Over the course of the weekend I finally received my invite for the new AOL Project Phoenix email service. I had already tried it previously with an @love.com address, but I really wanted one ending in @wow.com which is another domain AOL owns along with @games.com and a few others. I was able to get the @wow.com name I wanted, so life is good – and my address is now super-short.
I intend to use Phoenix as my primary email service. No, I’m not telling you to do that because if you’re happy with the current mail service you use, stick with it.
What I’m going to solely concentrate on here is AOL’s IMAP concerning their mail service. Power users generally couldn’t care less about webmail interfaces and prefer handling mail in a true client – but want the same sync capability the web has, hence why they use IMAP to begin with. If the IMAP doesn’t hold up well, that’s a total deal-breaker for a power mail user.
The three levels of IMAP
When it comes to the quality levels of IMAP, there are three. Good, adequate and bad.
Good: IMAP connectivity works no matter what mail client or hardware platform you use. Logins and mail synchronization are always fast. Server timeouts are rare.
Adequate: IMAP connectivity works on all clients and platforms, but sync is sometimes flaky and server timeouts happen, but not so much that it makes you want to toss your computer out the nearest window. "Adequate" in this instance is synonymous with "Tolerable".
Bad: IMAP connectivity only works with specific mail clients the mail server "likes". Timeouts are commonplace and it’s mandatory you have to ‘tweak’ your mail client just to send and receive mail properly. This is a painful email experience at best.
Example of a good IMAP mail provider: Fastmail. This service takes great pride in having IMAP mail servers that are always spot-on with their speed, connectivity and sync. It’s very difficult to find any email provider that does IMAP better than Fastmail.
Example of an adequate IMAP mail provider: Gmail. Google’s IMAP with their Gmail service is best described as having "moods". Some days it works great, some days not. It works, but server timeouts are somewhat common, sync can tend to be an on-again/off-again thing, and you have to periodically double-check with the web UI just to make sure mail went where it was supposed to go.
Example of bad IMAP mail providers? I won’t list any by name, but chances are you know of a few. All I’ll say here is that there are some mail service providers out there that simply tacked on IMAP as a feature-add but don’t know the first thing about configuring IMAP mail servers properly. As such, their mail services over the IMAP protocol are barely usable at best.
How does Phoenix’s IMAP fare out?
Considering how large AOL’s email userbase is, I was surprised to find out their IMAP is very quick on the draw, email delivery is near-instantaneous and the servers don’t "argue" with what mail client or platform you use.
I can remember not-so long ago when AOL’s IMAP servers had very poor performance at best, but now they seemed to have really ramped up the infrastructure to the point where performance does achieve the level of "good".
Small-but-tolerable folder bug
The only bug I could find in AOL’s IMAP is when it comes to folders.
You can create folders from an email client, and – bonus – you can even create subfolders too. However any subfolder created only shows up in a mail client and not the web UI. When in the web UI, all folders are in a single list, including your subfolders. No folder trees are present on the web side.
What this means is that all folders in the web UI are in a single list, while in the mail client they will be separated out properly.
Bear in mind the fact I was even able to successfully create subfolders (even multiple subfolders) in the client using AOL’s IMAP servers is a huge plus, because the vast majority of other freebie IMAP providers don’t permit that at all.
Not as fast as Hotmail’s DeltaSync, but pretty darned good nonetheless
The fastest of the fast when it comes to synchronized email is Microsoft’s DeltaSync protocol in the Windows Live Mail or Microsoft Outlook email client for Hotmail accounts. There is no IMAP anywhere by any provider that can touch how fast that protocol is, however AOL’s IMAP still holds up pretty well. I still know I’m using IMAP when sending/receiving mail, but it is fast enough to where I’m not overly concerned with waiting a few extra seconds for transfers to finish.
Summed up: Phoenix IMAP is good
A free mail provider with good solid IMAP connectivity isn’t an easy thing to come by. Believe me, I was surprised as anyone that AOL has IMAP that feels like mail server access you’re paying for, yet it’s free.
To note: IMAP to the best of my knowledge is available on any AOL email account. If you have an old AIM instant messenger account, that can be activated as an email account so you can run AOL’s IMAP through its paces if you want to test it out yourself.
Quick instructions on how to activate email for an AIM IM account to test AOL’s IMAP servers:
- Go to mail.aol.com and login using your AIM messenger account.
- The mail account will be created as new. In the webmail UI, send an email to yourself from another account and reply back to it to make sure the account is working proper.
- Configure the account in your email client of choice. Incoming server regardless of whether the email address ends in @aol.com, @aim.com or otherwise is imap.aol.com. This server can be used without SSL on port 143 or with SSL on port 993. The outgoing server is smtp.aol.com, port 587. User credentials are required on both incoming and outgoing servers, using your full email address as username.
AOL’s IMAP servers will "agree" with any client you may be using, be it Outlook, Outlook Express, Windows Live Mail, Thunderbird, Evolution or whatever you’re using.
If after testing out your AOL mail account you want to grab a more desirable Phoenix username as mentioned at the top of this article, head over to phoenix.aol.com and request an invite.
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