Apple was perhaps the first manufacturer to recognise that no computer works in isolation. From their earliest days, Macs could be harnessed into local area networks without internal modification, and after the launch of the iMac with its built- in modem, taking a computer out of the box and getting onto the internet within a matter of minutes became a reality.

Little wonder, then, that Apple was one of the first manufacturers to offer a suite of free internet services - then called iTools - featuring online storage, in 2000.

Fast forward to 2006 and iTools has become a paid-for service (priced at £68.99 a year, or £120 per year for a five-user family pack) called .Mac, and Apple has recently released its latest upgrade to the package, a revamp of .Mac's webmail services. But .Mac itself now faces stiff competition from other, free, online services such as Google Mail. So how does .Mac fare against the opposition?

Let's start with the new webmail interface - and very impressive it is, too. At first sight, it's easy to think you've inadvertently switched back to Apple Mail, so closely does the browser window resemble the latter application.The default view has three panes: a left-hand column containing mailboxes, a horizontally split right-hand pane containing email headers at the top, and a preview of the currently selected email at the bottom.

Creating a new email opens a new window on top of this arrangement. If you don't like the idea of multiple open windows you can use the .Mac webmail Preferences to switch to a two-pane view, in which everything happens in the right- hand pane.

Alternatively, for replying to emails at any rate, you can use the new Quick Reply feature - a button next to the currently selected email which opens up a minuscule reply window for dashing off an instant response to a colleague or a friend. Whichever view you choose, the whole effect is very easy on the eye, even on a relatively small screen. It makes managing and writing emails on the hoof a pleasant experience.

IMAP vs POP

The changes to .Mac's webmail services are more than cosmetic, however. Recognising that many of us check our emails from more than one computer nowadays, .Mac mail accounts created using Mail have used IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) in preference to the older, less flexible, POP (Post Office Protocol) for some time.

We're happy to report that Apple's implementation of the message and mailbox synchronising capabilities of IMAP within webmail has dramatically improved with this update. Create a new mailbox in Mail while you're logged into your .Mac account and you can be sure that it will appear in your browser window almost instantly.

Delete it from the .Mac webmail interface and it will disappear from Mail just as quickly. This adds greatly to the impression that this is a well thought-through series of enhancements, aimed at giving us confidence in what is now a mature product. POP hasn't been abandoned altogether, though; in a thoughtful touch on Apple's part, you can set up the .Mac interface to download emails from another POP account, too - useful when you're on the road.

And that's not all. If you prefer to use keyboard shortcuts for commonly performed tasks, you can now enable these in the webmail Preferences. However, be warned that they're not the same as the shortcuts you might be used to (in order to avoid clashes with your web browser's keyboard shortcuts), so you'll need to familiarise yourself with a whole new repertoire.

If all you need is webmail, there are some serious challengers to .Mac - and they're free. Chief amongst these has to be Google's offering. In only a short time, Google Mail has established itself as one of the coolest email addresses to be seen around town with. Undoubtedly, this is in part due to its exclusivity - membership is by invitation from an existing member only.

Google Mail also has some features not found in .Mac webmail; for instance, mail searches take in not only the Subject, From and To info - as with .Mac - but also the text of the email itself. It should be possible to implement this in .Mac too, so this feature might be added to future updates. For now, it's a glaring omission.

Need more features? .Mac and Google Mail come with a host of extras, but for the latter, these are entirely online. Google Calendar matches most functions of the iCal and .Mac combination; as with .Mac, subscriptions to group calendars are supported, making working with colleagues easier.

Where Google's online services score over .Mac, however, is in its suite of online applications, called Docs & Spreadsheets. With these, you can truly work from anywhere, saving your documents to Google's server for retrieving from your next port of call, or exporting them in Microsoft Office-compatible formats.

Admittedly, this service isn't yet functioning with Safari, but you can easily get around this by downloading and installing Firefox. Incidentally, the same applies to Page Creator, Google's online web page creation tool. In terms of storage capacity, too, .Mac begins to look a little miserly - 1GB to be shared between iDisk storage and emails compared to around 2.8GB for Google Mail.

So, should we abandon our .Mac accounts? Or does .Mac have an advantage over its rivals that goes at least some way towards justifying that annual £69 charge? On balance, yes - but only just. What .Mac has to offer that none of its rivals has is integration - not only with Mac OS X, but with the iLife apps, particularly iPhoto and iWeb, and extras such as Backup.

Of course, it helps if your Mac is bang up- to-date - currently that means Mac OS X 10.4 and iLife '06 - but most of the other services insist on up-to-date operating systems and browsers, too. As Apple had the prescience to recognise early on, these days most of us are online a lot of the time, and .Mac makes our online lives that little bit more enjoyable. If only it would bring down the cost...