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Email with multiple computers

When I decided to leave my job and come to Italy to study food at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, I realised that I was facing a different problem with email than I was used to – previously, I had work email on a computer at work and home email on a computer at home – I very rarely needed the home stuff at work or vice versa. As I was going to be carrying on some work for my company while in Italy, I was going to need good email access wherever I was – working from laptops, my desktop computer or elsewhere.

I wasn’t interested in web-based email systems like GMail as they aren’t going to work for viewing messages when you are offline. Most email works through the pop3 protocol, where your mail program connects to the server and downloads messages. It can then leave them on the server or delete them. This protocol gives you some problems if you work on more than one computer as you either end up with some emails on one computer and other on the other or all email on both with no indication of which you have already read on the other computer. Also, sent messages on one computer won’t be available on the other computer. Reading about the other email protocol, IMAP, I came to the conclusion that an email service using that protocol would be most suitable. With IMAP, all your email is stored on the server, inbox, outbox, deleted items etc. When you use your mail program, it accesses the server and updates its folder lists – it can also keep a copy on your computer so that you can look at folders and mail offline. Generally, a message is only downloaded from the server if you click on it – this means that it saves time, especially if you have a slow connection or lots of large messages – you quickly see all messages and only spend time downloading if you want a particular message. In this way messages you have not looked at previously are not available to look at offline.

Having decided on IMAP, I started to look for a service that provided it. FastMail, an Australian company seemed to have the best offering and reviews. Their top account costs around $40 per year.

Having set up my account with FastMail, I was very impressed with the service – I could use any computer and have access to all my email, including through their web-based interface. Unfortunately, there is no working solution yet to easily have the same facility for having your contacts stored externally on a server.

Using IMAP, I noticed that Outlook and Outlook Express had some issues with the protocol that were annoying.  For example, Outlook did not have the native ability to use the IMAP sent items folder for sent items.  So I started to look around for better email clients and wasted a large amount of time considering the potential benefits.  I tried Mulberry, reputed to be the most powerful IMAP client but I didn’t like the way it handled accounts when offline.  I tried Thunderbird but again the offline handling didn’t seem ideal for me – I wanted to be able to access everything offline that I had accessed previously online – this was something Outlook and Outlook Express had managed.  I then came across Opera’s email client which is part of their browser and I found that, despite a couple of issues it seemed to work the best out of all the options.  Some interesting things that Opera’s client does are…

  • It will use addresses from emails in your inbox for its proposals when you are entering an email address – this helps get around the lack of contact synchronisation between computers.
  • It is very powerful with message sorting – I keep 3 separate folders for incoming mail – one for my current primary email address, one for my university address that the FastMail account picks up with pop3 from the university server, and another which picks up mail from a couple of old email addresses, a lot of which is junk.  Opera automatically has a folder for unread messages that shows me unread messages across those 3 folders – where I had to look at them separately in other programs.  It is also very easy to filter out spam and mailing list messages and to search messages.

So my perfect email combination has turned out to be Opera with FastMail‘s IMAP mail service.