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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 8 Issue 2
February 2014
Moving Your Email from POP to IMAP? Read This!

If you only use one computer or smartphone or tablet to check your email, it hardly matters whether it uses the POP or IMAP email protocol. However, once you have multiple devices accessing your email, the best approach is to use IMAP on all of your devices (or webmail on your computers). If you've been using POP all this time, how do you move to IMAP? Here's my advice.

Webmail: The big exception
If you access your email using webmail (i.e., you use a web browser like Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc. and go to a web site to operate your email), then you are not using the POP protocol. You're actually using a method that's equivalent to IMAP, so you don't need to change anything. Stop here! Your email habits are already completely compatible with IMAP on your other devices.

If you use a regular email program (not webmail), keep reading.

Terminology - What does "email account" mean here?
One of the confusing aspects of this topic is the term "email account." Let's say "john@rcn.com" is your existing email address. Part of switching to IMAP will involve adding or creating a new "email account" (for IMAP use) in your email software, and also deleting or removing or deactivating a longstanding "email account" (previously used for POP). This does not mean that you will go to RCN and make another separate account with a different address like "jack@rcn.com".

Instead, in this context the term "account" really means "a collection of settings that gives your software access to your email account." Those settings include your email address, password, the names of your incoming and outgoing servers, port numbers, and other options.

So, when someone tells you to "add an IMAP account for john@rcn.com to your email program" and "remove (or deactivate) the POP account for john@rcn.com from your email program," they're referring to the collection of settings describing how your email program will access your john@rcn.com account on the email server using those different protocols, not to the account itself. Your account existed before this change, it will continue to exist afterwards, and you're not making another one.

And in case you're wondering:
  • POP stands for "Post Office Protocol," an older standard, better for getting email on only one or two devices where only one is "primary"
  • IMAP stands for "Internet Message Access Protocol," a newer standard, better for coordinating email across multiple devices, all of which are treated the same
The process
In theory, moving from POP to IMAP is straightforward. Let say that "john@rcn.com" is your email address. Here's the process:
  • Got IMAP? First, confirm that your email server supports IMAP. Many servers have IMAP, but some don't. For example, the Comcast.net email system doesn't support it. Some servers provide free IMAP, on some (like Gmail) it's free but you have to activate the feature, and on others (like Godaddy) it's only a feature of their higher-level email plans. If your email server doesn't offer IMAP, see my previous newsletter "I Delete Email From My iPhone/Android/iPad, But It Still Comes Into My Computer--Argh!" (http://www.kadansky.com/files/newsletters/2012/2012_12_28.html) for a technique that might be helpful.
  • Password:Make sure you know your email account password, because you cannot proceed without it. (Yes, your email account has a password, even if you don't need to type it when using your email. That's because someone typed it in originally, and your email software has stored it ever since for your convenience.)
  • Backup: Make sure your email program's data and settings are fully backed up in case something goes wrong. I recommend that you regularly back up your entire computer, not just your data.
  • IMAP Settings: Find out the IMAP server settings you should use from your email hosting company or ISP, including the names of your incoming and outgoing IMAP servers (e.g., imap.rcn.com and smtp.rcn.com), port numbers, whether the servers support SSL, require authentication, and other options.
  • Add the IMAP account: In your email program, add the settings for a new IMAP account to access your existing email account. Some email programs (especially on smartphones and tablets) infer the server settings from your email address and don't let you specify the details. In this case you should confirm that the new account is actually using IMAP (and not POP) before proceeding.
  • Test server access: Confirm that it works, i.e., that your email program can see the messages in your IMAP Inbox folder, Sent, Drafts, etc.
  • Test send & receive: Confirm that you can send and receive messages using IMAP, that your other computers and devices can also see the same messages, that deleting a message on one device makes it disappear from all other devices, etc.
  • Copy messages in standard folders: Copy your accumulated messages from your email program's POP Inbox, Sent, Drafts, etc. to the corresponding IMAP folders, usually using click-and-drag.
  • Create custom folders: If you have created custom folders in your email program to organize your messages and declutter your Inbox and Sent folders (e.g., Travel, Uncle Joe, Vacation, Smith Client, Jones Client, etc.), you would create the same set of custom folders on the IMAP server
  • Copy messages in custom folders: Similarly, copy your messages from each custom folder to its corresponding IMAP folder.
  • Beware that message dates may change: Note that copying existing messages into an IMAP server may change the "Received" date (as well as the "Created" and "Modified" dates, if present) on some or all of the messages you're copying, from their original dates to "today," i.e., the date you performed the copy. This may be a big problem if having historically accurate Received dates on your messages is important to you. In my experience, Sent dates tend to be preserved, but in any event, it's prudent to test this first with a handful of messages to see whether your messages' dates are changed or preserved during the copying process. If message dates are changed, you can then decide whether to copy your messages to the IMAP server anyway, look into other copying methods that might preserve the dates, or just skip the copying and "start fresh" with newer messages.
  • Stop using POP: Then, when you're comfortable that the IMAP system in your email program is working, you would take a small leap of faith: You'd remove or deactivate the POP settings so your email program isn't accessing the same messages in your john@rcn.com email account in two different ways.
  • Beware of implicit message deletion: Note that, depending on which email program you use, "deleting" or "removing" the (no longer needed) POP account settings from your email program may also remove all the messages related to that POP account from the Inbox, Sent, and Trash folders (but does not typically remove messages from your custom folders), so it's prudent to find out if that will happen before you delete the account settings. (And if you're doing this on an iPhone, Android, or tablet, removing an email account's settings is very likely to permanently delete all messages related to that account.) That deletion may not matter to you, but if you prefer to preserve those messages, you should be careful. A better option might be to "deactivate" or "disable" the POP account, if the software permits that, so you can keep those messages without having the confusing situation where messages get retrieved from the same account via two different protocols.
  • Choose to delete old messages: Eventually, if IMAP works well for you, you may choose to take the big leap of faith and delete the old collection of email messages in your email program related to your POP usage.
That's it! You've now either settled into using the IMAP protocol, or you've recoiled in horror at the problems you encounter or the complexity.

Where to go from here
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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Copyright (C) 2014 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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