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Sunday, 22 August 2010

Mac Life Part 8 - Cloud Based Email Using IMAP

Figuring out the best way to handle email has been the most stubborn hurdle in my ongoing mission to create the perfect Mac cloud based working environment.

I get hundreds of emails every day and at one time I was running a backlog of over 35k unread emails, something had to be done and my Only send me junk emails blog post wasn't the most elegant or long term solution to the problem!

The "problem" with standard POP (Post Office Protocol) mailboxes is emails are stored on the computer which downloads the email from the server and it's then deleted from the server after downloading. This is fine so long as you only have one machine where you manage all your email AND if you are careful when setting up your mailboxes on mobile devices to leave copies of your email and any replies on the server - which isn't the default and is often tricky to set up correctly.

I am not that disciplined and I often end with multiple copies of the same email on different devices and I can never find my replies when I need them. At one time I thought the solution would be to access all my email online as webmail using a web broser but this proved far too slow and cumbersome and I ended up back at square one.

With hindsight I can see my email problems are why I've ended up with everything on a single laptop which I dock in the office so I can sit at a desk and use a proper keyboad and larger screen. I've been very happy with this setup until I bought an iPad but I've got my eye on the new all-in-one iMacs so I've been thinking again about the very best way and work with desktop machines, laptops, iPads and iPhones.

Using MobileMe, Dropbox, Firefox Sync, 1Password, Google Apps, Evernote and a few other cloud based services I can pretty much work on any device now as everything syncs together apart from email which triggered my IMAP moment.

Partly because I've been online since before POP mailboxes were commonplace and and partly because I'm lazy I hadn't really investigated other ways of handling email. I was vaguely aware my MobileMe mailbox synced itself across all my devices and I assumed it was some Apple black magic. I had already disciplined myself to only use my MobileMe mailbox on my mobile devices but the penny hadn't dropped that I was using an IMAP mailbox and it does seem to be the key to cloud based email handling.

It turns out most ISPs support both IMAP and POP so I've been working my way through my mailboxes and setting them up to use IMAP instead.

I feel such a numpty I hadn't figured this out earlier but better late than never and although solving one set of problems has created a few new ones but there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that's all the excuse I need to get myself an all-in-one desktop mac!

So What Is IMAP?

IMAP stands for Internet Message Access Protocol and it's basically a remote controlled cloud based mailbox, read this Wikipedia IMAP page for the long answer.

IMAP Pros and Cons
IMAP Pros:
1) One mailbox can be accessed from multiple devices, even at the same time, and the IMAP protocol takes care of all the syncing so all your devices are effectively looking at the live contents of your cloud/server based mailbox.
2) New emails arrive in near real-time because IMAP stays connected to your mailbox instead of periodically checking like POP mailboxes.

IMAP Cons:
1) Most ISPs have a storage quota so if you get lots of emails with large attachments your storage space can fill up which means you need to keep an eye on your mailbox and I'm not aware of any easy way to do this.
2) To avoid an IMPA mailbox becoming full to archive copies of important and large emails I'm partially recreating the problems with POP mailboxes I just solved by assigning a "main email" machine.

IMAP in Mac Mail

I haven't found an easy way to convert mailboxes from POP to IMAP in Mac Mail so here's what I did (based on this useful Mac Mail IMAP article):

1) Rename my existing mailboxes with a P (for POP) prefix.
2) Create new IMAP mailboxes without P prefix.
3) Spend some time deleting stored emails (so you have enough online storage space).
4) Move the remaining messages from the POP to the IMAP mailbox - just drag and drop the contents and Mac Mail will move everything across and upload them to your IMAP mailbox.

I'm Loving IMAP

Although IMAP isn't the complete solution to email management it does mean I can now have all of my email on all of my devices, all of the time and read, delete and reply wherever and whenever I want to so I'm loving IMAP.

Back to Mac Life Part 1...

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