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It boils down to the difference between POP3 protocol and IMAP, but you'll need to reconfigure your email account and keep an eye on your quotas.

I just purchased a new iPad, my first. My PC runs Vista with Windows Mail. My question concerns email. Is there a way to delete email simultaneously on the PC and the iPad? I get all email on the iPad as well as the PC and must now delete on each device.

In this excerpt from Answercast #20, I discuss a new email protocol that allows emails to stay synced between numerous platforms.

Simultaneous email?

There is a way; it requires reconfiguring your email account. It also assumes that your email service provides it.

  • Many cell phones (actually, the email clients in phones) now often default to using this other technique.

POP3 moves files

What it boils down to is the difference between what we have been using (something called POP3) as an email download protocol versus a different protocol called IMAP.

In the past, traditionally, we haven't been able to assume continuous connectivity to our mail server. As a result, we've been using the POP3 protocol to download our email from our email service provider to our computer. Normally, that means that email is visible in only one place:

  • Whichever place you downloaded it from most recently is where the email happens to live.

IMAP copies files

IMAP instead, makes a couple of assumptions: one is that all of the email continues to reside on your email service provider's servers. It doesn't really download the email; it doesn't move the mail from your service to your PC. Rather it copies it. In fact, it keeps the copy on your local machine in sync with whatever is on the server.

The nice thing about that particular approach then is that you can use more than one computer to access the same collection of email as it's stored on your email service provider's server.

So, for example, I can do this with Gmail. In fact, I do it all the time with Gmail.

I have multiple computers: my laptop, my desktop, my Android tablet, my phone, etc. All of them connect to my Gmail email account using IMAP. When I delete something on one computer, it eventually disappears from all the others. When I mark something as read on one computer, it eventually gets marked as read on all of the others.

When I move mail from folder to folder on one computer, it eventually gets moved on the other ones as well... depending on how frequently they update their synchronization with the master server back at Google.

Configure your email account for IMAP

Now, like I said, this does require configuring your email account differently. When you set up your email account, chances are you chose POP3 settings to download email. You may even have specified to leave on server as an advance setting.

Instead, what you need to do is reconfigure (change) the configuration. Unfortunately, in many email programs, that means deleting your email account and recreating your email account with this different IMAP setting. Depending on your email service provider, the IMAP server may have a different name. (I know that, I think, in Google it does.)

So, unfortunately, I can't really give you the specifics of exactly how to go about configuring your email client on your iPad and/or on your PC. You'll need to go back to your email service provider and find out what their support for IMAP really is.

Watch your email quotas

One last caution: like I said, IMAP assumes that the email will continue to live on the service provider's server.

Many email service providers have what they call, "quotas." A quota is nothing more than a fixed amount of space in which you are allowed to keep your email. If you continue to keep all of your email on the server, then you run the risk of running into the email quota.

Typically, when that happens, when you fill up your email account on your email service provider's server, they then stop accepting email for you until you free up some space... until you actually delete a bunch of email.

Route your email through Gmail

Google is one useful approach to this particular problem because they give you a bucket load of space. I've been using it for a couple of years and I don't think I've even approached a third of the amount of available space that I have on Google's mail servers. However, for traditional ISPs, many of them do have much more restrictive quotas and that's something that you definitely need to factor into your choice of whether you want to use IMAP at all.

Article C5376 - May 23, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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2 Comments
Mark J
May 24, 2012 12:27 AM

With POP3, there's also an option with most email clients where you can configure it to leave the mail on the server after downloading it. This way, the emails will be downloaded to all email clients which access that account. Just be sure all of the email programs which access this account are configured to leave the mail on the server.
With this setting, the main difference between IMAP and POP is that IMAP synchronize the accounts on your email client with the mail server. In other words, it also copies from the email client to to the server. For example, if you delete an email on your email client, it is also deleted on the mail server.

Michael Horowitz
May 24, 2012 9:39 AM

POP works in more than one way.

To illustrate, I do my email mostly on a computer configured to *move* mail from the POP server to my computer.

But, I also access new mail (not yet moved to the computer) from an Android tablet where the email software copies new messages to the tablet rather than moves them. It is also configured such that messages deleted on the tablet are deleted on the POP server. This way, I use the Android tablet to pre-process my email first thing in the morning, then download just the good stuff to the computer later.

I also have an Android smartphone that copies email but it is configured such that deletions are NOT mirrored on the POP server. The phone has small buttons and I'm afraid of deleting something by accident.

No IMAP at all.

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