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How to Really Transfer Your Email Between Macs

This is a common problem. A writer gets an assignment, but is limited to a specific word count. Too many words, and the editors will take a sharp knife to the manuscript and dispatch important paragraphs and sentences. The end result is that the article may become a shadow of the original version.

Now I won’t assume that’s what happened with a recent Macworld article, in which a reader asked how to transfer his email in Apple Mail from his old Mac to the new one. However, the instructions given were, I will say charitably out of respect to the author, very incomplete.

First and foremost, if you’re migrating from an old Mac to a new one, Apple’s Migration Assistant is the best possible tool. That way, your new Mac will have the same apps, email, and even system settings as the old one. It’s flexible enough to allow you to omit some of your stuff, which may be important if you’re migrating data from a desktop Mac to something from the MacBook family (such as a MacBook Air), where storage space may be limited.

Obviously, I can’t tell from the question whether the individual understood the choices. It’s the sort of question that invites a follow up to get additional information.

But if all you want to do is migrate email, the instructions in the Macworld piece represent only part of the solution, and not necessarily the best solution for some of you. Certainly not for me.

In the article, you are first shown how to migrate only your most recent messages, by having them all added to a Smart Mailbox with Apple Mail. You then archive the mailbox. This happens to be a useful solution if you’re mailboxes are inundated with loads of cruft that you’d be happy to dump at the earliest opportunity. But it’s the sort of solution that requires careful thought. After moving the recent messages, you may decide you need older ones to trace a financial transaction or business arrangement. I would recommend extreme caution before you delete a message. You can always transfer everything and make those decisions later, when you have the time to think them through. This is particularly true if your old Mac is going to be wiped clean and sold off. Unless a backup is available, you’re going to be out of luck if you delete the wrong messages.

Once you create your Smart Mailbox, the article suggests you use Mail’s Import feature to grab the contents. All well and good. But as I said, it’s only part of a solution, and maybe not the most flexible for many of you. Once again, Apple’s Migration Assistant is simplest way to grab the stuff from your old Mac. It even works if your old computer was a Windows PC with recent versions of OS X.

But if you plan to keep email in sync on a number of devices, say a Mac, a PC, an iPhone, an iPad, or even someone else’s smartphone or tablet, try to use an email system that supports IMAP. Short for “Internet message access protocol,” an IMAP email system stores your email on its own server or network of servers. By using IMAP in setting up your email on your computer, be it mobile or desktop, all your messages, incoming, outgoing, and even those placed in special folders, will be in sync. With IMAP, you won’t have to migrate anything when moving to a new Mac, for example. Just set up your email account, and map the four main folders to the ones used by your email service with the Use This Mailbox For feature. The four folders are Drafts, Sent, Trash and Junk.

In passing, the need to map those folders ensures that your email is always in sync with the server, that your Sent messages, for example, will be the same regardless of which device you use. Yes, it would be nice if the folder mapping nonsense was done automatically, and I don’t know why it’s not. But it only takes a few moments to accomplish after your email account is set up. You can even do it on an iOS device in your Account setup, under Advanced, which is located in the Mail, Contacts, Calendars settings. Depending on how many messages are stored on the server, it may take up to several hours to sync them all on your new computer. But you can let your new Mac do that and still get on with your business.

As to IMAP, unfortunately such free services as Hotmail and Yahoo! don’t support the system, and the same holds true for the email systems put in place by all ISPs I know about. Gmail and GMX do support IMAP, and I’d recommend that you consider these two alternatives if you require free. Pretty much all Web hosts have an IMAP option in their email offerings, or you can consider a dedicated business email provider, such as Polaris Mail.

If you must use POP email, where your messages are stored on your computer, you will have to consider the Macworld article or Migration Assistant alternative in moving your messages. But since you can get IMAP services free of charge, or at a very low cost, I’d recommend you switch your email to one of those systems. It’s a trivial process to send out changes of addresses, and messages can be moved in Mail from one account to another via a simple drag and drop routine.

I’m sure most of you have both a personal computer and smartphone (and possibly a tablet). If you care about having  your email stay current on all of these devices, IMAP is the best possible solution. You’ll get similar benefits with Microsoft Exchange and Open-XChange.

And in case you’re wondering, I keep messages on hand from as far back as 1999. Yes, I’m a bit of a pack rat I suppose, but every single one is readily available on both my desktop and mobile computers, thanks to IMAP.