If you’re still using POP3 you should consider the advantages of changing to IMAP, as it’s the most effective way to handle email. If you only use Gmail you may still find this article interesting if not relevant to your needs.

Why I wrote this

My computer recently started to show signs of age – running slowly and doing unpredictable things. It wasn’t a particularly old machine so I decided to try a system rebuild before giving up on it and buying a replacement. In principle this is a straightforward procedure:

  1. Save my data files.
  2. Save my favorites.
  3. Save my contacts.
  4. Save my emails.
  5. Update and reinstall.

The first three of these are simple. Most files are kept in the user’s account. It used to be called My Documents but the name and structure vary from one version of Windows to another. It’s not too difficult to find everything and save it on a USB drive. I don’t mean a memory stick – these are unlikely to be big enough. Get an external USB hard drive of at least the capacity of the one in your computer. At the time of writing you can get a 2TB in a case for around 100€.

To save your Favorites, find the appropriate menu item in your browser. Likewise for Contacts; these are part of your email program.

That leaves email messages, which are always kept in one of two places:

  1. On your computer.
  2. On the web somewhere.

The first of these is where you have a mail account with your ISP and access it using a program like Thunderbird, Windows Live Mail or Outlook. There are two different ways to handle mail; POP3 and IMAP. The older one, POP3, is Post Office Protocol and the newer, IMAP, is Internet Message Access Protocol. neither of which you need to remember.

POP3 copies each message from your ISP’s server to your computer then deletes the copy on the server. This is fine where you only have a single computer, but most of us have smartphones and tablets too and we like to be able to access our mail on them as well. If the message has been read on your home computer it’s no longer on the server so your phone can’t get to it. Or vice versa.

IMAP keeps all the mail on the server, and each computer that accesses it makes its own local copy if it wants to. When you set your account up on another computer, all your mail magically appears. This is great if your computer dies as nothing is lost; all you have to do is install an email app and set up your account.

Mail can also be kept on the web, using Gmail or any of similar webmail systems. As with IMAP, your mail is safe; the difference is you access webmail with a browser, not an email program. There are a number of limitations, the primary ones being

  1. You have to wait for each message to download when you want to read it. Not good on very slow systems and useless if your connection fails.
  2. You can only have one “identity” for outgoing mail. An identity is what the recipient sees as your email address, with a signature if required. Many of us want to be able to present ourselves in different ways at different times, depending if we’re composing private mail or running a business.

A lot of email

We tend to have rather a lot of email, and some of it is big. Really big. We casually send camera images, word processor documents, even videos, without considering the space they take up. That’s fine until we have to move the mail somewhere else and discover just how much we have accumulated.

I don’t know what proportion of computer users actually care about their mail. Probably less than 10%. Other people just delete it all and starts again. But those of us in that 10% keep our mail, as a record of things that happen in our lives, to track our businesses and so on. All these big attachments get in the way, but they’re probably not all in one folder so it’s very difficult to hunt them down. So here are some guidelines.

The first one is, use folders. Don’t just keep everything in your Inbox. It’s like keeping all your letters, bills, birthday cards and royalty checks in a single box file. You’ll never be able to find anything.

The second is, don’t use Windows Live Mail. It’s an awful product, far worse than the venerable Outlook Express it replaced. It has no ability to export its mail to other programs other than paid-for Microsoft ones. No doubt this is deliberate on their part, but to me it’s the single best reason to avoid it. Other reasons:

It doesn’t handle multiple identities well; you have to create a whole pile of accounts.
If you delete an IMAP account it silently deletes ALL the mail on the server, without warning you first. This is incredibly impolite and a potential recipe for disaster. Who can trust a program that has so little regard for your property?
It can’t copy folders containing folders. How lame is that?
So before it’s too late, substitute Thunderbird.

If you are unlucky enough to already be using WLM to manage POP3 mail, do the following:

  1. Convert your server to IMAP. You may not actually have to do anything.
  2. Set up WLM to use IMAP.
  3. Using WLM, create a set of folders on the server to match your POP3 ones.
  4. Copy all your messages, folder by folder, to the IMAP folders.
  5. Install Thunderbird and check it can see all the folders and messages.
  6. Abandon WLM forever. But don’t remove any IMAP accounts without first making sure you’re offline. Otherwise, as noted above, it may delete all your mail.

If you have a lot of mail folders step 4 is going to take some time, as each folder has to be copied individually. But you end up with mail that can be read by pretty well anything and is as secure as your hosting service.

Mail strategies

Even with the huge storage capacities available today, storing lots of big mail files is a problem as they take such a long time to move about. And when you come to think about it, keeping photos in emails isn’t that great as you have to extract the attachments to be able to use them anywhere. So why not do that just once, when they arrive?

When you receive an email containing big photos as attachments, ask yourself if you really need to keep them. If the answer is yes, extract the photos to a folder in your photo store. (Of course you have one of those, don’t you?) If the answer is no, then delete the email. Don’t just file it away without thinking.

Most emails with big attachments don’t contain much else, but every now and then you get sent one with an attachment you don’t really need and some information that you do. So save the attachments then forward the message to yourself, removing the attachment(s) along the way. File this copy and delete the original. Whether you then delete the saved attachments is up to you, but at least they’re separated from the messages they arrived in.

A lean mailbox is a happy mailbox!

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