Given that more and more people are owning smartphones, and doing all the associated tasks such as web browsing, social media and email on a daily basis, it raises the question of how easy or difficult it might be to set up such things on new devices. Web browsing and social media are straightforward enough, usually requiring little more than a login for whatever site or service you’re using, but what about email? It’s true that some devices try and help out with looking for the relevant server details for you, but it isn’t always accurate, so what do you do and, more importantly, do you choose IMAP or POP as you chosen email delivery method?

What Are IMAP and POP?

This bit isn’t that complicated, actually. IMAP stands for Internet Message Access Protocol, and POP stands for Post Office Protocol. Although both have been around for many years, POP is slightly older and slightly less flexible than IMAP, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored, for reasons we’ll get to shortly. IMAP addressed some of the shortcomings of the POP method of email delivery, but also can cause problems if you’re not fully aware of how it all works.

Post Office Protocol

POP is actually a pretty easy to understand method of receiving email. We say “receiving”, as the POP standard – and IMAP, as it happens –  doesn’t actually involve the sending of emails. That is done by a separate protocol called Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) which we’ll have a quick look at later.

In its simplest form, getting email using a POP server simply involves downloading any and all emails to your local PC/Mac, where they are stored and then retrieved when you start your email client. The upside of this is that you always have access to the emails once they are downloaded, even without an internet connection. The downside is that you will lose the lot if you have a hard drive problem and haven’t backed up recently.

POP was never intended to be a very complex thing, and has hardly changed over the years. With the advent of mobile devices, which don’t have the ability to download lots of emails and store them internally, POP got left behind a little bit as the switch to IMAP became more widespread. If you don’t use a smartphone or tablet, it may be that POP will suit you just fine but, if you do like email on the go, then IMAP is probably where you need to look.

We mentioned about POP being a little older than IMAP, so it’s worth mentioning that the POP3 (POP v3) we use today dates back to 1988 and the only amendments since that time have been to do with making the login and transfer of data more secure.

Internet Message Access Protocol

IMAP4 (IMAP v4) is newer than POP, but not by much. The current version dates from the early 1990s and so, like POP, is ancient in technology terms. It’s probably testament to the simplicity and efficacy of both methods that they have never been superseded.

The crucial advantage that IMAP has over POP is that the emails are not downloaded to your desktop or mobile device (they can be downloaded to the desktop, but that isn’t usually the default setting) but are instead read directly from the server by your email client. What this gives over using POP is the ability to log into your emails from any internet connected device, anywhere in the world. All you need to know is your login details.

IMAP also allows for synchronization of custom folders so, if you have a folder tree on your desktop machine for different people or tasks, this will be reflected wherever you log on. It also means that deleting an email on one device will mean it will show as deleted if you log on from somewhere else. This sync ability makes reading and writing emails seamless across all devices. It also allows more than one person to login to the account at once, so shared email accounts can be used. With POP, only one connection is allowed to the server at any one time.

The downside to IMAP is that, if you ever change email hosts, taking your emails with you gets a lot more difficult and involves setting up a second account in your client and copying all the emails across to the new inbox before leaving your old email provider. This can be very time consuming with large inboxes, and isn’t always fully successful, especially if you have emails with large attachments. Because, with POP, all emails are downloaded, you will have access for as long as they are retained on your hard drive.

Simple Mail Transfer Protocol

IMAP and POP are mail retrieval and storage systems, with no actual facility to send emails without using a separate SMTP server. This is why you often need to have different server addresses in your email client for sending and receiving. SMTP servers act as the point of access between the sending and receiving parties, using a relay system to get emails to where they need to be. Without SMTP, email sending and receiving simply wouldn’t work.

So, Which Method To Use?

It all comes down to need and choice. If you like to have email facilities with you at all times, then IMAP is the obvious choice, as it will sync all your usage across all devices. If you only use a desktop, or you prefer the extra security of not having all your emails on a server looked after by someone else, then POP may be best for you. Alternatively, POP on your desktop and IMAP on your smartphone might be the best option, although this would mean emails deleted on your phone will still need deleting on your desktop, as the two methods can’t be synchronized.

If you only use a mobile device, you have no choice but to use IMAP, and you may well be doing so without even realizing it. Many email clients will now search for the correct settings when adding a new email account, with all you needing to do is add your login details. Because of this, they will only search for IMAP settings. Many email providers and webhosts use and to easily identify the different servers.

POP is also only able to download email to a schedule you set manually, which can mean delays in seeing important emails arrive. IMAP is able to retrieve emails the moment they arrive on the server, and is much more efficient in showing you new emails. The drawback to this is it can be a little more battery-intensive. Usually, though, you can opt out of this “Push” method and set a schedule for getting new emails.

Both methods work perfectly well, and it really comes down to your own preference.