has a nifty virtual e-mail address feature that is ideal for e-commerce purchases and subscriptions. You can create virtual addresses on the fly and use them with automated systems (newsletter subscriptions, retail web site registrations and so on). When an e-mail is sent to you through a virtual address, it is automatically approved and reaches your inbox without challenge. If spammers obtain your virtual e-mail address, you can dump it and create a new one. All ChoiceMail One users get 5 free virtual e-mail addresses.

During operation, ChoiceMail quarantines unrecognized e-mail and automatically sends a registration request to each unknown sender. The request directs unknown senders to a web page (it's hosted on a ChoiceMail server) where they are asked for their name, e-mail address and reason for contacting you. They also are asked to complete a task, which is easy for a person but impossible for a computer because the task involves re-typing a sequence of numbers displayed in a graphic. The process eliminates almost all spam e-mail because most spammers use high volume, automated equipment which cannot respond to the registration request. When someone new performs the simple registration process, ChoiceMail alerts you with a pop-up message and you can then decide whether to allow the sender to communicate with you. Senders who are visually impaired and therefore can't read the registration graphic have the option of downloading a WAV audio file in which the registration numbers are read aloud. The whole system is simple and works smoothly.

Cons: ChoiceMail can automatically configure Outlook Express (v5 and later), Eudora (v4 and later) and Outlook 98 and later. Unfortunately, if you're using other e-mail programs such as Netscape, Mozilla or the Bat, you have to manually configure ChoiceMail to work with your e-mail program. Once an e-mail is allowed in, that's it—ChoiceMail has no Bayesian statistical filtering to continually re-examine everything arriving at your inbox or mail server, which of course means that if a formerly good e-mail sender turns bad (or is hit by a virus which automatically sends versions of itself to an entire contacts list) some of that kind of garbage is going to get through. If you're running up-to-date antivirus software, good for you in such a situation. If you're not, look out. In our opinion, ChoiceMail may not be the best all-around solution for enterprises and small-to-medium business networks (but see "Pros" below).

Pros: ChoiceMail works a bit like a locked front door in that e-mail can only get into your inbox if you let it in. ChoiceMail One appears to be an ideal solution for people who receive comparatively small amounts of e-mail (less than 20 legitimate e-mails per day mainly from a relatively fixed list of senders). ChoiceMail Small Business is ideal for much larger volumes of e-mail received some home users and many SOHO, home-office small business owners. The built-in custom filter creator can be used, among other things, to allow receipt of e-mails containing certain keywords—great for hobbyists, businesses of all types and anyone with a special interest. The program is easy to configure and its background operation really is totally automated. Subscription e-mails are handled nicely because of ChoiceMail's virtual e-mail feature. ChoiceMail works well and provides users with lots of control over who and what gets into the Inbox. Recommended.

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