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E-mail attachments made simple, Part 2
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

E-mail attachments made simple, Part 2 

Bit Player for Jan. 25, 1998

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers

Have you ever seen a paperclip icon in your e-mail window? Or the word "Attach" in one of the menus?

Those are two of the standard ways e-mail programs show you how to send things to a recipient. What you send can be anything, as we saw last week. (You'll find that article at or the newspaper's mirror site, Items that are sent along with e-mail letters are called attachments.

And there's another way, one that most of the modern e-mail programs use. Let's go over the three methods:

    • Paperclip icon or button: Click this and a file-browser window opens. Navigate to the location of the file you want to attach and double click on it.
    • "Attach" menu. Choose this, then do the same as you'd do with the paperclip button.
    • Drag and drop. Open a window showing the item you want to attach. Click once on it and hold the mouse button down. Drag it to your e-mail letter window and let it go. (Drag it there and drop it. See?)

Your e-mail software doesn't care which method you use. I like drag and drop because it's the most intuitive of the three methods—to me. You may find the paperclip method or even the menu technique more intuitive. Suit yourself.

You'll find right away that you can send any file as an attachment, but you can't send folders. (There are exceptions. Some e-mail programs do let you send folders, but they are rare, and are specially designed to work only with identical programs on the recipient's end.)

So if you do want to send a folder, you have to play a trick. You have to turn the folder into a file. At the receiving end, the person who gets the mail has to undo what you did and turn the file back into a folder.

Is this one of the big secrets of 20th Century life? Hardly. It's something millions of computer users do every day, usually without realizing that they're performing a folder-into-file trick.

You do this with a file-and-folder compression program. On the PC side, use a Zip program such as WinZip. On the Mac side, do it with a program such as Stuffit. Both are extremely easy to use. The latest version of WinZip even tells Windows 95 to show you an option to turn a folder into a Zip file when you right click on a folder.

Once you've turned the folder into a file, you attach the file. On the receiving end, WinZip (or any of a dozen competing programs) will unzip the file back into a folder. Stuffit files extract themselves, and Zip files can do this, too. If you think the recipient won't be able to handle a Zip file, you can make a self-extracting Zip. It's an option in both WinZip and in my own choice, Zip Magic.

Modern e-mail software automatically knows how to transfer files as if they were letters, using three basic methods. The names for these methods are pure jargon—MIME, uuencode and binhex—and I won't get technical with you. The best e-mail software knows how to identify which method was used on incoming mail and takes care of decoding the attachment back into a file.

If your software doesn't do that—if you have to do the encoding and decoding yourself, as I had to do years ago—get rid of that software. Get an e-mail program that does it automatically. (For PCs, both Pegasus and Eudora Light do it automatically, and they're free. Windows 95 users also have an excellent e-mail program built into Windows called either Exchange or Windows Messaging, depending on the version, and it also handles this conversion for you.)

Finally, users sometimes send me test attachments to find out if they are doing it right. I'm glad to help. But a simple way of testing your method of doing attachments is to send one to yourself. Try it and see how it works.

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