Configure IT Quick: Add versatility to Outlook Express with IMAP and HTTP

Explains how IMAP and HTTP mail accounts work and shows you how to set up and access these accounts in Outlook Express

You've probably used Outlook Express for POP3 accounts, but you might not realize that Outlook Express also supports IMAP and HTTP accounts. For example, you can use Outlook Express to manage your Hotmail or MSN account along with your other accounts. You might also want to switch from POP3 to IMAP if your mail server supports both. IMAP offers some advantages over POP3, including the fact that your messages remain on the mail server, making things much easier when you need to access an account from more than one computer.

In this Daily Drill Down, I'll explain how IMAP and HTTP mail accounts work and show you how to set up and access these accounts in Outlook Express. I'll also take a look at rules and other issues surrounding IMAP and HTTP to help you get the most out of these accounts in Outlook Express.

All around the IMAP
IMAP stands for Internet Mail Access Protocol. Like POP3, IMAP is a standards-based protocol that supports e-mail message transfer, but there are some significant differences between POP3 and IMAP. One of the main differences is that POP3 is designed primarily as an offline protocol, with most actions occurring on messages locally rather than at the server. For example, with POP3 you typically download messages to a local message store and then delete those you don't want.

IMAP’s advantages
IMAP, on the other hand, is an online protocol in that many tasks occur on the server rather than the local message store, giving you the ability to manipulate messages without actually downloading them to your local computer. This is particularly handy when you need to access your mailbox from different computers and different locations. You don't have to worry about synchronizing messages between different message stores—the messages stay on the server. You simply view that common store from two or more locations.

IMAP offers better security than POP3, and Outlook Express can benefit from that increased security. IMAP uses a challenge-response mechanism to authenticate your account on the server. This mechanism means that your password isn't transferred across the network in clear text and therefore is much more difficult to intercept.

In addition, IMAP supports two features that Outlook Express unfortunately doesn't implement. IMAP provides better search capability than POP3, allowing you to search the mailbox for messages by a variety of message properties, such as message size and message header. Outlook Express, however, offers the same search conditions for IMAP as for POP3. IMAP can also separate attachments from the header and text portions of a message, which enables the IMAP client to read the text portion of a message without downloading the message attachment. This is different from POP3, which requires that you download the entire message, attachment and all, just to read the text portion. If you receive lots of large attachments over a relatively slow link, this ability can make IMAP worthwhile. With Outlook Express, however, any attachments come along with a message when you download it. However, you can easily delete a message from the server without downloading it, so you can avoid the download altogether if you don't want the message.

IMAP’s disadvantages
Even with these advantages, IMAP doesn't do everything. For example, IMAP doesn't support nonmail folders. However, mail servers like Exchange Server often do. For example, you can use Microsoft Outlook to create nonmail folders in your Exchange Server mailbox to store contacts, tasks, journal entries, and so on. When you create folders on an IMAP server, however, you can only create mail folders. As I note later in this article, you can view certain nonmail folders in an Exchange Server mailbox, but you’re limited in the ways you can work with those folders in Outlook Express.

Another potential drawback to using IMAP in Outlook Express is that Outlook Express won't apply your rules to IMAP accounts. Rules only apply to the Outlook Express Local Folders branch, and the IMAP folders are stored separately. One solution is to manually move messages from your IMAP folders to folders in the Local Folders branch, and then run the rules on them. However, if you rely heavily on rules to process your messages, IMAP is probably not the best solution for you.

Working with IMAP accounts
The process for adding an IMAP account is very similar to adding a POP3 account. If you have an existing POP3 account and want to experiment with IMAP for the same account (assuming the server supports both protocols), I recommend that you create a second identity and use it for the IMAP account. This will help you keep the two separate until you decide which you like best.

To create an identity, open Outlook Express and choose File | Identities | Manage Identities. Click New, enter a name for the identity (such asIMAP), and click OK. When Outlook Express prompts you to switch identities, click Yes. If you've installed Windows XP Service Pack 1, you might find that you can't switch identities. If that's the case, choose File | Identities | Manage Identities and deselect the option Use This Identity When Starting A Program. You should now be able to switch identities.

Creating the account
Once you switch identities, Outlook Express starts the Internet Connection Wizard, which steps you through the process of creating the account. In the wizard, specify your name and e-mail address. Then on the E-mail Server Names page of the wizard, choose IMAP from the server type drop-down list. Enter the IP address or Fully-Qualified Domain (FQDN) name of the IMAP server in the Incoming Mail Server field. Enter the IP address or FQDN of the SMTP server for outgoing messages in the Outgoing Mail Server field. In most cases, the incoming and outgoing servers are the same, but they can be different, depending on your provider's mail server infrastructure. Plus, for a variety of reasons you might need or prefer to use a different provider for outgoing mail.

The final wizard page prompts you for your e-mail account and password and whether you want to use Secure Password Authentication (SPA) for the account. Specify the necessary settings, and then click through to finish the wizard. Outlook Express will then start the Outlook Express Import wizard. Choose Do Not Import At This Time, and click Next | Finish.

In the next step of the process, Outlook Express asks if you want to view a list of available folders for the account. Click Yes, and enter your password if prompted. If you've worked much with newsgroups, you'll find the IMAP folder download process a lot like downloading a list of newsgroups, although the download happens much quicker because there are fewer folders involved. When the download is complete, you'll see the Show/Hide IMAP Folders dialog box, which contains two tabs: All and Visible. The number of folders in the All list depends on the type of server. In most cases you'll see Inbox, Sent Items, and Drafts. To open the Show/Hide IMAP Folders dialog box at other times, click the account name in the left pane and then click the IMAP Folders button in the right pane.

IMAP and Exchange
Exchange Server supports IMAP in addition to other mail protocols, and if IMAP is enabled for the server, you can use Outlook Express and IMAP to access your Exchange Server mailbox. In this case, Outlook Express' Show/Hide IMAP Folders dialog box shows all of your mailbox folders, such as Contacts and Calendar. You'll also see the Public Folders branch on the server, and any folders available to you under that branch. Initially, the Inbox, Sent Items, Drafts, Calendar, and Contacts folders of an Exchange Server account are included in the Visible list. To add other folders to the Visible list and make them accessible in the Outlook Express folder list, click the All tab, click the folder, and then click Show. Outlook Express will add an icon beside the folder to indicate that it’s subscribed. If you want to make a subfolder visible, you must make its parent folder visible. For example, you must make Public Folders visible if you want to work with any of its subfolders.

Regardless of the type of IMAP-compliant mail server associated with the account, you can easily hide folders from the Visible list. That's what I recommend for your nonmail Exchange Server folders. Simply click the server in the left branch, and then click IMAP Folders. Then, on the All tab, click a folder, and then click Hide. Outlook Express only hides the folder; it doesn't actually remove it.

Working with nonmail folders

Keep in mind that you can work with nonmail folders in your Exchange Server mailbox, but only to the extent that you can read existing messages and move or copy messages to the folders. You can't, for example, create new contacts in the Contacts folder or add appointments to the Calendar folder. In addition, existing items in these folders behave like messages, so you don't have full access to the information they contain. So, in most situations, there is no benefit to showing nonmail folders in Outlook Express.

Folder creation and synchronization
You can easily create new folders in your IMAP mailbox to help you organize messages. Right-click the account in the left pane and choose New Folder. Specify a name for the folder in the Create Folder dialog box; select the parent folder in the folder list; and click OK. After you’ve added folders and configured folder visibility, you'll probably want to configure folder synchronization settings. These settings control whether Outlook Express synchronizes the local copy of the folder with the remote folder on the server and how the folder is synchronized. Click the server in the left pane to view the list of visible folders and their synchronization settings. By default, only the Inbox is set to synchronize. To have Outlook Express synchronize another folder as well, place a check in the Synchronization Settings column for that folder. Then, right-click the folder; choose Synchronization Settings; and then choose either All Message, New Messages Only, or Headers Only. If you're concerned about large attachments taking up bandwidth, configure the Inbox for Headers Only. You can download a message and its attachment simply by double-clicking the header.

Messaging differences
Composing and sending messages in an IMAP account is really no different than it is with a POP3 account. However, there are some differences when it comes to tasks like deleting messages, keeping a copy of sent messages, and so on. When you delete a message or a header in an IMAP account, Outlook Express only marks the message for deletion by striking through the message header. Even if you close Outlook Express and reopen it, or perform synchronization, the deleted messages remain in the local folder. To get rid of deleted messages permanently, you need to purge them. Select the messages in the folder and click the Purge button on the toolbar. This purges the message(s) both locally and from the server.

When you send a message through an IMAP account, Outlook Express places a copy of the message in the Sent Items folder on the server, but it doesn’t immediately place a copy in the local instance of the Sent Items folder. When you click on the Sent Items folder in the left pane folder list, Outlook Express downloads the message headers for new messages automatically, enabling you to see what messages you've sent (but not their contents). If you have the Preview Pane open and configured to download messages when you click on them, Outlook Express will download the body of the sent message if you click on it. Otherwise, Outlook Express only downloads the message header. So, by default, the most you'll have in the Sent Items folder is the message header for the messages you've sent.

Keeping all sent items on the server until you actually download them is an advantage to using IMAP because it doesn't clutter your local computer's hard disk with messages to which you don't need immediate access. Instead, you can download sent messages selectively when you need to review or forward them. This really cuts down on wasted space if you access your IMAP account from multiple computers.

By default, Outlook Express places sent messages in the Sent Items folder, but you can redirect those messages if you prefer. First, create the folder where you want the messages to be placed on the server. Then, choose Tools | Accounts, select the IMAP account, and click Properties. Click the IMAP tab and, in the Special Folders area, specify the name of the folder to be used for sent messages in the Sent Items path field. Do the same for the Drafts field if you want to use a different folder for that.

If you want Outlook Express to place sent messages in the Local Folders\Sent Items folder rather than the Sent Items folder on the server, clear the option Store Special Folders On IMAP Server. This will make your sent items unavailable from other computers, so I recommend it only if your server doesn't have the capacity to contain your sent messages.

You might run across one other unexpected behavior when you try to reply to or forward a message. The reply and forward tasks are unavailable if Outlook Express has only downloaded the message header. You must first download the message before you can reply to it or forward it.

Additional changes
Another change you might want or need to make while you're in the IMAP tab is to set the root folder for your mailbox. The requirements vary according to the server type, but you can specify the folder in the Root folder path field. For example, if I had an account on a UNIX server and my logon account name was jboyce, my path might be jboyce/Mail. In many cases, however, you can leave this field blank and the account will work just fine.

Finally, you can use the option Check For New Messages In All Folders option to specify whether Outlook Express checks for new messages in all folders regardless of their visible/hidden state.

IMAP can serve in many situations
You've probably come to the conclusion that IMAP can be useful in many situations but isn't always the best solution overall. For example, you might use POP3 or the Exchange Server provider in Outlook on your primary computer to read and process messages, but use Outlook Express and IMAP when you need to access your mailbox from other computers and save synchronization hassles. If you don't need to rely on rules to process your messages, however, IMAP can be a good choice on your primary computer.

Using HTTP-based mail
In addition to its support for IMAP, Outlook Express also supports HTTP-based e-mail accounts. Outlook Express directly supports Hotmail and MSN accounts, which means you can use Outlook Express rather than a browser to access and manage these types of accounts. Outlook Express also lets you specify other HTTP servers for the account. However, the server must not only provide HTTP-based access to the mailbox, but also directly support Outlook Express as an HTTP client. I'm not aware of any e-mail services that support HTTP-over-Outlook Express, but they might exist. Check with your mail provider to see if that's the case.

HTTP accounts work much the same in Outlook Express as IMAP accounts, with a few exceptions. For example, you can't create additional folders on the server. You also can't show or hide specific folders—all folders in your mail account are always visible. As with IMAP accounts, your Outlook Express rules won't operate on the HTTP account or its folders. Although you can move messages from the HTTP folder to your Outlook Express folders and process them there, this generally isn't practical.

Even with these limitations, being able to access your HTTP-based accounts from within Outlook Express can be handy, particularly if you use Outlook Express for other accounts as well. You don't have to drop out of Outlook Express to grab your Hotmail messages, for example. Outlook Express also provides a bit better access to past messages than your browser, because you can typically see a much broader selection of messages in one screen than within the browser. Plus, you can download a copy of the messages to your local computer and ease any space crunch you might otherwise experience on the server.

Setting up an HTTP account
You set up an HTTP account in Outlook Express in the same way you set up a POP3 or IMAP account. Just select HTTP from the drop-down list in the E-mail Server Names page of the account setup wizard. The wizard then offers another drop-down list from which you’ll select your HTTP mail provider. The wizard automatically sets the necessary URL if you choose MSN or Hotmail, but you must enter the URL manually if you choose the Other option to specify a different HTTP-based mail service.

You'll find that working with HTTP accounts in Outlook Express is essentially the same as working with IMAP accounts. For example, you configure synchronization for folders in the same way; you can retrieve headers only; and you can delete messages without downloading them. When you delete messages, however, Outlook Express moves them to the Deleted Items folder rather than simply marking them for deletion.

Good enough for most users
Adding IMAP and HTTP to your e-mail arsenal might not be the complete solution to all of your e-mail problems, but these account protocol options offer some useful benefits, particularly if you want to be able to manage messages without downloading them. If you're interested in more information about these protocols and using them in Outlook Express, you'll find some additional information in the Outlook Express Support Center, as well as the Help file.

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