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Email - POP3 and IMAP


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I was poking around the internet looking for settings to get Thunderbird to work with Outlook.com and kept finding a lot of sites with comments that ragged on POP3 as 'dead' and 'useless'. A lot of the discussion seemed to indicate they could not get their email folder structures to sync correctly across their mobile devices when using POP3. That's fair enough, but I never liked the idea of leaving my email on any ISP's servers for too long anyway lest it evaporate after one of their unplanned outages. I've used both IMAP and POP3 and, on my main ISP at least, the POP3 server seems to respond quicker. I've always checked Thunderbird's "Leave messages on server until I delete them" box to make messages available when I'm on the road. As long as I don't delete it with a web client away from home then it's still there when I start Thunderbird again.

I know POP3 is an older protocol than IMAP but is there something else going on that I'm not aware of or considering?

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I rather Google's servers manage my email. I don't have to worry about a catastrophic incident on my end.

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I think it is the usual FUD about "newer", "cooler", "leet".

Usually POP3 "downloads" mail whilst IMAP doesn't.

This has traditionally meant for the least technical knowledgeable user that with one the mailbox on the server is emptied (the message is copied to local and doesn't exist anymore on the server) and with the other the mail remains on the server and thus you have a mailbox accessible from several different devices.



What is the difference to me?

If you decide to configure your email client or mobile device to connect to your mailbox using POP3 then what happens is that the client or device contacts the mailbox and allows them to download the contents of the Inbox to their own local storage. The mail then will only exist on that local storage and would not be available to download via another client or device. It is however worth noting at this point that a number of clients and devices do allow you to enable a setting to ‘keep a copy of the email on the server’ this would then allow them to be download via a second client if required.

When using IMAP with a client or device they will simply connect to the mailbox and display the full mailbox to you without actually downloading the content to local storage. This has the benefit of allowing you to manage your mailbox from multiple clients and devices and seeing the same content.

If you think about your mailbox as a post-box full of letters, and your mail clients and devices as postmen it can become a little easier to understand the basic fundamental differences between the two protocols.

When using POP3 a postman would visit the post-box and empty the contents and take it away with him. If a second postman then arrived he would only have access to the letters that had been placed into the post-box since the first visit.

When using IMAP a postman would visit the post-box and take a copy of the letters and take those copies away with him, then when a second postman arrived he would do the same and still be able to see all of the letters placed into the post-box.

Which one should I use?

Which protocol you decide to use depends mainly on how you will be accessing and managing your email. If you are likely to be viewing your mail from multiple locations, clients or devices then It is usually best to use IMAP. IMAP will allow you to manage your mailbox from all of these different locations and clients while the actual mailbox content remains on the provider’s mail server. If you were to do the same using POP3 with the ‘Keep a copy on the server’ setting enabled then you are in essence simply creating multiple copies of your mailbox and any management of the mail into sub folders would need to be repeated on each individual client.

If you are simply going to be using one email client and do not want to worry about reaching the mailbox size limit, due to the amount of email, then POP3 would be the way to go. This provides a simple service to allow you to download all of your mail to one location managed by you. The mailbox on the provider’s server would always be empty or close to it as a result and so you would never need to worry about reaching the limit.


If in doubt use IMAP, this gives you the ability to manage your mail from a client or device while still giving the peace of mind that there is a backup, on the mail provider’s server, of your mail. However if you are only accessing your mail from one place and need to keep all your mail locally, POP3 may be a better option.

Of course one can set a POP3 client to leave mail on the server alright.

And, in case of slow connections, limited resources, whatever there are nice programs that allow to check (and delete or download/move to local or copy to local) e-mails by only checking the object (and/or a given number of chars of the message).

A very good tool I use since years (and which BTW has proven to be a very good "preventive measure" against phishing and maul-originated malware) is npop:



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Thank you for those comments. I always thought of POP3 and IMAP as just different ways to view and transfer email. I would have expected to see comments like "I found IMAP easier to use than POP3" rather than "POP3 is useless and you are stoopid for using it". I know that even email web clients have dozens of options and settings (including Outlook.com) that the average user probably never sees. This subject strikes me as another example of users just mouthing off rather than RTFM.

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