iOS Email Recommendations

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This page contains tips and recommendations on how to access email in iOS.

With the exception of iCloud, Hotmail, and Yahoo, you should try to use the Microsoft exchange access method, if your email provider supports it. If your provider doesn't, you should use IMAP if possible. POP3 should be the choice of last resort (see below for reasons why). However, this doesn't apply to iCloud, Hotmail, and Yahoo -- for these, you should use the iOS built-in interfaces. In the case of gmail, you should use the Google Sync (exchange-based) interface, and not the built-in iOS one, as Google Sync gives you push gmail and synchronization.

IMPORTANT NOTE: if you are currently using POP3, and are used to the way it works, note that switching to another mail access method will make email "work differently". For example, with POP3, if you delete email from your iPhone, the email may still exist on, say, your laptop. With the other methods, deleting the message means that the message is GONE everywhere (well, it might be put into the trash in some circumstances); if you read email from your laptop, that message will also be deleted, and will not exist (except possibly in the trash). This is also true for moving messages between folders/labels. Basically, with POP3, your email is not synchronized between your devices; with the other methods, your email is synchronized. Please be aware of these differences.


Mail access methods

iOS can access email via the following methods:

Method Syncs email? Push email? Syncs contacts? Syncs calendars? Syncs notes? Syncs bookmarks? Syncs reminders? Notes
Microsoft Exchange Yes Yes Yes, multiple
groups
Yes, multiple
calendars
No No Yes, as tasks with
due dates and
repeatability.
Task start dates
not synchronized.
Supports task
priority.
Due dates need to be
created from exchange;
iOS only supports editing
of due dates, not creation.
iCloud Yes Yes Yes, multiple
groups
Yes Yes Yes Yes, has
repeatability
but no separate
due dates. Does
not support
priority.
Hotmail Yes Yes Yes Yes No No Yes, appears as
Hotmail tasks.
Supports priority.
Reminder dates
appear as
Hotmail due
dates. No real
support for
separate due
dates.
(Appears to use an
exchange-based interface,
via an easy-to-use wizard.)
Gmail Google Sync

(Exchange-based)

Yes Yes Yes, but only as
a single group.
Yes, multiple
calendars
No No No See below for
recommendations.
Gmail Yes No No Yes Yes, one
way, as a
special label
only.
No No
Yahoo Yes Yes No Yes Yes No Yes, has
repeatability
and priority,
but no due
dates.
AOL Yes No  ?  ?  ?  ? No
Other IMAP Yes No No No Yes No No While the IMAP protocol
may support push,
IMAP on iOS doesn't.
POP3 One-way No No No No No No Email download only.
No two-way synchronization.
Insecure authentication -
avoid public WiFi as
passwords are easily
harvested.

Notes:

  1. With the iPod Touch and wifi-only iPad running iOS 3.X and earlier, push email is problematic, as the device turns the wifi off during suspend when on battery (it stays on with AC); push will not occur then. iOS 4.0 and later does not have this problem.

  2. Even though IMAP servers may support IMAP IDLE -- used to do the equivalent of push email for IMAP -- the iPhone doesn't support it. As a result, even though "push" may exist for mail clients such as Mail.app and Thunderbird, when used with IMAP, it doesn't work on the iPhone.

  3. For IMAP-only accounts, there are free and non-free third-party websites and apps that can provide push-email-like services. Websites include (these have not been evaluated -- use at your own risk):

    Apps include (these have not been evaluated -- use at your own risk):

  4. Battery life can be an issue. Email checking is done using one of three methods: manual fetch, periodic fetch, or push. Manual fetch uses the least battery, but you must then manually check for new mail. Periodic fetch can use up surprising amounts of battery, as the checking will still occur during suspend. Push can also use up battery power, but this appears to be somewhat dependent upon your 3G signal level (for 3G-capable devices); the lower the 3G signal, the more battery power appears to be used.

  5. Above, a supported feature can be individually turned off, if desired. For example, while a Microsoft exchange account supports synchronization of contacts and calendars, you can go into the iOS device settings to individually turn these on or off.

POP3 is not recommended

POP3 is an old mail access method, developed in the days when email was typically accessed from one and only one location. However, in today's world, email can be accessed from multiple places/devices, and POP3 does not work well for this. Basically, POP3 has no way of synchronizing the various email clients, such as the iPhone or Mail.app (on the Mac). For example, if you read email via Mail.app and delete a message, that message will not be deleted on the iPhone if POP3 is used. With the other mail access methods, such as IMAP, the message will also be deleted on the iPhone (you may have to manually refresh the view to see that, though).

IMPORTANT NOTE: if you are currently using POP3, and are used to the way it works, note that switching to another mail access method will make email "work differently". For example, with POP3, if you delete email from your iPhone, the email may still exist on, say, your laptop. With the other methods, deleting the message means that the message is GONE everywhere (well, it might be put into the trash in some circumstances); if you read email from your laptop, that message will also be deleted, and will not exist (except possibly in the trash). This is also true for moving messages between folders/labels. Basically, with POP3, your email is not synchronized between your devices; with the other methods, your email is synchronized. Please be aware of these differences.


Configuring Email Access

iCloud

Go to the iCloud Setup Page, and follow the instructions. Unlike gmail, iCloud has the advantage of supporting multiple contact groups; if you organize your contacts into multiple groups, they will be properly synchronized into multiple groups on the iOS device.


Gmail

If possible, gmail should be accessed using Google's Microsoft-Exchange-based interface, called "Google Sync"; the "Gmail" interface should not be used.

The reasons for using Google Sync include:

  1. Push email notification. The "Gmail" interface does not have push.
  2. Automatic synchronization of messages. With the "Gmail" interface, you may have to manually refresh the view to see new messages, deletions, or moves.
  3. Automatic synchronization of Google contacts. You cannot synchronize contacts at all with the "Gmail" interface.

For instructions on how to configure your iOS device to use Google Sync, see the Google help page, "Mail, Calendar, & Contacts: Set Up Your Apple Device for Google Sync". Using this method, you can also optionally synchronize your Google contacts and one or more Google calendars. However, note that specifying which Google calendars to sync is not done via the iOS settings or calendar apps; you have to go to a Google webpage to specify that, and you have to do it from the iOS device. For instructions, see the Google help page, "Mail, Calendar, & Contacts: Choosing Which Calendars to Sync". Also, by default, "deleting" a message really means "archive". To change this behavior:

  1. Go to https://m.google.com/sync and login. NOTE: you must go to that URL from your iOS device. Going to that URL from any other browser or computer will redirect you to the Google Sync info page.

  2. Select your device in the displayed list. Note that, if you have multiple devices, you'll have to change this setting for each and every device.

  3. Click on 'Enable "Delete Email As Trash" for this device.'

Note that, if enabled, Google contacts are synchronized as a single, lumped group. Unlike other exchange accounts and MobileMe, synchronization of contact groups is not done. While you can create multiple Google contact groups, they are not synchronized to the iOS device (this is a Google limitation, and not an Apple one); all of your contacts, regardless of whether or not they are in a contact group, are synchronized as one lumped group on the iOS device.

Also note that Google's webmail interface is still quite usable in Safari, as long as you have an internet connection. It's very useful for searching.


Yahoo

See the "Setup" tab on the Yahoo help page, "Yahoo! Mail for iPhoneĀ®".


Hotmail

For iOS5 and later, just add your account as a "Hotmail account"; see, "How to setup Hotmail on iPhone?", for details. For iOS4 and earlier, use the Microsoft-exchange interface on the iPhone to access hotmail. For instructions, see the Microsoft help document, "ActiveSync Set-Up for Hotmail Access". The iOS instructions start somewhere in the middle of that page.