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What's the best way to sync email across devices?

Posted on 24 Sep 2012 at 11:06

Paul Ockenden ponders the best way to sync email when you have multiple devices scattered around the home and office

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.

I don’t think it’s unusual to have a work PC, a home PC, a laptop, a phone and possibly a tablet

There are problems, however, and they arise not so much from sending or receiving email – most devices these days come with brilliant clients 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 below.

The basics

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.

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

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.

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 (I believe our esteemed RWC editor Dick Pountain does this). 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 PC Pro 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 email archives.

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User comments

If you have that...

...many shiny devices, then surely you can spare the dosh for a hosted Exchange account? Then you can use your own domain and not go near Google.

By nichomach0 on 24 Sep 2012

It's exactly for this reason that I use a cloud based Microsoft Exchange solution. That way, all my devices remain up to date and sync nicely. This is fine for my small business, although for personal emails I still struggle.

By mossmotorsport on 24 Sep 2012

If it's for home and/or small biz, then why not try Mercury as server (with IMAP running), Pegasus clients, all at home and then (eg) Thunderbird running IMAP on the road. Works well for us, and all for free.

By WilliamW on 24 Sep 2012

No mention of RIM?

My blackberry takes care of this automatically for me over my phone and tablet.

By JamesD29 on 24 Sep 2012

@JamesD29
- correct! It was a breeze to sync my wife's Blackberry and my old HTC Hero to our Mercury system.

By WilliamW on 24 Sep 2012

Just demand IMAP. It works.

By broccauley on 24 Sep 2012

Is that article addressing the wrong question?

I just can't see the problem. Why faff around trying to get around the failings of a long obsolete service. The only question is Exchange or IMAP?

By tirons1 on 24 Sep 2012

@tirons1

Because there's a whole load of people for whom Exchange or IMAP aren't possible. For example, many of the UK's biggest ISPs still only offer POP3 access for retrieving email.

You are right - IMAP and Exchange make life so much easier. And it's annoying that in this day and age so many people still have to put up with POP3.

By PaulOckenden on 25 Sep 2012

@PaulOckenden

I would hesitate to say are not possible. Hosted IMAP is available for under £12 per year, and the likes of Google offer it for free. IMAP leaves you free to change ISP when you want, and a for businesses a proper email address looks more professional.

Personally I believe it is less hassle in the long run to go for IMAP or Exchange.

By tirons1 on 25 Sep 2012

IMAP and hosted domain

I always recommend to my friends that they buy their own domain and host it with a company that provides IMAP.

A hosted domain (i use 1&1) means u are not tied to an ISP or gmail/hotmail. I have had the same email address for over 10 years, and family members also have addresses on the same domain.
IMAP means I have full control of emails on my Android phone, on my home computer (Outlook) and anywhere else using the 1&1 webmail.

By manc555 on 25 Sep 2012

@PaulOckenden
That's why we went the Mercury server route, since it picks up our mail via pop, and all the syncing then happens locally on it. Admittedly a bit of a nerdy solution.

By WilliamW on 25 Sep 2012

Really struggling here

I really don't understand the issue here. Just saying "but some ISPS only have POP" just seems to be a way to avoid the obvious problem. Like most of the commenters above, I pay a couple of quid a month for a hosted exchange service. I have email accounts going back to 1994 that are POP only, but they are all managed by the hosted exchange service and so all the "issues" just go away. I currently have five different mail accounts but mail synching ceased to be an issue several years ago when I finally decided a few pounds a month was WELL worth spending. I have my own domain, hosted exchange and email is a complete non-issue.

By Bassey1976 on 26 Sep 2012

IMAP, IMAP Client and Webmail

I have five POP3 accounts with 12 years of old email amounting to several GBs, all stored in an Outlook PST. After a lot of research, I have worked out an 'email everywhere' solution. (1) Get a Zoho webmail account (free or paid options, both with no ads). (2) Set up email forwarding on all 5 POP3 accounts to send copies to Zoho. (3) Set up Zoho account in Outlook as IMAP. (4) Copy all Outlook folders containing 12 years of email to Zoho account, so all are uploaded to Zoho servers (or use Zoho tool for this). (5) Ditch Outlook and install Thunderbird instead which has brilliant IMAP support with useful options for storing sent items and deleted items. (6) Sync Thunderbird to download all messages to desktop again, but in Thunderbird compatible format. (7) Delete PST or archive it. (8) Use K9 Mail app on phones, set up to access Zoho account. (9) Tweak settings in Zoho, Thunderbird, and K9 so that all use the same core drafts, sent and deleted folders, and so that you can send email using any of the original five POP3 account identities. Presto! Email everywhere, perfectly synced. I can delete a message on phone and watch it disappear from Thunderbird on desktop PC in a few moments. All mail also accessible anywhere in the world on Zoho website, which is kept in sync with desktop and phones. I can send email using any of the original email accounts, and don't even need to use my new Zoho email address. All free, no ads, no problems so far.

By LundUK on 30 Sep 2012

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Paul Ockenden

Paul Ockenden

Paul is a contributing editor to PC Pro specialising in smartphones, mobile broadband and all things wireless. He's technical director of a combined IT and marketing company, which works on websites and intranets for several blue-chip clients.

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