What’s the difference between POP and IMAP?

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If you use Outlook, Windows Live Mail, Thunderbird or some other email software on your computer, this is something you (or your tech) has dealt with. When you set up a new email account, one of the questions is whether or not you want the email protocol to be POP or IMAP. What’s the difference between them? Does it matter which one you use?

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First, you should know this: if you get your email by going to a website, the POP vs. IMAP question doesn’t really apply to you. You just go to the email website and there’s your email. You can read it, delete it, send email, whatever you want to do. The POP/IMAP issue only applies when you are running an actual email software program on your computer.

In the past, POP email protocol was the most popular choice. IMAP is now gaining in popularity mainly because of everyone getting email on their smartphones and tablets.

The main difference between the two has to do with syncing your various devices.

When you use IMAP, for example, your laptop that uses MS Outlook would always be in sync with the inbox that you access via the web (such as the one at Gmail.com). So if you open Outlook on your laptop, read an email and then delete it, the next time you go to Gmail.com you will see that it’s automatically deleted there as well. The website version of your email will always be the same as your Outlook version on the computer.

On the other hand, if you use POP, the devices don’t sync up automatically. You could check your email in Outlook on your laptop, and then if you go to the Gmail.com website, you would still see those same emails there in the Inbox.

Should you use POP or IMAP?

It’s really a personal preference. For my email, I use POP for a couple of reasons. The “not necessarily logical” reason is that I’ve always used POP and I’m used to how it works. I know what to expect. There is some value in familiarity, and it does work for me. The other reason I like it though is because it means I always have a backup of my emails on the Gmail.com web server. I know that even if I accidentally delete an email in Outlook on my computer, I can go to Gmail.com and that email will still be there. And it will really be there indefinitely, since Google gives you so much email server space to work with. I’ve had my Gmail account since they first came out in 2004, and right now I am only using about 30% of the available space.

I have to say though, the trend is moving toward IMAP. This is mainly because of people having so many different devices. One person might have a desktop, laptop, iPad and smartphone – and probably gets email on all of them. With IMAP, all of those devices are automatically synced with each other so if you get one email you don’t have to delete it from 4 different devices. That’s efficiency. But, you better make sure you have your email backed up somewhere, because once you delete it from one device, it’s gone from all of them automatically.

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marge201
October 20th, 2014

Great tutorial, Scott. I get gmail and yahoo in Outlook and use POP. It’s set up so that yahoo deletes from server (or so I thought) when it is received in Outlook. I have gmail set up to leave on server.

After getting my computer back from my computer guy after a crazy virus, he set up yahoo as IMAP. Well, it was horrible because even though I keep my yahoo.com email totally cleaned up (and as I said before, they’re supposed to delete), I had thousands of old Yahoo messages in my Outlook inbox. It was NUTS. I switched to POP and then deleted who knows how many yahoo emails from Outlook, many of which I shouldn’t have and needed (old ones that I eventually wanted to reply) but I was ruthless and couldn’t possibly go through all those old emails that suddenly appeared in my Outlook inbox thanks to IMAP.

Great stuff here, Scott, as usual. Thank you!

Joe Kuehn
October 23rd, 2014

You have 10 years of email saved! My god. Great for your biographer