Almost everyone uses email nowadays. It’s become part of everyday communications and we wonder how we managed when we had to write a letter and wait for its delivery. Unfortunately, when we are setting up email on our new computer or Smartphone, we are sometimes faced with questions which we do not understand, often because of the terminology used, and so we either give up or are forced to get help. This short article deals with two of these terms which you need to have some understanding of: POP3 and IMAP, their meanings are explained as we cover each of them.
In the early days of emails it was important to define a system which all the companies involved in the new technology could agree to and which would allow an email sent by one program to be read by a different program. The method for sending emails that was agreed was called ‘Simple Message Transfer Protocol’ (SMTP). This is more or less standard and requires o real setting up. When receiving emails the first system used was called ‘Post Office Protocol’ (POP). This was the leader for many years and it is now it is on its third version (POP3). More recently, ‘Internet Message Access Protocol’ (IMAP) has become dominant and it is the difference between these two which needs the most understanding.
If you set up your email to use POP3, received emails will be downloaded to your PC or Smartphone etc and generally by default they will be deleted from the server once they are downloaded. Some email programs allow you to prevent this deletion and leave a copy on the server. In the case of Microsoft Office Outlook you can choose to delete messages on the server when they are downloaded, after so many days or when they are deleted on your PC. When you send an email, a copy of the sent email is (normally) kept on the PC from which it is sent.
If you opt for IMAP though, the emails you see on your PC or Smartphone are synchronised with the emails stored on the server. Whatever you do to the copy on the PC will happen to the copy on the server so if you delete the email on your PC, it is gone for good. Copies of emails you send from the PC are stored in a folder (often a subfolder within the inbox) on the PC but this is synchronised on the server as well so sent emails are also on the server.
So how do you choose which one to use?
If you have a single PC and no emails on a phone or tablet etc., then it really doesn’t matter which you choose. If you use POP3 and have the emails deleted from the server once they are downloaded, then the only thing you might need to worry about is losing an important email should your PC go wrong.
If you have more than one device you use to send and receive emails such as a PC and a Smartphone or a laptop, then IMAP offers the potential advantage that whichever one you use, both PC and Smartphone (or laptop) will have the same information. Even emails sent from one device can be seen on the other one. But remember, if you delete an email on one device, it will get deleted from the server and then deleted as well on all other devices. Also, you might need to have more space allocated on your email server since all your emails are stored there until deleted by you, whereas with POP3 they could be deleted as they are downloaded, keeping space needs on the server to a minimum
Nowadays, space is unlikely to be a serious problem (although you might need to ask for more space) and you should make your decision based on how you wish to use emails. If you like the idea of synchronised emails across multiple devices then IMAP is the one to use. If you have just a single device, then you can probably let your email app use whatever it has as its default – nowadays this is often IMAP.
Which Do I Use?
It took me a while to see the benefits of IMAP but this is the one I now use exclusively. I love being able to send an email from my phone and still be able to have a copy of the sent email on my PC and Laptop.