IMAP and Mail.app

11 11 2006

IMAP: If you can you shouldMail.app

I’m here to talk about the Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) today. In the world of email there are basically two protocols: POP and IMAP.

POP is the original old faithful, but is very simple – you connect to your POP server, it sends you new messages, you download them and they are removed from the server.

The main problem with that is that the messages are now stored locally on your computer. Many people now use webmail of various types to connect in to their mailboxes, so if the messages have been downloaded, you won’t be able to see them anymore through the webmail.

Now most people probably will not find this a problem – and it isn’t if you only ever read your mail at home, on the same computer.

Enter IMAP. With IMAP, your emails are stored on the server and you connect to the server to download new messages, which are then cached on your computer for offline viewing. If you then connect in via a web interface, and delete some messages, when you next connect in from home, the mailbox is synchronised to reflect these changes.

This means you can organise your mail into different folders, and be able to see the exact same setup, regardless of your email client. Another really useful ability of IMAP is that it can request just the mail headers, allowing you to see the subject, sender, size and so on, without having to actually download the whole message.

Users of dial up who often receive large messages, will find this more useful than most, as it prevents them from wasting connected time (and money) waiting for large messages to download, as they can choose whether or not they want a particular email.

Thunderbird, Mozilla’s email client works with no further configuration, other than the account settings, but if you want to use the built in OS X Mail.app, then there are a few things to be aware of.

Mail.app and IMAP
Mail.app has issues with IMAP – it just doesn’t behave properly. Any folders you may have added to your IMAP account will either be missing or incomplete, and will disappear at seemingly random times!

After puzzling over this for some time I was worried that perhaps my email server host (1&1) didn’t fully support IMAP properly. So I installed Mozilla Thunderbird and tested it, only to see all my folders exactly as they should be.

So with 1&1 ruled out as the cause, I decided to move on to setup Mail.app to work with my Gmail account, while I puzzled over it. After setting Gmail up, suddenly, my original IMAP account started working perfectly!

So the solution to getting IMAP to work properly with Mail.app is to make sure you always have more than 1 account configured in it. After accidentally stumbling across this solution, I checked online for more advice, and apparently this is quite an old problem, stemming back to early versions of Mail.app, so who knows why it hasn’t been solved yet.

The only other thing you need to do when first setting up your IMAP, is tell Mail.app which of the server folders are to be used as the Inbox, Drafts and so on, or things will get a little confusing.

To do this, you just need to find each special server folder in the list, click on it, and choose ‘Use this mailbox for’ from the ‘Mailbox’ menu. Then select the appropriate option. Once this is done, you’ll have a fully working IMAP setup on Mail.app through OS X.

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