Large emails and dial-up connections

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One issue when sending a file attachment is the connection speed used by the receiver. For receivers with a broadband connection this isn’t usually an issue but we’ve had many emails from dial-up customers asking that their needs be considered.

One issue to consider when sending a file attachment is the connection speed used by the receiver.  For receivers with a broadband connection this isn’t usually an issue but we’ve had many emails from dial-up customers asking that their needs be considered.

If you send a 5MB attachment to someone with a 56kb connection it’ll take them at least 12 minutes to download it.  They might be willing to spend that amount of time online, depending on the importance of the attachment.

As with ISP’s size limits on emails there’s no direct way for a sender to know the download speed of the receiver.   The speed can even change over time (for example they might have broadband at home but use dial-up while traveling).

If you have a dial-up connection you can ask people to send smaller attachments where possible but also have to accept that the slower connection have some downsides.

There are strategies for coping with large email attachments on slow connections. In most email programs there is an option for the POP connection to not fully download messages above a stated size.  Messages above that size have only the header information downloaded, then you can choose whether to download the entire message.

Outlook has this option at Tools | Send / Receive Groups, then the group you mostly use (probably All Accounts) | Edit then change the “Download only headers for items larger than …” option.  Repeat for any relevant Send/Receive Groups.

There is also the option for most ISP customers to login to your mail account and check via the webmail interface.  You can then delete, forward or reply to oversize messages before downloading them.

Ask Before Sending

Of course, the polite thing to do when sending any large email is to ask before sending.

This is a polite course when emailing someone you don’t know that well, yet asking can present its own problems.   The receiver might not know the answer to your question and merely asking might cause confusion.

There’s also the vexed question of what is a ‘large’ message?  Among the Office Watch team we send 10MB or less messages to each other without thinking about it, because all the team are on broadband.   But our normal definition of ‘large’ might not match with others who have slower connections and more restrictive ISP’s.


How to tell the size of an outgoing message

Some people asked us how you can tell the size of an outgoing message.  For those of you who think that’s a bleedingly obvious question, please skip to the next section now.

The size of an email is the size of the file attachment/s plus a margin for the text of the email and header.   If you have a 4MB attachment and also a 3MB attachment the overall email will be just over 7MB, say 7.2MB in total with a generous margin.

Most email programs will show the name and size of the email attachments as you add them to the outgoing message.  If not, keep an eye on the file sizes in Windows Explorer or in the attachments dialog box when you’re adding the files to the email (switch to Details view, if necessary).


ZIP is not always the answer

Many readers suggested that using a compression utility like ZIP www.winzip.com or RAR www.rarlabs.com  would solve file size problems.  There is a common misconception that these programs will reduce the size of any file but that’s not the case.

Digital photos in JPG format are already compressed, so ZIP or RAR will not make any real difference to the size (in fact they might slightly increase!).

Microsoft Office documents (DOC, XLS etc) will benefit from compression but then Office 2007 comes out the new formats (DOCX, XLSX etc) will be compressed already and, like JPG, won’t benefit from more compression.

Place not thy trust

We had several people who sent us messages that tried to give us simple, all encompassing answers to the size limit issue.

“In our country it’s always 2MB”
It would be impossible to impose an email size limit for an entire country (well,maybe places like North Korea).   The 2MB limit might apply to some ISP’s but not everyone.

“I was told the limit is 2GB”
It’s possible that the email size limit is 2GB but it’s more likely that you’ve been told the maximum size of the mailbox, not the size per message.

“All government departments are 2MB”
We received messages like this from public servants in three different countries and in at least two of those cases we’ve discovered that’s not the case.  Generally speaking email limitations are imposed at the departmental level, not across a whole government.  Even when there is such an official limit, the management of individual departments have varied from that.

DB from DC had some useful comments related to the US Federal government:


One of the things that has a GREAT effect on emailing in the DC and other major metropolitan areas with a large federal government presence is the incoming email size limits imposed by the different agencies of the federal government.  Their size limits — typically between 2 to 4 MB in my recent experience — for mail sent from a different domain (.mil or .gov) actually create more security problems since users will use webmail personal accounts to get around the network limitations.  This is something that both the agency system administrators need to resolve and your readers need to know about.  The emails themselves remain relatively small, but the attachments seem to be getting larger by the day.  Files larger than 4 MB are now common, especially if graphics are involved, and trying to send a “primary” document and supporting files can quickly take the total size over 8 MB.  With federal systems set to refuse any .zip file, this presents a real challenge to the “paperless office” concept.

Clearly some, if not most, support people try to do the right thing but there are exceptions.  Often they are limited by the information provided by their employers and there’s the inevitable time pressures on the staff.  Sadly there’s a lot of misinformation on this issue and it’ll take pressure from customers to make ISP’s lift their game.

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