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How to Host Your Own Webmail With Roundcube

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If you own a custom domain—like www.mycompany.com—for your website, chances are you'd like to have your own snazzy myname@mycompany.com email address. It used to be free and simple to use Gmail or Hotmail with your own domain, but you'll now have to pay $5/month for Gmail with your domain and there's now no way to use the rebranded Outlook.com with your own domain.

Your website's already hosted somewhere, though, and chances are your hosting company offers a basic email service you can use with your domain. You'll be able to setup email to sync with native apps like Mail.app or Outlook inside your hosting control panel, but what if you want to check your email in your browser?

That's where Roundcube comes in. It's a free and open-source webmail app that's been a standard for years, and was just recently released out of beta. It's quite simple to use, works much like any other email service you're used to, and gives you a way to see your email anywhere while still syncing it with your native apps directly. In this tutorial, I'll show you how to setup email on your hosting service in the popular control panel cPanel, and then show you how to setup Roundcube to view your email online.

Screencast

Setting Up Email Accounts in cPanel

Before you can use webmail, you need to set up user accounts. You’ll typically do this in a web application that resembles the Windows Control Panel or Mac System Settings. Your hosting provider will give you a web address and login for it. The two most common applications are cPanel and WHM.

When you log into cPanel, click Email Accounts to set them up.

mail app in cPanel
Email applet in cPanel

If you’re using WHM, this process will be nearly identical, and makes no difference as far as Roundcube is concerned.

In the Email Accounts screen, enter a user name and password. User names have to be unique, and can’t contain spaces or certain punctuation. A common practice for avoiding duplicate user names is to separate full names with periods, like sarah.jane.smith@whatever.com.

You should also create strong passwords: at least one uppercase letter, at least one number and at least one symbol. The strength meter will give you its opinion! If you want, click Generate Password, and the system will create a random jumble for you.

If you’re concerned that users won’t clean out their mailboxes, and their messages and attachments will use up disk space, you can assign a quota.

Then click Create Account.

creating an email account in cPanel
cPanel will create a strong password or pass judgment on the strength of your own

The system might display an “account created” message, and then list the account below. You can then repeat the process for additional users. (Many hosting companies allow an unlimited amount of users, but some don’t.)

account confirmation screen
cPanel confirms that you're created a new account

After creating the accounts, you can exit from the administration screen.

Overview of the Main Roundcube Screen

When you first log in to Roundcube, if you have messages waiting, you’ll immediately see them listed. The headers of unread messages are bolded. After you open a message, the header will change to normal text. If you have Roundcube open when new messages arrive, they should appear automatically, but if they don't, click the Refresh icon on the left side of the toolbar.

By default, messages are listed in descending chronological order, so the newest one is at the top and the oldest is at the bottom. You can click any of the column headers to sort by that column. Click once to sort in ascending order, and click the same column header again to sort in descending order. As of this writing, you can’t resize the columns.

The left pane shows your folders, and you can click them to view the contents. If you have unread messages, the quantity of them will be listed on the folder.

Roundcube screen when first logging in
The main Roundcube screen

The toolbar on top has options for managing messages, and these buttons have duplicates in the Preview pane (see below). You need to select a message for some of the buttons to be available.

There are also two menus that let you filter which messages are visible. Above the list of messages, click the drop-down list (by default is set to All) and select which types of messages you want to see, such as only read or only unread.

On bottom, there is a similar menu (by default is set to Select) that presents similar choices.

filter list
Two pop-up lists help you filter messages

You can also search messages. Click in the Search box to the right, type a word or phrase, and click the Down Arrow next to the spyglass to choose what part of the message to search, like Subject or Body. If you don’t make a choice, Roundcube will search all parts of the message.

search box
Search for messages by typing in a word or phrase and optionally choosing where to search

Press Enter, and if there are any hits, only those messages will be displayed.

search results
When filtering messages, messages other than what you're looking for will be hidden

To return to the full list of messages, click the X on the right side of the Search box.

Reading Messages and Replying to Them

Roundcube has a Preview pane, so you can read messages without having to open them. To turn on the preview, click the Up Arrow in the lower-right corner of the screen.

button that launches Preview pane
Click the arrow in the lower-right corner to display the Preview pane

To re-size the Preview pane, roll the mouse over the wide, gray horizontal bar. When the mouse becomes a two-headed arrow, drag up or down (see below).

When you have the Preview pane visible, it has several buttons for dealing with messages:

  • Reply to Sender
  • Reply to All (reply to the sender and anyone else who the message was sent to or CC’d)
  • Forward the message to someone else
  • Open the message in a new browser window
  • Display message headers (useful for debugging errors or examining spam)
message-handling buttons
The Preview pane has buttons to manage messages

If you don’t want to use the Preview pane, close it by clicking its button, again. Then you can use a different method of reading a message: double-click it. Roundcube will then display only that message, and you won’t see the message list.

In this single-message view, you can use the buttons on the main toolbar for replying and forwarding. There are also buttons for deleting and marking messages. You can manually set a message’s status to read or unread, and toggle flagging on and off. To do that, click the Mark button and make a selection.

additional message buttons
You can mark messages to have four different statuses

Click the Back button to return to the list of messages.

Sending Messages

To create a new message, click the Compose button in the upper-left corner.

button to compose new message
Click the Compose button to create a new message

Enter the person’s email address and subject line, then type a message. You can type the addresses of additional recipients using the links above the Subject line. If you want to insert additional recipients from your address book, select them, then use the buttons at the lower-left.

buttons to add recipients to a message
Add people to the recipient list manually or from your address book

To send one or more attachments (e.g. picture or document), click either the Attach a File button on the right or the Attach (paper clip) button on top. Find and select one or more files to attach. You can attach multiple files at once by selecting the first one, then Ctrl-clicking additional ones (or Command-clicking on the Mac).

When you’re ready, click the Send button on top. If you changed your mind, click the Cancel button. A third option is to click the Save button. Do that if you want to save the message in the Drafts folder for later. By default, Roundcube will automatically save unsent messages every five minutes, so if the browser or computer crashes, you have a chance of recovering your unsent mail.

Are you disappointed that there doesn’t seem to be a way of formatting messages? By default, Roundcube creates messages in plain text, but you can change that in the Settings (see below).

Maintaining an Address Book

To keep a list of contacts, click the Address Book icon in the upper-right corner.

button to launch the address book
Click the second icon at the top to edit the address book

In the screen that appears, you can create groups (folders) of contacts, if you want. In each group, you can create contacts. You can upload pictures of contacts, and use the fields for info in addition to email address, like phone numbers and notes.

buttons for creating contacts
You can organize contacts into subfolders

Changing Settings

Roundcube has many settings that you can customize, such as time zone, date & time formats, how to display mailboxes and messages, and more. The three you’re probably most interested in are allowing Roundcube to come up when you click an email link on a web site, creating a signature and getting the ability to format messages.

To edit settings, click the Settings button in the upper-right corner.

settings button
Change the system settings by clicking the gear icon

Responding to Mail Links

To make Roundcube come up when you click email links, go to the User Interface section on the left (should already be selected when you enter Settings) and scroll down the right side. Click the Register Protocol link on bottom, then click Save.

link to make Roundcube the default mail program
Roundcube can be the default mail app -- handy when clicking email links on web pages

This works only for the computer you’re currently using. So if you use more than one computer, you’ll need to do this on each one.

Creating Messages with Formatting

To create messages that can have text formatting, you need to compose them in HTML format. On the left side, go to the Composing Messages section, then in the main window, click the drop-down list for Compose HTML messages and choose Always. Click Save.

Creating and Using a Signature

There are two parts to configuring a signature: creating the signature itself, and deciding when to use it. In the Composing Messages section, scroll down to the bottom and click the drop-down for Automatically add signature and make your choice. Click Save. (If you’re setting message formatting and allowing a signature, you can do both first, then click Save only once.)

To actually create the signature, go to Identities on the far left side, then click your identity. Scroll down the right side, and type your signature. If you want to format the signature, click the check box for HTML signature, and you’ll get a formatting toolbar. Click Save when finished.

enabling a signature
If you don't always want to be yourself, create another identity!

You can create additional identities by clicking the Plus sign at the bottom of the Identities section. This way, you can have an identity for personal use that’s different from business, or maybe a separate identity for a specific project.

Ending Your Session

When you’re finished modifying the settings, click the Mail icon or the Roundcube logo at the top to return to the main screen.

creating a signature
Exit the settings screen by clicking the Mail button or the Roundcube logo

Once you’re finished using Roundcube, it’s a good idea to log out. Click the Logout button at the upper-right.

logout buttonf
For security, remember to log out when you're done

Conclusion

It might be nicer to use Gmail or another more familiar service for your email, but it's hard to argue with free—and Roundcube is actually quite nice once you get used to it. It's got the features you need, and if you're ever unsure of what a buttons does, just mouse over it to see the description in the tooltip. Setting up your own email in your hosting account sounds like a daunting task, but it's actually no more difficult than any other part of using a shared hosting account, and it'll give you free email on your own domain.

If you have trouble getting started with Roundcube, or have another favorite webmail app that works great with custom domains, do leave a comment below!

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