Gmail Offline Desktop Access: Do I Choose POP or IMAP?

November 3, 2007 – 1:00 am

Gmail recently enable the IMAP protocol for all of its users. Before this, Gmail only supports the POP protocol. POP and IMAP is two protocols that we use to retrieve email documents from an online Gmail account (web) to any desktop email client such as Mozilla Thunderbird or Microsoft Outlook. That means that the email documents will be stored inside your PC and this is useful for reading email documents while you are not connected to the Internet (offline access).




In this post, I will explain on the differences of the two protocols within the context of Gmail and based on it, you can choose the one that works best for your needs.



The POP Protocol and Gmail



Read this to enable Gmail POP protocol.


Next, configure your email client (Mozilla, MS Outlook, etc) to start retrieving emails from Gmail. I use the Mozilla Thunderbird client for its robustness.



Gmail POP Settings


The POP protocol normally will download email documents from the server to your desktop, thus reducing the size of your mailbox. With Gmail, it is a little bit different, you can choose to keep a copy of the downloaded email online, archive Gmail’s copy or delete it from Gmail.



Gmail and POP in Action


Above is what it looks like once Mozilla Thunderbird retrieve my email documents using the POP protocol. With POP and Gmail:


  • Only mails from the “Inbox” will be downloaded.


  • You don’t get all your folders displayed – drafts, starred items, etc will be missing in action.


  • Actions / changes that you make on the desktop email client WILL NOT be synchronized with your online Gmail – for example, “Read” documents on Mozilla Thunderbird will not be marked as “Read” in Gmail’s web interface. To put it simply, POP is one way traffic, no synchronization will occur.



Lost? Check out Gmail POP Animated Demo.



The IMAP Protocol and Gmail




Read this enable IMAP protocol in Gmail.


Next, configure your email client (Mozilla, MS Outlook, etc) to start retrieving emails from Gmail. I use the Mozilla Thunderbird 2.0 client for my IMAP access. Unlike POP3, there are no extra configurations for the IMAP protocol.



Gmail and IMAP in Action


Above is the interface of Mozilla Thunderbird retrieving Gmail documents via the IMAP protocol. Here is what you get with IMAP:


  • All of Gmail’s folders, labels and email documents are displayed in the email desktop client, based on what you see inside your Gmail web interface.


  • Changes to any documents (mark as read, unread, delete etc.) on the email client will be synchronized to the Gmail web interface and vice-versa . This is due to the IMAP protocol that offers two way communication between the web interface and desktop email clients.


  • You can perform your usual Gmail functions via your desktop email client, with minimal differences. Check out the IMAP behavior chart below to understand it more.



Extra: More Gmail IMAP related FAQs.



Summary – IMAP is my protocol of choice!


Based on my experiences above, I think that you probably have noticed that IMAP is the better choice for Gmail desktop access rather than POP. Here are some of the reasons:


  • IMAP syncs what you did inside the desktop email client with Gmail’s web interface and vice versa, while POP only downloads messages.


  • You can use IMAP from various devices (personal computer, laptop, mobile phones etc.) with peace in mind, everything will sync nicely with each other.


  • IMAP is much more stable than POP. There are chances that you may lose some messages OR get duplicate email documents, if POP screws up!


  • Google personally recommends IMAP rather than POP.


Check out the new Gmail with IMAP today. You can even run POP and IMAP from the same web client to try out what I did and feel the differences yourself!

Bonus Tip: Gmail POP Troubleshooter


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