Get the Best of Both E-Mail Worlds

By Joseph Moran | Posted December 07, 2007

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Most of us with personal e-mail accounts (that is, those not provided by an employer) probably have one of two different account types — either Web-based or POP-based (Post Office Protocol). This week we'll compare the pros and cons of both e-mail types and look at a third method that offers the best features of each.

It's not hard to see why Web-based e-mail accounts are so popular. Aside from the fact that they're often free (at least as long as you can operate within relatively modest storage limits), they provide flexible and convenient access from a browser on almost any Internet-connected machine.

The biggest advantage of Webmail is that it's server- rather than client-based. No matter from which computer you access your mail, you can always get to all your messages, both new and old. But although convenient, Webmail also has a major drawback: You must be online not just to receive new messages, but also to compose new ones or even view old mail.

By contrast, the capability to work with e-mail offline is a distinct advantage of conventional client-based POP e-mail. When you access a POP e-mail account using e-mail software like Microsoft Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird, you need only to connect to the mail server briefly to download your new mail. This leaves you free to peruse or reply to messages at your leisure, whether or not you have an Internet connection handy. (Of course, you do need to periodically reconnect to the mail server in order to download new incoming messages or send outgoing ones.)

The major downside to the POP approach is that once messages are downloaded to your mail client they're deleted from the server, which leaves the only copy of all of your historical mail tied to a particular piece of software running on a particular computer. This not only makes it critical that you back up your own mailbox, but it effectively precludes accessing your old mail from any other system.

For example, if you wanted to access your personal mail account from work or some other location, you can configure a mail client on another system with your account settings to send and receive new messages, and even configure that secondary client to leave messages on the server so they'd still be available for download on your main system later on. But this is a kludgey solution at best, because it won't give you access to messages previously received or sent on your primary system, and conversely, any messages you sent from your second system wouldn't be available on the first one.

IMAP to the Rescue
There is a way to have the same flexibility you get with Webmail without giving up the POP's capability to use the e-mail software of your choice or work with mail offline. Enter IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) e-mail accounts that, unlike POP, offer a server-centric approach to e-mail.

With an IMAP e-mail account, you can still use client software to view and manage your mail, but instead of POP's "download and delete," with IMAP your mail client essentially lets you work with a local copy of a server-based mailbox. All changes to the mailbox — any messages sent or received, any organization scheme you create for your folders, are replicated and stored back on the server. As a result, any other system you use to access your e-mail (say, the computer at work) will have access to all the same information.

Now for the bad news. Although pretty much every mail client out there supports IMAP, it's not enough to simply have a client that works with IMAP — your e-mail provider must support it as well. And though IMAP's been around for quite a while, it still isn't widely supported. Most of the major ISPs (upon which many people rely for personal e-mail accounts) currently only offer POP mail accounts, probably because supporting IMAP would significantly increase their customers' usage of disk space. IMAP support among mail hosting providers is better, though still relatively few offer IMAP accounts. Some that do include 1and1, FastMail and Register.com. (Although it's primarily Web-based, Google's Gmail supports IMAP if you access your mailbox with a mail client.)

If you want to have the best of both e-mail worlds, contact your ISP or mail provider and look into getting an IMAP account.

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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