Finding the right email provider with IMAP support

This guide is not actively maintained, some information is outdated. The general ideas should still be valid though.

This document might help you to find the right email provider with IMAP support. If you have any questions about the issues mentioned here, or would like to correct something, or just send any kind of comment, send me an email to rfreund at uos dot de. (Almost) any feedback is highly appreciated.
If you're impatient, go directly to the comparison chart of IMAP providers. But I recommend reading further down this page in order to understand how the chart came about.

The problem

I've now been using IMAP for a while to manage my email. IMAP is the "successor" of POP(3). Read why IMAP is much better than POP here (non-technical) (a little more technical). My old provider was very unreliable, they (well, I) sometimes suffered from days of outtage in a row. This used to happen several times per year. This was one of the reasons why I started looking for another, more reliable mail provider.

Features of a good email provider

For me, these are the key features of a good email provider:
  • good IMAP support
  • good security features (encryption, authentication, etc. - SSL for IMAP/POP/SMTP and web interface (HTTPS), etc.)
  • reliability
  • a good web interface, e.g. Horde/IMP, SquirrelMail in case you don't have your favorite email client at hand
  • at least some personal support
  • large amount of storage space - important for IMAP since mails stay on the server (at least around 75mb)
  • good price
Today, most of us use email to an extent that justifies paying for an outstanding email service in my opinion. Nevertheless, I also list free services (or products) here, but keep in mind that these usually have significant draw-backs (e.g. advertisement on pages or in mails you sent, missing important features).

How to find the right email service

gmx, web.de

I first took a look at the non-free products offered by gmx and web.de, two well-known and huge email providers from Germany. They both offer IMAP, most of the security features I wanted, and are known to be pretty reliable.
I had to discover that their IMAP support is very limited though. Both lack basic features of IMAP that I use almost everyday; most importantly, they do not offer the IMAP search functionality. If you've read why IMAP is better than POP you will know that you can search for email on an IMAP server without downloading any email. So you can simply send a query like "body of message contains ...pattern" and the IMAP server will present you all messages that fit.
So if you've ever wondered why there is no "search for email" function in the gmx and web.de web interfaces, the simple reason probably is that their (proprietary) IMAP-servers do not support it. Otherwise this feature would be very easy for them to implement.

What's better than gmx and web.de?

After having found out that gmx and web.de support IMAP so badly, I looked around the web and found this almost complete listing of IMAP email providers by infinite ink. This list contains also a lot of providers that are not really worth considering (e.g. gmx and web.de), but it pointed me into a bunch of other directions; e.g. emaildiscussions.com, where people talk about their experience with their email providers. Having looked around there for a while, I compiled my own list of email providers that I wanted to take a closer look at (in no particular order): Some more competitors, plus reasons why I didn't take them into further consideration:

Finally - the comparison

To easily compare the IMAP providers I found most promising, I compiled some of the information I found at their sites.
The result is this comparison table of (to me) interesting IMAP providers (mailsnare, fastmail, vfemail, mali2world) (html version) (OpenOffice spreadsheet). Certain features that are either offered by all competitors (e.g. IMAP support, address book) or not of interest to me (virus protection - this is also offered by all providers) were left out.

Some IMAP tips

This I found very interesting: To find out an IMAP or SMTP server's capabilities, simply telnet them and ask them! Like this:
telnet smtp.server.name 25
If you want to do this with an IMAP server, you have to use the correct port number (usually 143).
telnet imap.server.name 143
After logging in, get the server's capabilities:
a capability
and log out with:
z logout
The commands have to be preceded by a unique identifiere (like a or z above).

Some links