If you’ve ever used email on a smartphone or computer, you’ve come to see the terms IMAP or POP. Which of the two should you choose as you chosen email delivery method? If you are not sure the definition nor connotations that each bring, then you are not alone. That’s exactly why we, at Mr Aberthon, are here.
This bit isn’t that complicated, actually. IMAP stands for Internet Message Access Protocol, and POP stands for Post Office Protocol. Both have been around for many years. Yet 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. Yet it can also cause problems if you’re not fully aware of how it all works.
When using POP, the email server downloads all emails to your individual computer, laptop or mobile phone. They can be seen even when offline. Yet any changes are saved on your device vs. on the email network. So you will need to make the same changes on each device for them all to have it. A hardware crash is fatal for all email information that is not stored on the network.
This system is newer and functions different then POP. With IMAP, your device connects live via the internet to the email server. It constantly updates the files on the server, hence the email data being identical on any device in which it is seen.
|Synchronized Across Devices||Stored and Retrieved as Needed|
|Changes Made||Are Saved On Server|
Are Saved On That One Device
Number of Possible
Simultaneous Log On’s
|Internet Connection||Is Necessary|
Only Necessary To Send and Receive Emails.
Emails Can be Seen While Offline.
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. They are then stored and 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. It’s worth mentioning that the POP3 (POP v3) we use today dates back to 1988. The only amendments since that time have been to do with making the login and transfer of data more secure.
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. 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. It involves setting up a second account in your client and copying all the emails across to the new inbox. All that must be done before leaving your old email provider. This can be very time consuming with large inboxes. It 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.
IMAP and POP are mail retrieval and storage systems. They have 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. It uses a relay system to get emails to where they need to be. Without SMTP, email sending and receiving simply wouldn’t work.
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. 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. That is because 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 pop.address.com and imap.address.com 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.