There are two distinct ways of accessing your email: POP and IMAP.

POP involves going to your letter box, picking up your post and taking it somewhere comfortable to read. You then write your replies, file your post, throw the stuff you don’t need in the recycling, and so on. A nice and easy way to manage your emails- everything in one place.

Unfortunately that metaphor doesn’t work at all for the IMAP! IMAP is a much more flexible way of accessing your emails: your mail live in your mailbox, online on your servers. Your computer accesses them and takes a copy, rather than removing them. So does any other device (your smartphone, tablet, second computer, etc.). Any changes you make to any email on any device is then synchronised across the rest of the devices via your mailbox on your server.

Another great feature of IMAP is that you can log into your webmail and see things exactly as you left them on your other devices. So even if you’re stuck in the middle of a foreign country with no Wi-Fi signal for your smartphone you can head to the local internet café and check your mail!

POP has some big drawbacks

POP removes the emails from your mailbox. This means they’re all on the computer you downloaded them onto.

It’s possible to use more than one device, but you can’t have more than one using POP or you’ll get all sorts of error messages as they conflict. If you know you’ll not be using your secondary device to access any old or sent messages then you can set it up as IMAP, which will allow you to respond to any messages you get while you’re away from your main computer. Once you’re back at the ‘mother ship’ your POP setup will download the emails you’ve already responded to (although not the responses you sent…).

Basically, if you use more than one device, forget POP.

IMAP’s not perfect

On the face of it IMAP sounds great: even if you only have one way of accessing your mailbox at the moment it leaves things flexible in case that ever changes. Unfortunately, there’s one drawback… You’re limited to the amount of space you have in your online mailbox.

There are a couple of ways of getting around this:

  1. continually clear your mailbox of the mail you won’t be needing, which will free up some space. The drawback here is that you might find you’ve deleted something you need further down the line.
  2. archive your emails to your main computer’s hard drive. Although this means you’ll have to head back to your computer if you ever need to dig out an archived email or attachment.
  3. archive your emails and/or attachments to another cloud service with much more space like Dropbox or Evernote. This means you’ll always be able to get a hold of that long-archived file, even when you’re not at your main computer.
  4. purchase more mailbox capacity. Though not a big outlay, this means a yearly cost for the rental of the extra mailbox space.

For me, option 1 is asking for trouble. Similarly, option 2 might leave me unable to get hold of an email when I need it and I’m not on my main computer. Options 3 and 4 make a lot of sense for me. I have upgraded my mailbox to just under 2 GB. I always download big attachments and keep them in my Dropbox, and receipts and important documents get sent to my Evernote account. I then remove the attachments using my email program, knowing that they’re safely somewhere I can always get them. This frees up plenty of space in my mailbox.