IMAP and POP are both popular methods for retrieving email from a server so you can access it on your desktop. Both protocols date back to the 1980’s, and both are supported by most desktop email applications. Unfortunately, unless you manage your own mail server, IMAP support on the server has been a little harder to come by. That is, until Google recently added the long-awaited much-anticipated support for IMAP to their Gmail accounts.
The next question that comes to mind is “Which is better, POP or IMAP?” That’s a good question, and the answer is very simple. IMAP, hands down. Any more questions? No? Good, let’s move on.
The key difference between POP and IMAP is where your email is stored, or more specifically, where the authoritative message store is. With POP, you connect to the server, download all your messages to your computer, then (optionally) remove the messages from the server. With IMAP, you connect to the server and stay connected as long as you have your email program open. All of your messages are stored on the server, and then copied to your computer. Additionally, the IMAP server can store all of your mail folders, including sent and deleted messages.
The benefits of IMAP are profound. First, you can access your email anywhere, on any number of computers and platforms, using a variety of applications, and your messages and folders are always right where you left them. Create a folder with Thunderbird on Windows, and you’ll see it in Evolution on Linux. Send a message from your iPhone, and you can search it from Mail.app. You get the idea.
Backup your computer much? If not, IMAP can be your email backup. If you’re ISP has its act together, the email on the server is already backed up, replicated, and highly available. But even if your ISP is destroyed by a meteorite, every computer that connects to your IMAP account has a backup of all your messages. This does rely on your configuration, but it’s the configuration you want – sync all messages and attachments for offline use.
To be honest, IMAP has had its share of problems. The various server and client implementations of IMAP can cause some strange mailbox behavior when you switch between applications or servers. But in most cases the client configuration can be tuned to fix any problems.
Many users of both POP and IMAP can access their account using webmail, which often uses IMAP to connect to your mail server. This is a great way to keep your email accessible when you are away from your computer. But if you’ve ever accessed your POP account through webmail, you know that the messages you send are only ever accessible through webmail. The remedy, of course, is an account with IMAP and webmail. Now where would you get one of those?
Now that Gmail supports IMAP, you can use it as your webmail and your authoritative message store while using any number of email applications to access your account. Their free account comes with 4GB of storage, will probably grow in the future, and Google has proven themselves as a fast, reliable, and relatively spam free email provider. There’s no longer any reason to use POP. Ever.
Of course, as great as Gmail is, not everyone is anxious to use a free ad-supported email account. If you’re looking for commercial alternatives, I’ve been a happy and loyal customer of fastmail.fm for 5 years, and will continue to use them for the foreseeable future. They provide the best IMAP/webmail/webdav services available for very reasonable prices. And Google doesn’t get to read it.