Keeping Email Synced On Multiple Computers

Posted October 5, 2007 9:22 am by with 22 comments

A common issue that people have today is keeping their email in sync among more than one computer. For example, you may have a computer at your office and another at home. Ideally, you would want all email that is on one of the computers to also be on the other. Or perhaps you have a notebook PC and a desktop and want to be able to send/receive email from either one. How do you do it?

It is a problem with many different approaches to a solution. Let’s look at it and you can decide what is best for you.

One Deletes, The Other Doesn’t

One way to minimize the problem is to have one computer set to download and delete your email from the server, while the other computer only downloads it. Almost all email programs today have the option to leave the email on the server after it downloads it. So, whichever computer you want to be your main computer, you set it to delete the email.

This is only a partial solution. It will get your email on both computers, but it will not bring your history with it. If you send an email from one computer, it will not appear in “Sent Items” on the other. If you add a contact on one, if will not be on the other. So, it isn’t a perfect solution.

Third Party Solutions

Since this is a common issue, there are many third party approaches to a solution. If you want to explore this avenue, be prepare to throw a little money at the problem potentially. It also helps if you use a common email program like Outlook, Outlook Express or Thunderbird. If you use an older email client or one that is rare, you may be out of luck.

Now, I am going to point you in some directions, but I am not endorsing any of these utilities as I have never tried them.

  • SynchPST is a product you can use to sync up two Outlook PST files. The PST file is the master file which contains all of your Outlook email. Now, this utility will sync two PST files, but it doesn’t handle the issue of making both PST files visible to the program. So, you may need to deal with some networking between your machines.
  • BeInSynch is a service which allows you to keep your data, including email, synced among multiple computers.
  • Syncing.net is another way to sync Outlook email on multiple computers. This solution does not require a server and is not a service, but a one-time software purchase.

If you are using Outlook, you can also look into switching to a Microsoft Exchange service. Microsoft Exchange is the solution to this problem that was built by Microsoft specifically for Outlook. Exchange is not cheap to buy, but you can rent Exchange server from a lot of Windows-based hosting companies. This means you will be paying a monthly fee for your email. But, it will work.

If you don’t want to be slave to the Microsoft master, you can give Zimbra a try. Zimbra is an open source (meaning free) alternative to Microsoft Exchange. And you can still use Outlook, as well as a variety of other email clients of your choice (including Thunderbird).

If you are using Thunderbird, there isn’t really anything notable available. However, Jeremy Johnstone posted on his site a unique way of getting the job done without using any special software. His method, in short, involves having one computer download and delete, while the other only downloads. Then, he sets the email program up to automatically BCC all sent emails back to himself. He then sets up filters to put those incoming BCC emails into the “Sent Items” folder and delete any duplicate email already in that folder.

Web-Based is King

The ultimate solution to the problem is moving to web-based email. The third-party solutions are hit and miss. Exchange and Zimbra both work, but require some setup work and servers. The utility options, in my opinion, are a bit of a chore to use. Web-based email is the ultimate in portability.

The most popular web-based email services are Gmail, Yahoo Mail and HotMail. Gmail is my personal favorite and is what I use for my email. Gmail can work as a complete email client. It can bring in mail from external POP3 email accounts which means you do not need to use a GMAIL email address. Web-based email means you can check your email from any computer – anywhere. No matter where I am, my email looks exactly the same. If you ever do need a local copy of your email, you can always tap into Gmail using POP3 access and download all your email into an email program of your choice.

If you want portable email which is synced no matter where you are, web-based is the 100% best way to go.

So, how are you tackling this problem? Post in the comments. Share some solutions I might not have mentioned.

22 responses to Keeping Email Synced On Multiple Computers

  1. Marci Vandersteg October 11th, 2007 at 1:26 am

    Zimbra is open-sourced based, and also has a commercial layer, with professional support and hosting providers available. There’s a partner list at the Zimbra website, at the top is http://www.01.com , that also happens to have personal accounts, like the one I use with Gmail. Before, with Gmail alone, I had the web-based solution. By adding Zimbra for a few bucks a month, I sync Outlook with my Gmail, too.

    I do this by forwarding my Gmail to my hosted Zimbra account.

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  2. Vernon Gibson October 11th, 2007 at 10:41 am

    Why not just setup the email account using IMAP on both machines rather than POP3. This syncs you folders to the email server and almost all e-mail servers now days support IMAP. I use this on my machines and albeit I don’t have access to contacts there are other easy ways to keep that synced. Leaving IMAP out of this article leaves me wondering if the author even realizes its an option for the issue he was trying to address.

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  3. Vernon Gibson October 11th, 2007 at 10:44 am

    “If you are using Thunderbird, there isn’t really anything notable available.”

    Oh yes, Might I add that I use Thunderbird on both my home and office machine and they both stay perfectly synced using nothing more than what is installed default. I simply setup my e-mail accounts on both machines using IMAP instead of POP3. So the above comment is false.

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  4. Ross Poulton October 12th, 2007 at 3:36 am

    IMAP is definitely the way to go. I use a webmail client and Thunderbird from various PC’s on a single account, and all my email is available wherever I go as it’s stored on the server. All of my folders are on the server too, so my e-mail stays as neat as if I downloaded it all to my PC.

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  5. Dominic Malolepszy October 12th, 2007 at 6:22 am

    IMAP is by far one of the best solutions out there. Most webmail clients out there connect using IMAP anyway, so if your lucky enough to be with a service provider that offers webmail and imap (like who doesn’t these days ;)), than you have the choice to access mail from anywhere you want from any machine, synced central on a mail server, with a choice of email clients, thunderbird/outlook, and the ability to check mail remotely via the web, without the need of black magic.

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  6. Chris October 12th, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Um… Why not use IMAP?

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  7. Acoustic One October 14th, 2007 at 10:04 pm

    My 3rd party solution is surgemail, free for up to five “users”. I set it up as an IMAP and webmail server on an old spare machine at home. It is set to collect email from all my POP email addresses. at home any PC can access the imap server. away from home I can access the webmail via a dynamic dns service.

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  8. Tina Anderson March 6th, 2008 at 4:36 pm

    I think most people are going with web-based email now for a reason. It is superior and much more convenient than traditional email services, and Gmail is truly awesome. Google has once again blown out the competition, but Yahoo’s email is decent too.

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  9. Jim Smith March 27th, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    The problem is IMAP and thunderbird is that it still does not do all of the syncing that one might need. For example, the Bayes spam filter settings, updated RSS feed information, extensions, combined thunderbird folders, and all of the other great features to thunderbird do not get updated on multiple machines via IMAP. One solution is “portable thunderbird” (do a web search), but the best solution would be for someone to develop a new mail protocol other than IMAP that is extensible, so that it allows multiple mail clients on different machines to store client-customized state at the serverside. If/when this happens, it would be great (google, are you listening???)

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    • Anon August 18th, 2008 at 4:46 am

      Come on Jim, you’re not the genius you think you are.
      “but the best solution would be for someone to develop a new mail protocol other than IMAP that is extensible, so that it allows multiple mail clients on different machines to store client-customized state at the serverside. If/when this happens, it would be great (google, are you listening???)”
      I think google has anticipated your post a long time ago, around the time they started drawing on the board for gmail. It does everything you describe, except you’re not bound to a software instalation (outlook and thunderbird don’t run if it’s not on the machine..) I guess the safe thing to say here is, use IMAP based e-mail services combined with whatever software you like, OR visit gmail.

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  10. Dagan March 12th, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    I just wanted to say that I love this site

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  11. Don Orr March 20th, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    A solution that I have used for years with great success is a software addon called OsaSync. This program syncronizes Outlook on two or more computers in the background. Email that are sunced to the second computer have the option of being marked as read or unread allowing them to be highlighted once synced. Contacts, sent items, etc. are moved to their respective folders and the operation works in both directions. If I am on the road with my laptop, as soon as I return home and hook up to my home network, all the email my wife has received automatically sync with my Outlook. Support is fast and friendly, but it does take a bit of work to set up at the front end.

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  12. Samuell April 8th, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    My question is how do you set Thunderbird to use IMAP?
    I have multiple Gmail accounts and use Thunder bird to avoid the constant log in and out to se and send messages from each. So how do I set up Thunderbird so the same emails I see on my home computer show up on my laptop?
    Right now if I check my email on my laptop the emails get stored there and then don’t show up on my PC. So now I have to go back and forth between the two which is more annoying then logging in and out of Gmail.
    All the server settings in the accounts are set to leave the emails on the server until deleted, but that’s not working.

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  13. James July 6th, 2009 at 11:12 pm

    It’s not just mail sync which is required though, I want my contacts and callendar also synced. And now today I see Plaxo are going to start to charge for this which has been free to date. It appears that there is no free way of syncing mail,contacts,calendar (notes & tasks even) with fixed and mobile devices without going to the cloud, is there? And then there’s the problem of multiple email accounts to sync on each device also as I have….hotmail, gmail, POP3 off own domain, corporate MSExchange

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    • Rich Menga July 7th, 2009 at 1:36 pm

      Use the Windows Live Mail email client. It is a local client that syncs contacts, calendar and email all in one. Accessible via client, web and mobile.

      In addition, with the WL Mail client you can back everything up locally using the free KLS Mail Backup.

      WL Mail covers all the bases. It is currently the only client that syncs mail, calendar and contacts all in one – for free. The only drawback is that you must use a Hotmail/MSN/Windows Live email address, but if you can get past that, it all works flawlessly. Microsoft is currently the only one that has a client that covers all the bases without any out-of-pocket expense.

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      • James July 7th, 2009 at 3:21 pm

        Hi Rich Menga
        Thanks so much; this appears fantastic. I have now contacted my personal m domain registrar to ask how I go about redirecting my existing domain (website and email) to WL. And I guess I can also aim my Gmail to WL too? Seriously though, are there any drawbacks? Bearing in mind I want to sync all this to all my devices including moblie with ActiveSync. And to share my calendar/contacts on one platform just like Plaxo does. And then there’s my company hoseted exchange Outlook/email etc (hosted by Naastar) – can this be tied in also whilst sharing calendar/contacts? It all seems too perfect/free… Appreciate your assistance/advice.

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  14. James July 7th, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Hi Rich
    I have just found out that my present ISP does not allow redirection. So I guess I will have to change to another? Could this be WL even?

    …..continuing on with further thoughts…

    1. What is the drawback issue you speak of by having to use a hotmail address?
    2. Can I still use Outlook on client machines or is there a better even? Or do I have to do everything in the cloud?
    3. How do I ensure back up and archive (.pst) remains?
    4. Assuming I have multiple email accounts (my own POP3, hotmail, gmail etc ) aimed at WL (if this is possible even ?) when I compose can I still select a FROM account/address? With a searate signature for each?
    5. Can I still use RULES to send incoming mail to different folders or out of office rules…independantly of whichever account?
    I’m sure there are hundreds more questions but that should do it for now…can you anticipate/think of anything else even?
    Seriously though this is a real help to me and much appreciated.
    James

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    • James July 8th, 2009 at 9:49 am

      Following up on previous…after now spending hours on setting this up and testing it is apparent that it’s not for me for the following reasons:
      1. I could already see my hotmail email in my Outlook because I have an old address before they stopped this a few years back. Therefore I didn’t need the Outlook connector to do this.
      2. I am heavily reliant upon Outlook for work emails/contacts/calendar and also for personal POP3,hotmail,gmail too, syncing a shared contacts and calendar by using Plaxo. It would appear that I cannot do this using WL and the Outlook connector as contacts/calendar remain separate to my Personal folders.
      3. Sure emails from my POP3 and gmail can appear in my Hotmail now, but if I send email from my POP3 it doesn’t appear in my Outlook sent folder which is no good to me.
      I can only assume that the appropriate way for me to do this and replace Plaxo is to go for a hosted Outlook solution?

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  15. Lisa August 13th, 2009 at 1:35 am

    web-based email is much more convenient than traditional email services

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    • James August 14th, 2009 at 4:33 am

      Lisa, you have missed the point somewhat. What I am talking about is syncing email/contacts/calendar between multiple devices. Anyway the result is that after having researched and tried to find an alternative, I have now bitten my lip and paid Plaxo the annual premium (they have just started to charge for the first time) as afterall this has worked very well for me for several years now. I was just trying to see whether there was a free alternative on this site but drew a blank.

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  16. Brandon Bertelsen December 28th, 2009 at 2:26 am

    Use dropbox or windows livesync and locate your profile in the folder that you are syncing. Problem solved.

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  17. Mrxavia June 17th, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    use IMAP to connect to your server not pop, most are email servers support imap anyway!

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