E-Mail Protocols – IMAP vs POP3

When you set up your email account, you currently have two popular protocols to choose from.  They are IMAP and POP3.  But which one should you choose?  This article explains the Pros and Cons of IMAP and POP3.

IMAP: Internet Message Access Protocol

IMAP has seen a huge increase in everyday use within the past few years for several reasons.

Pros

  1. All mail is stored on the server.
  2. Messages will appear the same way every time you set up a new e-mail client, no need to move messages.
  3. You can switch between an e-mail client and webmail at any time and still have the same messages.
  4. If your computer crashes and you lose the data stored on your hard drive your e-mail is still safe, because it is stored on the server.
  5. Makes it easier to access your e-mail using a smartphone because the messages are persisted on the server.

Cons

  1. Your mail is only available on the server, so you may not be able to interact with old messages if you are unable to connect to the internet. Some mail clients have optional settings that can help with this problem, but not all of them.
  2. In the event of catastrophic server hardware failure you could potentially lose some e-mail (but you also have this same risk when using POP3 to download messages to your local computer).
  3. Folders may appear slightly different in your e-mail client using IMAP instead of POP3. This is because the folders are stored on the server instead of locally on your computer.

Most modern webmail interfaces use IMAP to display your account’s e-mail.

POP3: Post Office Protocol, version 3

POP3 has been around for many years.  It is more commonly used by dial-up Internet Service Providers (ISPs) because POP3 tends to work better on slower internet connections.  Instead of having the server do most of the work managing messages (IMAP) the POP3 protocol downloads the messages to the local computer and then manages them on your computer’s hard drive.  Some dial-up ISPs only provide POP3 e-mail access and do not allow IMAP connections.

Pros

  1. If you want to manage your e-mail through one main interface POP3 can put all of your messages in one place.
  2. Messages are stored locally so you can always access your e-mail, even when you can’t get online.
  3. Opening attachments is generally easier with most clients because the attachments are downloaded with the message simultaneously.
  4. Because your messages are downloaded to your computer your disk space limits are only defined by the size of your computer’s hard drive.

Cons

  1. Malicious JavaScript, viruses, and other malware has a better chance of infecting your computer because each message is 100% local.
  2. If your local computer has the only copy of your e-mail then you risk data loss if your hard drive fails and you don’t have proper backups. Servers usually tend to have better backups available.
  3. E-mail clients using POP3 can be set to leave messages on the server, but as your mailbox on the server grows in size it will take longer and longer for the client application to check for new e-mail (because it will have to check what it has download against what is on the server and then download the new messages).

POP3 is still the most commonly used e-mail protocol because of its simplicity when run in its most basic configuration and its age/reliability. The more complicated a protocol or service is the more likely it is to create more complex support situations.

Making Your Pick

Deciding which e-mail protocol is right for you is entirely dependent upon your needs and what you are doing with that particular e-mail account.

Pick IMAP if …

  • You frequently travel and want to have flexible access to your e-mail.
  • You want to view e-mail on both your computer and a cellphone or smartphone.
  • You check the same e-mail account frequently from both home, work, or other locations.

Pick POP3 if …

  • You are checking a simple e-mail address that you set up only to serve a small, specific purpose.
  • You are concerned about security, and don’t want your e-mail stored on a server indefinitely. (This is a debatable point and means different things to different people. This is not a recommendation, just an opinion that some users maintain regarding security)
  • You are on a dial-up internet connection.
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Published in: on March 26, 2011 at 1:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

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