POP3 vs. IMAP: What They Do And Which Is Best

With the exponential rise of the internet and electronic messaging in the past 30 years, two protocols arose, allowing different kinds of message receiving depending on a user’s preference. The two options widely available are Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) and Post Office Protocol version 3 (POP3).

IMAP and POP3 are email receiving protocols. The former allows users access to emails from multiple devices, but they must be logged in to their account with internet access. POP3 is a local receiver, only allowing single local device access to messages to keep or delete from the server. 

Are you a stay-at-home with little need for broad server connectivity or an international superstar with a high demand for global communication? For either of these or anything in between, understanding the difference between IMAP and POP3 email receiving can vary depending on your everyday needs.

 What is IMAP?

Word IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) on keyboard background

IMAP, or Internet Message Access Protocol, is an email protocol for retrieving and organizing messages from a separate server. Utilizing IMAP is especially conducive when accessing received messages from a server on any device instead of a single location. 

This syncing of messages to a universally accessible mail server allows users to manage, organize, and salvage messages they received through multiple devices connected to their mail server.

What is POP3?

POP3, which may sound like the latest kids’ sugary cereal, is actually Post Office Protocol, an additional protocol to IMAP that allows users to download emails from a server into a single location, with three acting as the newest and up-to-date versions of the protocol.

If you’ve paid attention so far, you’ll notice that instead of having emails in multiple locations on a server, POP3 downloads said emails onto a single computer and then deletes the messages from the server, so the only accessible copy of the email is located on the device being used to receive, typically a personal computer.

IMAP and POP3: What’s the Difference?

Standard internet protocol

When deciding a protocol that best fits your individual needs, it can be beneficial to understand the fundamental differences and how these distinctions impact your user experience. 

A similar comparison between IMAP and POP3 is the idea of Cloud access versus written mail, with the terms comparing respectively. 

IMAP’s more advanced protocol allows users to access emails from any location and organize and search their mailbox for old/saved messages, similar to the Cloud’s universal accessibility and organization. 

Whereas POP3 compares to the traditional written mail, being able to keep or delete the only copy of the message, being unable to search the content of the message before opening, as well as being one-directional, with any edits being made to the message on the receiver end inaccessible to the sender.

However, one flaw of our conversational comparison is that, unlike written mail, POP3 acts as the faster email protocol than IMAP.

This is primarily due to the lack of server size needed and that POP3 attachments are directly downloaded to the local device used, giving faster and local access to attachments, specifically in an offline setting, where IMAP requires server connectivity for any content not locally downloaded.

Which Service Offers the Best User Features?

As available technologies continue to grow, user-friendliness is critical to customers, but that depends on the kind of user and how friendly they want their technology to be.

On average, an American household has five devices with internet accessibility at any point in time, including phones, tablets, and even smart TVs, which can now access emails on an open server. 

If this sounds like you, IMAP is likely the most effective means of receiving and organizing emails from any device of your choosing while offering locations for multiple copies, so an email is never lost or inaccessible. 

For a grandmother still trying to comprehend the concept of 5G and the wonders the internet has to offer, POP3 is a more straightforward, easier-to-access protocol that allows a user with one location to download or delete incoming emails from the server.

Even though more connectivity may always seem like the big ticket option, POP3 offers something that almost no tech company can provide in today’s day and age: privacy.

Having messages in a single location instead of a broad server, users can gain access to download or even read once and delete as opposed to messages received through IMAP services, where messages are more vulnerable to outside viewing access to unauthorized users.

 So understanding what kind of “friendliness” you require is a vital aspect to consider when deciding on your best-fitting protocol.

How to Know Which Service Your Email Account Offers

Most email servers used today are done through email apps or webmail, both accessible through a mac or PC once connected to the internet. 

Suppose you haven’t previously specified or set up the style of email receiving protocol. In that case, it’s most likely that the email app automatically configured IMAP to make your account accessible from any login location.

If you are unsure, you can identify the kind of protocol being used from either pop or IMAP appearing before the address of the server used. For any work or student account, a webmail or email app using IMAP is ideal for your needs.  

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