How-to: POP and IMAP Your E-mail

Mailbox Background by George HodanSmart-phones, netbooks, tablets; more devices on-line, more services to choose and set up. More technology, more terminology. More users who are coming to this for the first time. Surely it just works – doesn’t it?

E-mail, then. What’s the best way to ensure the best connectivity and the best mailing experience? Web-based? Server based? Cloud? Let’s cut through the confusion and cover the basics. E-mail comes to you via two methods: POP and IMAP.

If you have set up e-mail clients yourself, you will have certainly come across the terms POP and IMAP, without necessarily understanding what they are. Lets start with the definitions: Internet Message Access Protocol, and Post Office Protocol. A protocol is a set of rules and mechanisms by which something is achieved. Both POP and IMAP allow you to read emails locally using an intermediary program; you probably use some already Microsoft Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird, Eudora, GNUMail, or  simply Apple Mail on Macintosh and iPad.

These are both tried and trusted protocols from the 1980’s. POP was designed to download emails from a remote server to a local device. IMAP was designed to allow remote access to emails stored on a remote server whilst leaving them on that server; an early invention of cloud storage if you will. It’s just that developments since have extended the capabilities of both.

POP works like this:

  • You connect to a mail server
  • Retrieve all mail received to your account since the last time you checked
  • You store it locally as new mail
  • The messages are deleted the server – unless you opt to leave a copy there
  • Disconnect from the mail server

The advantages are:

  • All mail stored is locally, so it is always accessible, even without an Internet connection
  • An Internet connection is only needed briefly for sending and receiving mail
  • It doesn’t require a lot of long-term server storage space unless you elect to leave copies of mail on the server
  • You can consolidate multiple email accounts and servers into one inbox


  • it assumes only one client has access to mail on the server
  • emails are locally in one place

Choose POP if:

  • you want to access your mail from only one single device
  • you need constant access to your email, regardless of internet availability
  • your server storage space is limited

IMAP is a little different:

  • You connect to a mail server
  • Your IMAP client fetches and caches your mail messages locally
  • You read, edit, delete, tag messages on the client; these edits are sent back up to the mail server which synchronises
  • You disconnect and the cache is emptied.

With IMAP, all the messages and folder structures are stored on the server and only  temporary copies are cached locally. You could choose to store local copies permanently.

The advantage of IMAP is to allow multiple clients or users to manage the same inbox, so you can log in from home, work, desktop PC, smart phone or tablet  and you will always see the same emails and folder structure stored on the server; all changes you make to local copies are immediately synchronised to the server. Therefore:

  • Mail stored on the remote server, is accessible from multiple locations and devices
  • only message headers are downloaded in the initial view, which is faster and lighter on connection usage.  until content is explicitly requested
  • Mail is automatically backed up on properly managed servers
  • It saves on local storage
  • Most IMAP services have the option to store mail locally.


  • Internet connection needed to access mail
  • An IMAP service can be less flexible and have fewer options for filtering, mail rules and so on

Choose IMAP if:

  • you want to access your email from multiple different devices
  • you have a reliable and constant internet connection
  • you want to receive a quick overview of new emails or emails on the server
  • your local storage space is limited
  • you are worried about backing up

There’s no question IMAP is king in the world of multiple, mobile, always-on devices connected to the cloud; it’s more convenient and suits the majority of users. POP still has it’s role in the workplace and on the desktop, it’s more configurable and doesn’t rely on that always-on connection. AJS

Related: How-to: Synchronise Windows 8 Mail app

Image credit: Mailbox Background by George Hodan from Public Domain Pictures

3 thoughts on “How-to: POP and IMAP Your E-mail

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