IMAP vs. POP3 Email

By | March 4, 2011
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IMAP vs. POP3 Email
Things you need to know
A tip for all computer users

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 at the time – be it a smartphone, netbook, laptop or tablet computer.

POP3 email is fine if all you do is access your email from one location. 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. Once you download your mail, it’s stored on your computer. Post Office Protocol or POP email is the original email protocol, and at one time was the only protocol available in most email clients and from most ISPs.

IMAP is different. It’s more advanced and gives you more options about how you wish to handle your email. When you check email using IMAP the mail remains on the server, once you check your email the mail that was on the server is marked as “read” so you don’t keep checking the same mail over and over. Yes, it’s a difficult concept to understand, but it works well for those who access their email from multiple devices or from multiple locations.

With IMAP you set up folders on the mail server and your email and folders always stay on the server. When you check email, the folder structure on the server is mirrored (or 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 with IMAP.

IMAP stands for Internet Message Access Protocol (formerly known as Internet Mail Access Protocol). The most distinctive feature of IMAP is your e-mail messages stay on the mail server, instead of being downloaded to your computer.

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. quicker access to e-mail.

IMAP lets you check your email from multiple computers and devices and all your mail is always synchronized to whatever device you’re using. So if you check your mail from your desktop in Boston, and you fly to Miami and check your email on your laptop the mail on your desktop at home, is exactly the same – including the folder structure and all messages – as 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. You make the choice when you set up your email account whether you want to use POP3 or IMAP.

The major disadvantage to IMAP is if your ISP only provides you with only a minimum amount of mail server space (say 10MB) your server can become full quickly – because all your mail always remains on the server, even after you’ve checked it. And if your mailbox becomes full, your recipient will receive a message that their mail was rejected because your mailbox is full. If you use email heavily – or if your ISP doesn’t give you much server space for email, you probably shouldn’t use IMAP. However Gmail offers IMAP service and over 7GB of mail server space. It’s very unlikely you’d ever use 7+ GB of mail server space no matter how much email you send or receive – or how many attachments you send and receive. Gmail is a good choice for those of you would like to use IMAP but whose ISP doesn’t allow you much space for email. You can set your Gmail account up in your email program, regardless of what email program you use. You can also set up Gmail on your smartphone, tablet PC or PDA. If you use Gmail and IMAP all of your devices’ email programs will all have the same folders and messages, because those folders and messages are universally available to you because they’re all on the mail server all the time. And don’t forget you can set up multiple Gmail accounts and set them all up in your email program and each Gmail account gives you 7+ GB of mail storage.

If you access your mail from two or more devices, or if you travel a lot, you’ll definitely be better off choosing IMAP. 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 a measly 5 or 10 MB. If they are, you’ll either need to get a Gmail account or stick with POP3 mail. And one other benefit of using IMAP is 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 you wanted to save is very close to none.

If you’re forced to stick with POP3, most email clients allow you to “leave a copy of the message on the server”. If you chose this option on one computer, but not on your other computer, the other computer will download the messages and remove them from the server. If you checked “Leave a copy of messages on the server” for all of your devices, you could end up downloading duplicates or triplicates of the same mail. And if your ISP offers you very little mail storage space, your POP3 server will fill up quickly too – and mail will be returned to the sender with a notice that your mailbox is full.

If your ISP support IMAP and offers a fairly generous amount of mail storage space, and you access your mail from several devices, or you travel quite often, then IMAP is the way to go. If you have one computer and you rarely travel then POP3 probably will work fine for you.

If you do want to set up your email account as IMAP accounts you’ll find it very easy to know. Most email programs offer help with setting up IMAP accounts in 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.

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