It essentially comes down to functionality: you have one or more devices that you’d like to use to read your emails. And in another location entirely there’s a server that receives your emails and prepares them for your reading pleasure. If both sides are going to communicate with one another properly, there needs to be rules. That’s where the email protocol comes in.

POP3 or IMAP? Both work just as well. But they each have their strengths and weaknesses depending on how you want to receive and access your email, so it’s worth giving the issue a good thought. Both are tried-and-tested options: POP3 has been around since the 1990s and even IMAP is more than 10 years old.

POP3: the PO box at your post office
When defining POP protocol, the inventors sought inspiration from the most common, simplest method for distributing mail: the PO box. Imagine the server is like your post office, such as the Bümpliz branch in Bern where post sent to you is stored in your PO box. When you pick up your post, you have to sort out the letters you want to keep. So now you’re sitting in your office, throwing the junk mail away and putting the rest in a folder to access at any time. When the cleaning staff empties your waste paper bin, the letters inside are gone. And they can’t be brought back.
In computer terms, your mail program – the POP mail client – opens the PO box on the POP mail server using the username and password as the key. If the key is correct, the client loads the new email to your PC and deletes the messages on the POP server after they have been downloaded successfully. The mailbox is now empty again and has space to receive new messages. You access the emails on your local PC, reply to them, archiving them in folders on your hard drive, and so on. Your local email program is responsible for all of these functions. But this solution has a disadvantage: if you want to access your emails from different devices, you’re going to run into problems. Once you’ve received your email on your home PC, they are deleted from the server, meaning that they are no longer accessible from your work PC or anywhere else. So before opening your emails, you need to decide on the computer that you want to use to access and archive them.

If you only use one computer for your emails and don’t use a smartphone either, you may be a POP kind of person. It might be a little old-fashioned, but you can place your faith in proven technology that works well.

Which email protocol do you prefer? POP3 or IMAP?

IMAP: for those that want access their emails anytime, anywhere
IMAP is the logical development of POP and is more cutting-edge: you don’t have to go to your PO box at all anymore, because it is designed to be accessed remotely. In principle, it sends you an electronic copy of your post once you have accessed it using the right key (your username and password). The electronic IMAP mailbox is huge and providing you don’t delete them, all messages will remain in the mailbox. You can have a copy of the same message sent to your cell phone, office PC or laptop. If you want to organize the email into folders (“Copy message into folder”, “Create new folder”, etc.), this is done directly on the server. The good part is that you see exactly the same folder on your smartphone as you do on any other device. This means that you can access your sent emails from anywhere: if you read an email on the PC, it is automatically marked as read on your phone. Everything is the same across all devices; the emails now remain on the server rather than being stored on the end device.

It’s also a question of security
Whether POP or IMAP: For both variants you should enable the encrypted transmission of data. Last but not least, a good provider carries out regular data backups on their server. That’s something that people often forget to do at home.

The bottom line: If your provider gives you the option of using IMAP (and carries out regular data backups on their server), definitely take it. It’s a better, more versatile solution.

The sixty-four-dollar question: POP3 or IMAP?

Thomas Brühwiler

Thomas Brühwiler is Hostpoint's Head of Communication and also responsible for all activities in the social media field. He was already typing on a Commodore 64 in his very young years – he used to copy pages of BASIC code from magazines. Often he had to accept that the program didn’t run because an error had sneaked into the jumble of characters. Today he cannot imagine his life without computers, in spite of those experiences.