IMAP vs. POP3 Email: Things you need to know

By | February 22, 2012
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Back in the day, if you had a desktop computer, you were lucky. You came home from work, checked your email, browsed the infant Web and maybe did a little chatting or download and turned off your computer and went to bed.

Today, many of us have laptops, desktops, smart phones, tablet computers, or other connected devices. Many of us are on the go and need to check our email from wherever we are with whatever Internet-connected device we are using then – be it a smartphone, netbook, laptop or tablet computer.

POP3 email is fine if all you do is access your email from one place. POP3 stands for Post Office Protocol 3. When you use this method, you download the mail from the mail server and store your messages in folders on your computer. Once you check your email, there’s no more mail on your mail server. Every time you check your mail, you remove all the mail from your email account on the server.

IMAP is different. It’s more advanced. It gives you more options about how you handle your email. When you check email using IMAP, the mail remains on the server. Once you have checked your email the mail that was on the server is marked as “read” so you don’t keep checking the same mail messages over and over. This works well for those of us who need or want to be able to access their email accounts from multiple devices or from multiple locations.

With IMAP you set up folders on the mail server and your email and folders stay on the server. When you check email, the folder structure on the server is mirrored (synchronized) with your email program. So the folder structure and all messages are synchronized with your email program. You can create message rules using your IMAP-capable email program and do everything else you’re using to using POP3.

Checking your e-mail using an IMAP-capable email program – or accessing you mail with a Web browser (Web Mail) allows you to keep your messages on the mail server where you can access them from anywhere, using different Internet connected devices. IMAP is also faster than POP3 since initially only the mail headers are downloaded. The rest of the message will be visible if you click on the mail to read it. You cannot tell the difference between an email message accessed with IMAP from one downloaded using POP3 – they look identical.

IMAP lets you check your email from multiple computers and devices – your mail is always synchronized to whatever device you’re using. So if you check your mail from your desktop in Boston, and then you fly to Miami and check your email on your laptop, the mail on your desktop at home, is exactly the same – as what you see on your laptop computer in your hotel room in Miami. Unlike POP3 email, where checking your email removes the messages from the mail server, IMAP synchronizes your email between the mail server and your email program.

Most all email programs available today – Windows Live Mail, Windows Mail, Outlook, Thunderbird, and many others – are IMAP-ready – and so are the mail apps available for tablet computers and smart phones. For Windows mail clients, you can choose whether to set up your email account using POP3 or IMAP.

The major disadvantage to IMAP is server space. If your ISP provides you with only a minimum amount of mail server space (say 10MB) your mailboxes can become full quickly. And if your mailbox becomes full, your recipient might receive a message that their mail was rejected because your mailbox is full. You can solve this problem by using a Web-based service such as Gmail or GMX. Both offer IMAP service and virtually unlimited email storage for your email.

Gmail and GMX are good choices for those of you would like to use IMAP but whose ISP doesn’t give you a generous amount of storage space for email. You can set your Gmail or GMX account up in your email program, regardless of what email program you use. You can also set up Gmail or GMX accounts on your smartphones, tablet PCs or PDAs. If you use Gmail or GMX and choose IMAP of your devices’ email applications will be synchronized.

A word about GMX Mail. GMX offers both POP3 and IMAP mail, which you can access with most any email program. GMX offers you unlimited storage space.You can learn more about GMX and/or get a free GMX email account here.

If you access your mail from two or more devices, or if you travel a lot, you’ll definitely want to choose IMAP rather than POP3. You’ll need to make sure your ISP’s mail server supports IMAP and make sure your ISP isn’t living in the dark ages and restricting your mail storage to 5 or 10 MB. If they are, you’ll either need to get a Gmail or GMX account, or stick with POP3 mail. Another benefit of IMAP is that your email is always backed up. Almost all ISPs and Web Mail services keep multiple backups – so the chances you’ll ever lose another email very slim.

If you do want to set up your email account as IMAP accounts you’ll find it very easy. Most email programs offer help with setting up IMAP accounts in their help files. If you have a Gmail account, the offer help setting up IMAP for most email accounts. Login to your Gmail account and look under “Accounts and Import”, “Forwarding and POP/IMAP” online. GMX offers excellent and easy-to-follow instructions and tutorials for many different Windows email programs, Android Mail apps, Apple Mail and iPad’s mail app.

One thought on “IMAP vs. POP3 Email: Things you need to know

  1. Jane

    I was wondering after reading this article…I use Thunderbird on my laptop and use an air card for my internet connection. I currently have Thunderbird set up to receive my Gmail accounts via IMAP. Should I have set them up as Pop3?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *