No more rushing to the post office before closing time. No more standing in lines. Today, anyone with a computer and a decent printer can play post office thanks to PC Postage, a new way of printing your own stamps that was introduced by the U.S. Postal Service last summer. Of course, postage meters have been in widespread use for decades, but renting a machine from Pitney Bowes or one of its rivals can cost a small business $800 or more a year. Besides, with PC Postage you use equipment you already have—the computer you're reading this on.
PC Postage sounded like it was for me: easy, affordable and, most of all, it put me in control. Does the reality live up to the hype? To find out, I tested the first two PC Postage products to hit the market—E-Stamp and Stamps.com. (Microsoft, which publishes Slate, owns approximately 5 percent of E-Stamp.)
E-Stamp charges $49.95 for its software/hardware combination, which includes an "electronic vault"—the postage and account-information storage device that connects to the parallel port of your PC—and an address-matching CD-ROM. (If you cancel your E-Stamp account, you must return the vault to the company.) A 10 percent "convenience fee" is levied every time you purchase postage, which is done over the Internet. (The minimum convenience fee is $4.99 and the maximum is $24.99.) Both E-Stamp and Stamps.com limit users to $500 of stored postage. If you buy $500 worth of postage at a time, using E-Stamp the cost of posting a first-class letter works out to about 34.6 cents each. If you purchase, say, $20 worth of postage at a time, the cost per first-class letter jumps to 41.2 cents each. E-Stamp currently offers a $50 bonus when you make your first purchase of postage, which essentially makes setup of the service free.
Installation of the E-Stamp software and hardware was quick and easy, although PC Postage programs require a bureaucratic step that other software doesn't: Before you can use the products, you need a license from the postal service. Both companies made the application process painless, and my licenses were granted a couple of hours after I registered the products online.
E-Stamp won't print postage unless its address verification CD-ROM is in the drive and it matches the address you've entered. Address verification is an intrusive bother, sometimes taking a couple of minutes per address, but I have to admit that on at least two occasions it alerted me to errors in my address book. The CD-ROM that ships with E-Stamp expires in 30 days. The postal service supplies an updated version at no additional cost within a couple of weeks, with further updates every six months.
Having addressed a bunch of letters, I was eager to print out 33-cent commemorative Elvises, Marilyns, and wood ducks. Alas, all PC Postage is printed as black-and-white bar codes—"Information Based Indicia" to you—which the postal service's machines can read. The bar codes contain a wealth of information that helps expedite delivery: the amount of postage struck, the class and type of mail sent, the ZIP codes of the sender and recipient, and a digital signature that identifies the licensed user. Because the user's identity is encoded in the indicia, parcels stamped with PC Postage are exempt from the Unabomber-inspired regulations that require all conventionally stamped parcels weighing more than 16 ounces to be handed directly to a postal clerk. Is this consumer convenience or the beginning of Big Brother? You make the call.
E-Stamp can also be configured to print on various Avery mailing labels for parcel shipment. I write "can be configured" because E-Stamp repeatedly misfired on my otherwise reliable 4-month-old Hewlett-Packard 895Cse inkjet. Oh, the test sheet always printed fine, but I experienced occasional timeouts when I sent postage to the printer. I was charged for the postage even though no labels printed, and there was no hope of getting a refund. E-Stamp will only credit your account if your refund requests include the misprinted postage. E-Stamp refunds misprinted postage in full (if you make your request within 30 days of the misprint). Stamps.com refunds 90 percent.
The Stamps.com system is simpler and more efficient than E-Stamp. You don't need any additional hardware, but you must be connected to the Internet to verify addresses and print postage. The software can be downloaded at no charge via the Internet or installed from a free CD-ROM. Stamps.com works out to be cheaper than E-Stamp. Under Stamps.com's Simple Plan, you pay a fee of 10 percent of all postage used—as opposed to all postage purchased—with a monthly minimum of $1.99 and a maximum of $19.99. Currently, Simple Plan users receive $10 free postage when they sign up. The Power Plan allows you to buy all the postage you want for a flat service fee of $15.99 per month and is currently sweetening the deal with $50 of free postage and a complimentary 10-pound digital scale. If you use $20 of postage per month on the Simple Plan, a first-class stamp will cost you 36.2 cents. If you spend $500 per month on the Power Plan, the cost per stamp will be 34 cents.
B ecause Stamps.com syncs to the Internet and not an electronic vault, you can print postage from your account on any Web-connected computer. (Don't forget, however, that you're supposed to drop the parcels in a local mailbox and mail them on the date printed on the indicium.) Stamps.com printed reliably every time I tested it, and it did a better job of importing addresses from my various computer address books than E-Stamps' unwieldy AddressGrabber software. Both products add ZIP+4 codes and edit the destination address to meet USPS specifications for approved abbreviations.
I preferred Stamps.com to E-Stamp because it was smoother and more reliable—not to mention cheaper. E-Stamp does have better integration with Microsoft Word, though. It lets you print the postage in the body of a letter, which can be read when slipped into one of E-Stamps' exclusive-design three-window envelopes, which comes in handy if you do a lot of mass mailings using Word templates. Finally, E-Stamp bests Stamps.com by offering Parcel Post in addition to first-class, Priority, and Express Mail rates. If you're running eBay auctions out of your garage, E-Stamp is the way to go. (That advantage might disappear, however, if Stamps.com makes good on its plan to market a product with United Parcel Service that would allow users to select a carrier, print postage or a shipping label, schedule pick-ups, and track parcels.)
Postage and fees aren't your only PC Postage costs. Both systems require special labels if you mail parcels or nonstandard envelopes. Both companies flog these stickers for between $7 and $11 per 150. They also sell digital scales that talk directly to their software and automatically compute the postage for you. E-Stamp's 6-pound scale goes for $99.95 and Stamps.com's 10-pounder is currently on special offer for $49.95. But since both products allow you to enter the weight manually, if you already have an old-fashioned analog scale, that will suffice.
One question before you buy: Can you stomach the minor invasion of privacy that will ensue? You must inform PC Postage companies whenever you move so that your USPS license can be updated. Also, every two weeks the software automatically uploads the "event log"—a record of the dates, recipient ZIP codes, and amounts of postage you've printed—to the USPS. Consumer convenience or the next stage of Big Brother? The USPS says it uses the event log "to analyze aggregate customer usage of USPS products and services."
If you already rent a postage meter, switch to PC Postage and say goodbye to purchasing pricey proprietary ink cartridges, and paying "reset fees" (don't ask). But unless you're using $15 or more postage a month, you're probably better off licking stamps. Another consideration: Both products are Windows only. If you're a Mac-only person, try the simplified postage meter, PROmail from Simply Postage. It costs $49.95 with a monthly "service charge" of $14.95.
Finally, the PC Postage systems can't currently be used for international destinations or to send fourth-class (book-rate) mail. And while I never thought that I'd want to be able to send bulk mail, the fact that PC Postage won't permit me to compete with Publishers Clearinghouse now seems like a unreasonable restriction on my freedom. Until they solve these glitches, you'll be seeing me in line at the post office.