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What is IMAP Hosting?

Internet Message Access Protocol, or IMAP, refers to the way e-mail is handled online. If you have a central mailbox many people need to access, or you need to be free to check email from multiple locations, choose IMAP hosting.

There are two ways to receive emails: POP and IMAP. While POP is widespread, we're increasingly switching to IMAP as the most efficient way to use email. Hosts have now recognized that IMAP is a more sensible way to use email, even if it requires more resources on their side.

POP vs IMAP

Post Office Protocol (POP, or POP3) email is the method that most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) used to promote as the default and preferred method. With POP, emails are downloaded from the server and stored locally on your computer. Normally the email is deleted from the server once they've been downloaded, so the ISP doesn't need to store all of that data on its servers.

With Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) works differently. The email client stays in sync with the mail server. You can still read emails when you're not connected to the internet, providing you downloaded the whole message prior to disconnection. Once an email is deleted on one device, it syncs with the server, and all other devices update their synced copy to reflect the change.

There has been a sea change among ISPs in the last couple of years. They are bending to demand and offering more support for IMAP over POP. This is partly because we're all using mobile devices, and IMAP is the only practical way to manage our email accounts.

IMAP Pros and Cons

IMAP is recommended by email providers because:

  • It's more suitable when using one mailbox on multiple devices
  • It makes more sense when more than one person is working from a mailbox
  • It fits in with our move to cloud computing, where the emphasis is on remote storage and syncing, rather than local storage and backups
  • Your Sent items are synced with the rest of your email folders, so you can access those items from any device; with POP, the Sent folder is unique to that machine
  • It works well with Push, a technology that alerts you to new emails as they come in, rather than polling for new emails every few minutes; IMAP allows you to choose whether to download email when a Push notification comes in

There are a few downsides to IMAP:

  • Some email clients behave strangely when using auto-responders; it's better to use the auto responder features offered by your email host
  • It's possible to download message headers, and the message content is downloaded 'on demand', but you'll need a connection to the internet for this to work
  • People with massive amounts of email may hit storage limits set by their host; downloading email with POP helps to get around these limits
  • Push notifications can be distracting if you receive messages frequently
  • IMAP can't be used with POP - it has to be one or the other

IMAP Hosting Features

Most hosting providers allow you to create email accounts and access them using IMAP. Some impose limitations which you should be aware of:

  • Check the number of mailboxes you can create. Some hosts impose limits
  • Ask what the maximum mailbox size is; remember, email storage includes attachments, and the more data there is in mailboxes, the less you can use for your website

Separate IMAP Email Hosting

In some (rare) cases, IMAP email isn't offered as part of a hosting plan. If you need dedicated email hosting, some companies to provide this as a separate service. You can normally use it along with your main domain name, even if it's hosted elsewhere.

While there are some free IMAP email services, check the terms carefully. Many don't provide some of the more advanced features you might expect, such as labelling and nested messages. Some services also limit provision to POP without IMAP, and they may restrict you from sending too many messages to prevent spam.

On the plus side, email hosting is not expensive and usually includes webmail, which works well with IMAP. As an alternative, you could use Google Apps.

IMAP Support Frequently Asked Questions

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