Web Informant #276, 24 December 2001:
Solutions to getting email on two computers


I wanted to end this awful year on a happy and helpful note. And one of the most perplexing problems I've had has been the two-computer problem. You know the scene: you have one computer at home, another at work, and you want to be able to have your email on both machines. The trouble is, you download your email on one, and then you have to send yourself a message before you go home or go to work. Or make a copy onto a floppy, or do something else.

There are a few alternatives. You could carry a laptop back and forth, and use that computer exclusively for all of your work. But laptops are so 1990s. My friend Paul Schindler has another suggestion that is fairly involved, but he does a great job describing what you need to do to keep things in synch.

I have a better way.

If your email server is capable of running the IMAP protocol, you can store a copy of your messages on your server. You can even set up additional project-related folders on your mail server, and keep them "up" there for your ready reference. There isn't anything you have to do, other than configure your email client appropriately.

IMAP is the more modern of the two email protocols that involve receiving messages. The other, POP, is probably the more popular. POP was created to retrieve messages from a server whereby messages move off the server and onto your own email client machine. Once the messages have been retrieved, they are deleted from the server's disk. You do have an option to save the messages on the server, but it isn't much of an option: either you have copies of all your messages on the server, or all of them are sent to your client.

IMAP gives you more control. You can synchronize your messages between server and client, so that you can delete the spam and other messages that you don't want to keep, while still maintaining those messages that are important. Not all email servers offer IMAP abilities: for example, our local cable company Optimum Online only offers POP servers. It really is up to your ISP whether they have invested in this better technology or not.

I was fearful of making any changes in my own email system, but after upgrading my email server I decided what the heck, I'll give IMAP a try. And I am glad I did, because it really makes it easier to manage my email.

So, assuming that your server can handle IMAP, here is how you do this. If you already have a POP server account setup for your email client, such as Outlook or Outlook Express, you will have to delete this account and set it up again using the IMAP protocol. You do this in the Tools | Accounts section. Note that when setting up a new account to specify that your incoming mail server is IMAP, not POP. Otherwise, you fill out the screens as you would expect with your email name and account name and password.

Next, you tell your email software which folders to synchronize between client and server. The default is to do this for all folders (Inbox, Sent, and Drafts). You might have to specify a path to your email folders, called a root folder as well. You find this in Outlook Express in the Tools | Accounts | Mail | Properties | IMAP section, which is a bit hidden away but otherwise you probably won't have to mess around with this.

So how does this differ from using POP? For one thing, it is a little bit harder to delete your messages. When you hit the delete key, you'll notice on OE that a line is drawn through the message: the message is marked for deletion but it still there on your server. If you have checked under Tools | Options | Maintenance the option to "Purge deleted messages when leaving IMAP folders" then when you exit your program, or click on another folder besides your Inbox, these marked messages will be removed from your server. Once you get used to this, it isn't too tough.

If you want your messages stored on your server all the time, no matter where you are, you'll need to set IMAP up on both your home and work computers. If you only want to store your messages on your email server when you are at home, and then download all the messages when you get to work, you can leave your work PC set as a POP client so that the stored messages are retrieved when you get to the office each morning. This sounds more complicated than it is to implement, and you don't have to worry about copying files to a floppy or remembering to send email to yourself.

One final issue: your ISP may have set particular disk storage limits on your email server, so before you go off to implement this IMAP solution, you might want to take a look at what this limit is and how soon you'll bump against it.

IMAP is a great idea for the two-computer problem, and I hope this note will encourage you to try it out. In the meantime, I wish you all a happy, healthy, and safe holiday season, and best of luck for the coming new year.

NB: Since publishing this essay, several readers have sent in their own suggestions.

         "I use a desktop and laptop with POP and have no problems keeping them current. I set my laptop to never delete from the server. I set my desktop to leave on the server for 5 days, which is enough time for me to get the laptop online again. You could leave it set to never delete and just wait until you run out of allotted space if you want. The secret is your mail client and POP server need to support UIDL. I have no idea what MS client apps do but Eudora for sure supports UIDL."


Places to find IMAP-friendly ISPs: Here and here.

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David Strom
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