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IMAP goes Gmail

Feb, 2008: IMAP is great for on-the-go professionals who want to keep their online accounts organised while checking e-mails from their favourite e-mail clients, suggests N.D.A.

It is now easy to log on to the web and check e-mails. But before the advent of web-based e-mail accounts, there used to be just one way to access e-mails: using software like MS Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird. This method, called POP (Post Office Protocol) mail, is still useful for those who get large quantity of mails and want to save time by downloading the entire mailbox contents and sifting through them offline.

Those who used to have e-mail accounts with ISPs can recall configuring POP at home. Along with POP, another e-mail protocol. IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) has been around for some time but not many service providers offer this alternative, and thus, it remained relatively obscure for common users. But with Gmail offering IMAP now, there is no reason for users acquainted with POP to give IMAP a check out its new features.

First, let us differentiate between POP and IMAP. In case of POP, user has an option of either downloading all mails to a local PC, or only headers leaving actual mails on the server to be downloaded at a later time. In short, POP simply transfers e-mails from the server on to the user PC, and can be thought of as a forwarding mechanism.

On the other hand, IMAP displays the server folders on a user PC as if the user is browsing the server on a network share. This means, folders such as Inbox, Sent, Trash, Drafts and even custom folders created by logging on to the web-based interface appear right inside the e-mail software, whereas in case of POP, there is no such concept.

Moreover, folder changes performed locally are synchronised back at the server. With high-speed internet available at home, IMAP means exact mapping of a web-based account with the supported e-mail software.

One particular advantage that comes with Gmail is that it supports tagging instead of creating folders, but tags appear as folders when Gmail is accessed via IMAP – thus making it easy for users who are fond of using folders. If sub-folders are created, they are automatically turned into labels of the form level-1/level-2 (that is, with a forward slash between folder and sub-folder names).

Also note that IMAP by default downloads only essential mail information of a folder - such as subject, sender, date and size – much like the Inbox listing over the webwhere, when user selects a particular e-mail, it is downloaded in full.

Configuring an e-mail client for Google IMAP access
Thunderbird is one of the top freeware e-mail clients. Configuring IMAP in Thunderbird 1.5 is a simple three-step process discussed below:

1. Define a new account

Go to Edit >Account Settings. Press Add Account. The New Account Setup window will appear with 'E-mail Account' option selected by default. Press Next, and enter your name and Gmail address, and press Next again. The Server Information window will pop up; select IMAP and enter imap.gmail.com in Incoming Server field. Press Next. Enter complete e-mail address in the form username@gmail.com  in Incoming Username field and then press Next. Enter an account name, say, 'Gmail IMAP' and press Next.

Now all the settings are displayed for confirmation, so Press Finish. The new account is added in the left-side tree of the Account Settings. Under the newly created account, select Server Settings and check SSL under Security Settings section.

2. Define SMTP account
In Account Settings window, select the Outgoing Server (SMTP), which is the last item in the left-side tree. Press the Add button in the right-side list of defined SMTP accounts. Enter a descriptive name, for example, 'Gmail IMAP SMTP,' and enter smtp.gmail.com  in Server Name field. In Security and Authentication section below, check User Name and Password, enter complete e-mail address username@gmail.com  in User Name field and select TLS under Use Secure Connection section.

Attach the defined SMTP account with the IMAP account
In Account Settings window, select the defined Gmail IMAP account. Its details are displayed in the right side panel. Select the defined account in Outgoing Server (SMTP) drop down filed towards.

This completes the setup in Thunderbird. Ensure that IMAP access is turned on over Gmail. Do this by logging on to Gmail via web. Go to Settings > Forwarding and POP/IMAP >IMAP Access > Enable IMAP > Save Changes. Now, to check mails in Thunderbird using IMAP, go to File > Get New Messages For > Gmail IMAP (or whatever the name that was given at the time of account creation). Wait for a while as messages and folders are downloaded.

Note that settings to configure other e-mail clients such as MS Outlook are available over Gmail site. One can easily note down the generic settings and make it work on mobile phones as well if it supports secure IMAP access.

Once e-mails are loaded in Thunderbird (or any other e-mail client), there is a lot that can be done to save time. For example, there is no view in the web interface of Google that shows e-mails by sizes, but messages can be sorted size-wise in an e-mail client. Also, downloading a large e-mail does not block access to smaller e-mails unlike POP. Multiple sessions with the server can be created at the same time as well. Again, this is something that POP does not allow.

Threads can also be viewed in a tree structure. All the updates made locally appear instantly over the server so there is no chance of inconsistent states between e-mail client and the web. Local e-mails from different accounts can also be dragged and dropped over Gmail folders.

Although it is true that IMAP requires larger bandwidth to make use of its features, but at the same time, it provides superb functionality. For those, who check e-mails from different PCs, IMAP means accessing the same e-mail without having to worry about deleting them from server once they have been viewed. Since it is very much like remote access, IMAP is preferable for on the go professionals who want to keep their online accounts organised while checking e-mails from their favourite e-mail clients, be it on home PC, workplace desktop or laptop. Dawn
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