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On Internet, You’ve Got (Paper) Mail

Years ago, I had a computer student I’ll call Mrs. K, whose specialty was negativity. Her ability to find fault with absolutely anything amounted to a gift.

Glorious fall foliage? Too much raking. “The Sound of Music”? Manipulative, sappy, two-dimensional. Mother Teresa? Overhyped.

It must have been a relative of Mrs. K, then, who came up with Earth Class Mail. It’s a service that scans your incoming United States Postal Service mail and displays it on a private Web page. In other words, you avoid everything that would have bothered Mrs. K about paper mail: clutter, paper cuts and the risk of anthrax.

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O.K., there are a few more substantial reasons why you might want an online mailbox whose address never changes. Maybe you travel a lot, you live in an R.V. or you spend your winters in Florida. Maybe you’re occasionally stationed overseas. Maybe you’d like all your mail stored online for easy retrieval forever.

Companies may like the concept because it assists with record-keeping and storage, or because it keeps the mail coming even through mergers, moves or downsizings.

In any case, it’s an intriguing concept. Here’s how it works.

At earthclassmail.com, you sign up for a new mailing address, which you distribute to your chosen correspondents. You probably don’t want to fill out an official postal service change-of-address form; magazines, catalogs and packages, for example, are a little tough to scan.

If they do arrive, the company scans only the front and back of magazines, or the shipping label of the package. In other words, you probably want this to be a secondary address, not your only one.

Next thing you know, you start getting e-mail messages that say, “You have new mail. Estimated number of pages: 2 pages or less,” or whatever. There’s even a little scanned picture of the front of the envelope (or the writing side of a postcard).

When you click the link, you go to a private Web page. After you log in, you see your In-box. You see a little image of each piece of mail, along with its dimensions, weight, date, date of arrival and so on.

You also see several buttons, which provide you the possible options for dealing with your mail individually or all at once:

“Scan” tells the company to slit open the envelope and scan the contents. This takes time (one day) and may cost money (more on this shortly). You can opt to have every incoming envelope auto-scanned; that saves you time but, if you start getting junk mail, could cost you money.

Once the scanning is finished, another e-mail message lets you know it’s ready. To read the scan, you click a link to download a PDF version of the scanned mail, the front and back of every page. The PDF is extremely easy to read, file, forward and store, but it would be nice if you could also read the mail right there on the Web site without having to download and open something. It would also be nice to get the scans by e-mail. (The company says it doesn’t offer that option because e-mail isn’t secure enough, but why not let the customer make that call?)

“Recycle” is great for junk mail. It’s very satisfying to send such mail into its next life with a single click.

“Shred” is for mail that you want to make sure nobody else will ever see again.

“Ship” tells the company to put the mail back in the delivery system (in this case, DHL). This is for items you want to hold in your hot little analog hands: a letter from Grandma, a photo, a check. You can have something shipped to a different person, too, like your lawyer or accountant.

If you’re a little queasy about the thought of total strangers going through your personal correspondence, the company wants you to know that its employees have special security clearance. They wear pocketless uniforms, and they’re under constant video surveillance.

They’re not allowed to bring anything at all into the facility: no phones, cameras, not even pencils or pens. The company seals the ports on all the computers on site, to prevent workers from copying the scans.

If, despite all that, you’re still queasy, well, you probably shouldn’t sign up.

Over all, the service works as advertised. It’s not a total joy, however.

One problem is the Web site itself, which feels heavy, slow and technical. There’s no way to label or annotate your mail, to organize it or even to search it. An “Archive” button files the scanned image, but it all winds up in one giant folder; you can’t organize it within that folder. Occasionally, the “From” column identifies the sender’s actual name and address, but usually, it just says “unknown,” even if the return address was laser-printed.

Note, too, that mail sent to your Earth Class mailbox takes longer to reach you — up to a week — since it has to be reshipped to the scanning plant in Oregon. (An East Coast branch is supposed to open later this year.)

Earth Class Mail is not for those on a budget, and the price plan makes cellphone plans look like a model of simplicity. You’re expected to know in advance how much mail you’re going to get.

Some examples: for $10 a month, paid a year in advance, you’re entitled to receive 35 pieces of mail each month, and to have 50 of their pages scanned. If you get more than that, you’re charged 30 cents a piece and 25 cents a scanned page.

There’s also a $20 monthly plan (100 pieces, 100 scans, lower overage fees) and a $60 plan (250 pieces, 200 scans) that doesn’t make much sense, since you’re paying three times as much for only twice as many scans. But whatever.

Physically forwarding mail costs still more. Asking for four letters to be mailed to me cost $6.80; it came by DHL courier.

If you don’t want a P.O. box, then for an extra $20 or $25 a month, you can have a street address in Hollywood, the financial district in San Francisco or Park Avenue in Manhattan. As the Web site cheerfully observes, getting one of these mailing addresses comes “at a fraction of what an executive suite costs.”

(A note on the competition: paperlesspobox.com costs less — $10 monthly for 200 scans — but it’s much less sophisticated. They scan everything and e-mail it to you. You don’t have the option to review the envelopes before they’re opened and scanned, and you don’t get choices like Shred or Recycle.)

The high prices are easy to understand; every step of the service involves manual labor. But over all, the cost is a pretty persuasive argument for just using e-mail.

On the other hand, there’s something special about postal mail that makes me hope it never goes away completely. For the purposes of reviewing Earth Class Mail, I invited readers of my blog to send mail to my Earth Class Mail address — and bless their hearts, they did just that. It poured in from all over the United States, as well as Brazil, the Virgin Islands, the Netherlands, Israel, Germany, Thailand, Canada, England, Vietnam and Japan. Most wrote clever quips or friendly hellos. (Thanks, everyone!)

The experiment reminded me of what’s missing from e-mail: that magical sense of transport. Getting e-mail from Vietnam is just not the same as holding a postcard in your hands (or even looking at a scan of it), seeing the original handwriting, looking at the photo on the front and pondering its journey across the world.

So yes, Mrs. K would have had a field day finding fault with Earth Class Mail. But for anyone who still sees value in postal mail, if only for special occasions, here’s to anything that helps bring it into the 21st century.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.