If you use two different devices (i.e. a phone and your computer) or different apps to access your email and your email messages seem to disappear sometimes, you're not imagining things. They are being removed from your inbox. But you don't need to worry. There's an easy way to fix the disappearing email problem.
Why your email is disappearing from your inbox
There are multiple ways you can access email — logging into your account through a web browser on your computer, using an app on your smartphone, using a desktop app like Outlook. Depending on how you access your email, you're either downloading a copy of the email to your device and using it locally using a protocol called POP3 (Post Office Protocol 3), or you're keeping it in sync with all of your devices using a protocol called IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol). It's when you use POP3 that you can get into a situation where email goes missing.
How to check if you're using POP3 or IMAP
Email services including Gmail, Yahoo!, Outlook.com, AOL, default to IMAP. So if you go through the automatic setup for your iPhone, Android phone or Outlook, you should automatically be set up for IMAP. If you've had your Gmail account for a long time, you will want to double check your settings to ensure that IMAP is enabled. Log into your Gmail account through a browser and select Settings > Forwarding and POP/IMAP.
If you are using another email provider or accessing your company email, you may be using POP3. You'll want to check your account and look at the advanced settings, which is an option in iOS, Android and Outlook. The incoming mail address will either start with "pop" or "imap". This is where you can change your account setting as well to switch.
How POP3 works and why you might want to use it
Think of POP3 like you would a real-life post office. I send you a letter, it arrives at the post office, the mail carrier delivers it to you and, so, the letter gets moved physically from me to you. If you or the mail carrier loses the letter, the post office won’t be able to give you a copy.
With POP3, you can set your email program to automatically download new messages at specific intervals (e.g., every 5 minutes or once every 3 hours) or manually download them as you wish. All new messages are moved from the server (i.e., the post-office) to your email client or program (i.e., your mailbox at home). You cannot download just one message; it’s all or none.
Once messages are downloaded to a device, such as your desktop at home, those very messages will no longer be accessible from another device, such as your mobile phone, because the messages have been removed from the server. That is unless you instruct the server to retain copies of your messages so that you can also download them on other devices, which is how your email is mostly set up.
If you do set the server to keep copies of your emails, you can download them on your other devices, but each email will be treated as a separate email. So, if you delete one from your phone, the deleted email will still be on the server and on other devices that you downloaded it to. To truly delete email, you’ll need to delete it on every device where it was downloaded to.
In addition, if you've organized your downloaded messages into folders and subfolders using Outlook, for instance, those folders will exist locally on your device only. To reproduce the folder structure on another device, you will need to do it manually.
The main benefit of POP3 is that entire messages — message headers, body and attachments — are transferred from the server to your device allowing you to read your messages offline. This can be a cost-saver if you’re on a limited data plan or flying without WiFi. On the flip side, this can cause you some waiting time if you have a lot of new emails, especially those with huge file attachments.
If your IPS limits the amount of email you can store on the server, POP3 may be the right choice for you. For as long as you regularly fetch your messages, you don’t need to worry much about running out of storage room on the server. The only limit will be your local storage space. But, remember that if ever your local storage crashes, all messages that you’ve downloaded to it will say goodbye along with it, unless you’ve kept backups.
How IMAP works and why you want to use it
Unlike POP3, IMAP will download an entire message and its attachments (if any) only if you ask it to — that is, if you choose to read the whole message, or depending on your email program or app’s settings. Note that smartphone apps will fetch the whole email minus attachments. This download-on-demand flexibility can help you save on bandwidth.
Also, unlike POP3, whenever you download a specific message from the server, the message stays on the server until you delete it. Only those messages that you choose to read or download are stored in your local storage. If your desktop or mobile gets bricked, you won't lose your email.
Messages that you’ve marked as read in your email client will also be marked as read on the server and in all other email clients that access your IMAP folders. Folders and subfolders that you create or modify on one of your devices will also be synced to the server, which in turn syncs with your other connected devices. So you experience consistency regardless of how or where you access your messages.
IMAP Vs. POP3: Which method should you use?
Here at Techlicious, we strongly recommend IMAP. However, your emailing habits and needs may be different from ours, so your choice of protocol should match those needs.
Why would you want to use IMAP? First of all, IMAP allows you to retrieve your messages on multiple devices — your smartphone, home computer, tablet, laptop and the like.
Since the server stores your messages, you don’t need to worry about losing messages if one of your access devices fails. So, if ever you need to reformat your desktop’s hard drive, you won’t need to go through the process of backing up your local mail database and importing it into a fresh installation of your email software. Just set up your IMAP account, connect to the internet and let your email client sync the folders. Almost all servers also use mechanisms to keep your email data safe and secure, often by keeping redundant copies on multiple servers, so that’s additional peace of mind for you. One major tradeoff, however, is that the volume of emails that you can keep is limited to the server storage space configured for your account.
Second, whatever modifications you make on one device will be reflected in all other devices that access the same IMAP account. For instance, when you read a message on your desktop, that same message will be marked as read on your phone, tablet etc. The same case happens whenever you delete messages, move messages to subfolders, create or delete folders etc.
Third, you save on bandwidth because full messages are downloaded to your device only when you choose to. You get to see what messages have arrived and choose which ones to download and read. Retrieving the message headers happen relatively quicker than POP3, too, since only the headers are fetched. You do need to be online to be able to download full messages.
Why would you want to use POP3? If you read your emails using only one device (for instance, a laptop exclusively for work use), POP3 may be a better option. All of your new messages will be downloaded in full at once to your device. In contrast with IMAP, you won’t need to be online anymore to be able to read any of the downloaded messages. As long as you regularly download your POP3 email, storage limits on your account should not be a big issue. Just remember, though, that all your messages are tied to your specific device, so make sure that your local emails are frequently backed up.
[Image credit: woman frustrated at computer via BigStockPhoto]