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What is the difference between a POP3 account and an IMAPv4 account?

POP3 and IMAPv4 are both examples of mail protocols that are used to send and receive email.  Your experience using either protocol will be largely similar; however there are some key differences that you may need to be aware of:

  • POP3: The older of the two protocols, POP3 allows your email program to send and receive mail through a central mail server.  What is unique about the POP3 protocol when compared to the IMAPv4 protocol is that when utilizing POP3 your mail client will log on to the central email server and directly download any new email that has arrived for you.  Typically, it will not leave a copy of these messages on the server for retrieval by other devices unless you have specifically enabled this option within your mail program settings.  More current mail programs and many smart phone devices do have the option to leave a copy of messages on the server enabled by default.

    A consequence of this style of email retrieval is that when a message is deleted on your receiving device, you may in fact be deleting the only copy of that message.  Additionally, any folders you create within your mail program will not be shared with the server – they will only exist on your computer or device.
  • IMAPv4: This is a newer protocol, relative to POP3, that still allows your email program to send and receive mail through a central mail server.  What is unique about the IMAPv4 protocol when compared to the POP3 protocol is that when utilizing IMAPv4 your mail client will log on to the central email server and synchronize with its contents. To put it another way, the content on the mail server will remain on the mail server, and your mail client will display what is there without removing it.  This ensures the mail is available for all devices that you have set up to access the mail account.

    It is also important to keep in mind that this protocol is a two way street.  More specifically: if a message is deleted on the server, it will also be deleted on any devices that utilize IMAPv4 to access the account.  Likewise, if you delete a message on one of your devices you can expect it to be deleted from both the server and your other devices.  This makes mailbox management simple, but should be kept in mind when deleting mail from the inbox on one of your devices.  Similarly, any folders you create on your devices will also be synchronized with the server.

Ultimately, the mail protocol you utilize is at your discretion – there are advantages and potential disadvantages to either method.  That being said, many people find that the increased integration between devices that IMAPv4 offers is both convenient and intuitive.

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