How many email-capable devices do you own? And how many do you use on a regular basis? For me it’s a desktop in the office, a chunky powerhouse Windows laptop that I use at home and a more portable one that I carry on trips, a Mac, three tablets (travel, bedside and coffee table), and maybe four different phones that I’m testing at any one time.
Now I realise I’m not a typical user, especially since three of the phones and one of the tablets are on loan, but I don’t think it’s unusual for someone to have a work PC, a home PC, a laptop, a phone and possibly a tablet, all needing access to the same email account. Or, more likely, multiple accounts.
There are problems, however, and they arise not so much from sending or receiving email – most devices these days come with brilliant software for doing that. No, what bugs people is keeping their email properly synced across multiple computers and handhelds. If you’re still working with POP3 (and many people are forced to), a particular incoming email might have been downloaded on one device and deleted from the server; then, if you want to reply to it from your phone or tablet, you’ll find it isn’t there.
Likewise, if you replied to an email a couple of weeks ago and want to refer back to it in your Sent Items folder – again, with a traditional POP3 setup – you’ll need to be on the same machine to do this. It’s very messy.
There are a number of solutions, and I’ll run through several here – my list won’t be comprehensive, and I’m sure some of you will have other (probably better) ideas, so feel free to add a comment.
Let’s start with the basics
By default, most email clients will delete an email from a POP3 server as soon as it’s been downloaded: you’ll usually find an option buried somewhere in the settings or options, to “leave email on the server for xx days”. Set that to something like 30 days, or whatever suits your working environment, and at least you’ll receive all of your email on all of your devices.
You’ll need to adjust the time period to the longest that any single device can sit on the desk without you using it. Oh, and what’s vitally important is that you need to make this configuration change on all of your POP3 clients – leave only one on the default setting and it will kill the setup completely.
What about sent emails?
How do you get those on all of your devices? Well, it’s a bit clumsy perhaps, but the simplest way is to CC (or preferably BCC) all your emails back to yourself. In fact, you’ll be able to set many email clients to do that automatically. With others, Outlook being an example, you can create a rule to automatically forward all sent emails to another address, and this can be your own address, thus looping the mails back to your own account.
Unfortunately, with Outlook 2010 you can only CC, not BCC, such emails, which isn’t a massive problem, but can look odd when others see that you’re CCing yourself on all of your emails. There’s a way around this using custom VB code, and perhaps that’s something I’ll return to in the future.
Set up a Gmail or Hotmail account and use it as an email archive
Another option, and it’s one that I see many people recommend, is to set up a Gmail or Hotmail account and use it as an email archive, forwarding both your inbound and outbound messages there. It works well, but I don’t really find it particularly convenient – if you’re looking for an email from a year ago, for example, but have only a vague notion of the name of the person you were communicating with, you end up doing several searches in two different places.
Use Gmail as your main account
You might ask, “why not use Gmail as your main email provider?” This is an option, especially if you use the Apps version that enables you to use your domain name. Problems arise if you have to access and act upon emails from multiple sources – for example, I have a mail server that looks after personal and business emails, then cst-group.com for my web agency, demographix.com for the online survey company I help out with, plus a few more. Most people can’t force their employer or ISP to use Gmail!
There’s also a potential problem over snooping, since many people simply don’t want Google to have access to all of their emails and target them with ads and services based on the content. Sure, you can opt out of this in the Gmail settings, but I’ve never seen a clear statement from Google about whether this actually turns off the email scanning or merely doesn’t display targeted ads. For all of these reasons, Gmail and Hotmail simply won’t be viable options for many people, either as main providers or as archives.
What about IMAP then?
Surely it was designed to address these issues? This is certainly true – with POP3 your mail client grabs the messages and runs the mailbox locally, whereas IMAP works by keeping your mailbox on the server, and the client software (Outlook, Thunderbird, or whatever) simply provides a window onto that mailbox. It means all computers see the same view, and even share the Sent Items folder. Perfect, eh? In an ideal world it would be, but there are still a few problems.
First, despite IMAP being 26 years old this year, not every email system supports it. Well, actually, most email systems support it, but not all mail server managers open it up: many old-school network admins still think IMAP is a horrible new invention.
If you look at the more popular ISPs, for example, you’ll find the majority support POP3 only for email collection – and it isn’t too difficult to understand why, since IMAP keeping all of the email on their servers massively increases the disk space consumed. This isn’t much of a problem on a mail server in a small company with few employees, but ramp it up to a large ISP and the costs of disk space go up considerably compared to a POP3-based setup.
One of the most common email environments in the larger business world is Microsoft Exchange Server, and not only does ActiveSync ensure you’ll see the same view on your mobile devices as you do in Outlook (including message read status and flags), it’s also great for keeping multiple devices in sync because, as with IMAP, the main mailbox is stored on the server.
Yes, this uses up lots of disk space, but in an Exchange environment that’s expected. There are usually size limits on an Exchange mailbox, which will be site-dependent, but figures in the range of 200MB to 750MB are fairly typical.
Unfortunately, if you’re the kind of person who likes to – or maybe needs to – keep old emails, then even 750MB won’t last long. My own email archive, for example, takes up little over 10GB. This is fairly easy to manage in an Exchange/Outlook environment, though, since you’ll move older emails off the server to locally held PST files on one of the connected PCs.
In fact, Outlook includes a very nice auto-archive facility that can be set to sweep ancient emails from your Exchange mailbox on a regular basis. What this does of course is take us right back to square one. Much as with the old POP3 email problem, these ancient emails will be available only from the machine that holds the PST file, so if you’re out on the road or sitting at home, and want to refer back to an email you sent this time last year (maybe for a service or contract renewal), you probably won’t have access to that PST file. Even if you do have file-level access to it, it will be a huge file that might take hours to copy.
There are several different solutions to this, but one of the best I’ve found is a fairly cheap bit of software called SynchPST for Outlook, from a company called Wisco: you simply point the application at two PST files and it neatly synchronises their contents. You can either sync the whole PST file, or maybe just a single folder or two. The first time you run it, it will take a while, especially if you’re syncing over a slow link between home and office, but from then onwards it will run much quicker since it only syncs changed or updated emails. Incidentally, it will sync all Outlook data, including calendar entries and contacts. I can heartily recommend it as a way to keep your PST files in shape.
The software comes in two flavours: a Home version that probably does most of what most people need and costs $40, and a Pro version for $30 more that can sync between Exchange servers and PST files, work with password-protected PST files and also enables you to schedule regular synchronisation. I use the Pro version, but for simple PST file syncing I think you’ll be fine with the Home edition.
One thing you might notice when you start to sync PST files between different computers is that you end up with several copies of the same email, especially if you’ve moved certain emails into folders on one machine but not on another – sync the two and you’ll find copies in both the inbox and the folder. Again, Wisco comes to the rescue with its product NoMoreDupes, which does pretty much what it says on the tin: scanning your mailbox for multiple copies of the same email (or contact, appointment and so on), even if they’re in different folders, and allowing you to cull the duplicates.
Smartphone users will appreciate NoMoreDupes too, since you often find that when you change phones you can end up with two or more copies of your contacts and calendar entries – I experience this all the time when testing new handsets. NoMoreDupes clears this up nicely, and is a snip at $30.