Beginners start here: e-mail configuration problems

Sean McNamara
17 July, 2008
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Last month, we looked at common e-mail delivery error messages — we continue on with the theme of e-mail problems this month by looking at common e-mail configuration problems.

Before we know where e-mail configurations can go wrong, we need to know where they’re supposed to go right.

For both incoming and outgoing mail we need to know the mail server, whether the connection is established via Secure Sockets Layer (SSL, a form of connection encryption) and the port the connection is established over. For incoming mail, you’ll always need the type of account (POP or IMAP) and the username and password (and occasionally the authentication method) — for outgoing mail, you need to know whether you need to authenticate with a username and password.

There are numerous combinations of the options I’ve just listed, which can make troubleshooting a problem seem even more daunting. For example, if you also inadvertently choose IMAP instead of POP when your provider doesn’t support it, but put everything else in perfectly, your incoming mail still won’t work.

The first thing to do is to determine if the problem is only for incoming or outgoing mail, or both. If it’s both, we need to then determine if any network operations are working — it would be worthwhile checking if the web is working, just to eliminate more general networking problems. The most common reason for both incoming and outgoing mail not working when other network operations are OK is that there is a single mail server for both incoming and outgoing mail — it’s likely in this case that just the mail server setting has been mis-entered into the mail client (through a mistaken transcription, for example) or there’s actually a problem with the server itself.

If you’re experiencing problems only one-way, you then have to consider that any one of the many settings mentioned above may be mis-entered, or that the server in question is experiencing problems.

As with any of the settings we’re looking at, it’s worthwhile double-checking what the server setting should be and checking with the provider whether the server/s are fully operational. In this day and age, it’s not possible to say that your Internet Service Provider is always your e-mail provider — with many companies either hosting their own domains or utilising third-party hosting companies, if your e-mail server isn’t at your ISP you might need to do some homework to find out who you need to speak to.

When checking your settings, you should re-type any settings entered in a text field. Use the tab key to move between the fields in the settings dialog/screen, because if you have a space character after one of the settings, you might not select it if you click and drag the setting in question — using the tab key will select the whole contents of the field, whether they’re visible or not.

It’s always worthwhile to get the settings in some sort of print form if possible — many providers send the settings to new customers when they sign up, or they can be checked on the web. Having something provided for you, rather than something you transcribe during a phone call, will always be more reliable, but if you have no choice, checking the settings over the phone with your provider and carefully transcribing them may be the next best option. Just make sure you check the spelling of every word-like setting (using the NATO phonetic alphabet) and double-check any other settings, especially numerical ones like port numbers.

Sometimes it’s just not your fault. Recently a friend of mine wasn’t receiving mail from a particular correspondent — there were no bounce messages and no indication of what was going wrong. It just so happened that my friend’s correspondent was on the same ISP as me, so I tried sending an e-mail to my friend using my ISP’s outgoing mail server rather than our domain hosting company’s server. The mail didn’t get through and I received no bounce message, so I knew that it wasn’t an e-mail client configuration error on either end but a server problem at the ISP, most likely a routing problem to my friend’s company’s domain.

On a final note, another seemingly innocent area where incoming mail can go wrong is with the “leave mail on server”-type setting in most e-mail clients. If this is set to too long a period, your mailbox may fill up and e-mail may start to bounce back to your correspondents. If people get bounce error messages (see last month’s article) which indicate a full mailbox, it would be worthwhile checking this setting to see if it’s turned on, and if it is, if it’s set to a long time.

“Long time” is a relative term here — it all comes down to how much mail you receive and how large those messages are. Some people will be able to have a period of a month here, while others will have to delete messages immediately to keep their mailbox clear.

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