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What Kind of Email Protocol Is Best for You?

The Computer Corner

By Charles Miller

An Atención reader writes to ask about email: “What is the difference between IMAP, POP, and WebMail?” These are three of the methods (or protocols) for handling email. It is not essential to understand the technical details of each protocol, but it is helpful to have a basic understanding of the fundamental differences between these so that you may choose the one best suited to your needs.

Email is a store-and-forward system. If you have an email address, you also have an email server somewhere, and that is where your emails are stored until you read them. The email protocols have to do with how you read your emails and where they are stored before and after you do so. Most email providers offer a choice as to which protocol you may use.

POP3 is “Post Office Protocol” and is the older and still popular technology. POP requires that a software client such as Outlook, Thunderbird, MacMail, or Entourage be installed on your computer. Every time this program checks your email, all of the messages are downloaded from the server and saved to your hard drive. Your email is normally accessible from only one computer and can be deleted from the server once copied to your computer. The primary advantage of POP is that you only need to be connected to the Internet while the messages are downloaded, and once the email is on your computer, you may read emails without an Internet connection. Users of POP should back up their files or risk losing email if their computer crashes.

IMAP is “Internet Message Access Protocol” and is a newer technology also requiring a software client be installed on your computer, but your messages continue to be stored on the central IMAP server. IMAP overcomes some limitations of the older POP3 technology, and most professionals agree that IMAP is better suited for mobile devices, such as tablets and smart phones.

WebMail does not require any software be installed on your computer. You may access your email account by entering a URL such as or to start the WebMail interface. Everything remains on the mail server, and you may use any web browser such as Internet Explorer, Safari, or Firefox on any computer to access it. The chief advantage to WebMail is that you may access it from any computer anywhere in the world, and there is never a danger of losing important emails due to your computer crashing. The most common complaint heard about WebMail is that the companies (Gmail, Yahoo, etc.) frequently change the appearance of the page, add features, take away features, and generally keep users off balance by changing things up.

What kind of email protocol is best for you depends on your personal style of communication. If you are a gadget freak using your computer, smart phone, and iPad for email, then IMAP could be a good choice. If you have thousands of emails, you may want to use POP to keep from running out of space on the remote email server or to fulfill legal records retention requirements. If you want a simple but adequate email protocol, then WebMail might be the best for your needs.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 415 101-8528 or email FAQ8 (at)


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