Scott Hanselman

IMAP vs. POP3 in Outlook 2003

January 24, 2005 Comment on this post [17] Posted in Musings
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I use Outlook 2003. We run it at work, and I use it at home. I've been an Outlooky guy since '97, even though it wasn't until 2003 that it didn't suck completely.

I've got a Desktop at home, a Laptop at work, and my TabletPC for on-the-side writing gigs. Since I have only one email address (my first name @ my last and I will NEVER change it, it's fairly important to me. It's my personal email. I know some folks out there (RichC) have 50 emails like or But, I just don't like it.

I'm home and work. One email for each. For home, I use POP3 email. I've got email going back to 1989 imported into my Outlook PST. I don't save attachments in the PST because of the 2 Gig limit. Anyway, the Home Desktop is "authoritative." It's on a RAID Array, Backed up to the REV daily, another External HD weekly, and Optical monthly. This means that while I download email on the other machines, I don't "care" about those "versions" and I leave "Leave Mail At Server" turned on everywhere. I use for reading my email everywhere else. 

So, my question is, after all these years: Should I switch to IMAP?

  • Would the ISP become "authoritative"?
  • Would I want to upload the whole archive?
  • Or, do I use IMAP for my Inbox only? and move things around from there?
  • How would I back it up?
  • What if I switched ISPs?
  • How is the Outlook support for IMAP? I heard bad things...
  • Would IMAP be better for my Mom's email?
  • Everyone SAYS IMAP is better...what are the secret CONs that no one mentions?

Oh, experienced my decision!

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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January 24, 2005 13:18
I wouldn't worry about it too much. IMAP support in Outlook is horrible.

If IMAP support in Outlook were anything like the way Outlook interacts with Exchange then it would be something to talk about. However I don't see that happening in the near future - or ever.
January 24, 2005 14:51
I know this probably is not an option for you, but I just LOVE the combination of Exchange 2003/Outlook 2003. IMAP in Outlook was horrible, when I used it, while Exchange/Outlook provides much more functionality and has never showed any problem for me (for more than a year by now). The whole things gets really pretty with my Windows Mobile smartphone. My Exchange account is hosted by 1&1 (, and I've been very happy with it.
January 24, 2005 15:13
I agree that the OL IMAP support is not what it could be and would advise you to stick with POP3 based on the amount of mail you seem to have. Backing up mail accessed via IMAP is messy compared to the simple pst route employed when using POP3.

One thing I would ask: why not create a new pst file of the new OL2003 type which does away with the 2GB limit, set this as default and import all mail in to that. You could happily keep attachments with their respective mails then.

I did Outlook support for 3.5 years and agree that OL2003 is the first version that actually makes sense ;)
January 24, 2005 15:30
Don't use Outlook so can't comment on that (although I was considering switching to it for the integrated calendar/tasks/address book so I find the comments about it's IMAP support worrying).

I host my own (and others) email on my Linode box, and only access it via IMAP. All my mail is stored on that, and backed up nightly to a server on my local network. I also run my own webmail client (SquirrelMail) so I can access my mail from anywhere - home, work, handheld, friends house, internet cafe etc.

I also combine this with spam, virus, and custom (procmail) filtering on the server *before* it even hits my inbox.

I've been running this setup for several years now, and have not had any problems.

I use Thunderbird as my main email client.
January 24, 2005 20:07
Outlook 2003 supports PST files larger tha 2GB, so that may be a good bet. IMAP in Outlook is mediocre, and you'd be frustrated most likely. You might think about just setting up an Exchange server. :)

You'd like that.
January 24, 2005 21:22
I've used IMAP for various periods of time over the past few years. It works ok for incoming mail, but I generally move my messages to a PST or Exchange folder when I want to save them. The most annoying behaviour to me is the fact that when you delete/move a message, it does not disappear. Rather, it gets "crossed-out" until you remember to click the Edit menu and select "Purge Deleted Messages" or whatever its called.

Its easier than setting up reliable POP3 from multiple computers. I constantly run into problems with POP3 on one computer where Outlook forgets which messages it has downloaded and redownloads them all again. Also, IMAP tracks the Read Flag for you, so you know which messages you've looked at regardless of the computer you are using.
January 25, 2005 0:07
I second the use of Thunderbird as the IMAP client. It has the best IMAP support of the clients I've used (Outlook is probably one of the worst). I have a similar setup to yours, and I have done the following:

Set up a Postfix/Courier-IMAP box as the main mail store at home (you could substiute an Exchange or Communigate install for this). The inbound email goes to the POP3 box on the ISP like yours does, but instead of fetching directly to the mail client, I fetch it to the Postfix server using fetchmail every 15 minutes. The Courier-IMAP gives an IMAP interface to the mail.

The data store for the mail (on the home box) is straight maildir folders, so backup is simple as taking a filesystem backup to CD/DVD.

The ISP doesn't become authoritative. It just holds the mail between fetches. If I switch ISPs (like I've done so many times), I just have to change me fetchmail configuration to point to the new ISP POP3 server. Everything else remains the same.

For initial conversion to IMAP, you can easily drag/drop email from your local PST to the IMAP server (using Outlook).

I really haven't seen any cons to IMAP the protocol. The problems can usually be traced back to shoddy support for it by clients like Outlook.
January 25, 2005 0:58
I say don't go IMAP with Outlook 2003. I would actually suggest running your own Exchange server and host it that way. It gives you the best of all possible combinations. At home you could use the native interface between Outlook and Exchange. On the road you could use IMAP, POP, or Outlook Web Access (which rocks). You could either pay for the Exchange server, or run a Windows SBS 2003 which would have everything you need.
January 25, 2005 4:54
Mirroring much of the above, IMAP is nice and could serve you well, but not in Outlook. Thunderbird would be the way to go, but if you're an outlook man you're an outlook man, and IMAP isn't going to make you switch to thunderbird which, even though I love it and use it for all my non-work email, it's just not the same as Outlook 2k3 (you're right, the first time it didn't suck completely...except with IMAP...and maybe someday they'll add freakin usenet support)

One thing that really irked me about IMAP is that deleting doesn't delete until you purge. can be hard to get used to if you've been using POP3 for so long.
January 25, 2005 7:28
I used to like Outlook 2003. Then I started getting TONS of spam and I had to look for something else. I like Thunderbird because its spam filter is so much nicer. IMAP in Outlook 2003 is not that bad however. Its a piece of cake in Thunderbird. The downside to outlook's imap support is that if you want to delete a message, it will mark it as deleted and you have to physically expunge it. I HATE THAT! :-) If I delete something, I want it gone. Anyone else feel that way?
January 25, 2005 11:12
I'm all about running your own Exchange server or having someone host it for you. Having web access to your e-mail in the same fashion you have it at home is awesome! IMAP support in Outlook isn't so great even in 2003, so I wouldn't recommend switching over to that. Hopefully it will get better in the future. For now, it sounds like your POP solution works pretty good, although I recommend moving things around to get around your 2GB limit issues.
January 25, 2005 11:24
Ya, I thought about the Exchange thing, but that means another machine at home in a closet more thing to keep patched....etc...

Crap...I don't want to be my own freaking IT group. Is there virtual Exchange hosting?
January 25, 2005 17:00
Scott, as mentioned above, offers hosted exchange account. A 1GB account is less than $7 per month. I use their service for over a year now and never had any problem with it. I know there are other providers as well, but I believe they tend to cater more for small businesses, i.e. they assume that you are interested in more than one account.
January 25, 2005 20:14
Scott, the behavior you described about deleted emails not being purged on IMAP might just be an artifact of Outlook. On Thunderbird (as well as more standard compliant mailers like Ximian Evolution), you default to moving deleted mail to a Trash folder, and you can set it to nuke the mail right away instead of moving to Trash.

Scott, you might want to check out Communigate Pro for hosting IMAP locally. It consumes very little resources, and provides a very powerful mailer complete with SMTP, IMAP, POP as well as gobs of other features. They have a free version available for download, which has all the features of the full version, but sticks ads at the bottom of outgoing mails.
Like David mentioned, a lot of hosting companies provide IMAP for cheap (1and1 for instance provides 1 GB IMAP for $1 per month).
January 26, 2005 21:31
Actually the behavior Outlook shows for IMAP is in line with the implementation of the IMAP spec. IMAP defines deleting a message in a folder as just marking it for deletion at a later point in time. Then IMAP has an expunge command which actually deletes the e-mail permanently.

However, this isn't very consistent with the user experience for e-mail considering most other e-mail systems work in the standard way (deleting it moves it to your Trash, etc). Since this isn't really something the IMAP protocol was designed for, they basically cheap and move any item marked as "deleted" to the Trash, and then expunge the folder (or so I would guess).

It's really just all up to how much work the developers of the mail client put into the user experience.

July 05, 2005 15:17
I must admit to being more impressed for it. I've even recommended it to all my friends.
November 28, 2005 12:46
If you need to backup Outlook Express, use the OE Backup Tiger. OE backup software – Outlook Express Backup Tiger helps you to backup your Outlook Express files in four clicks.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.