Gmail IMAP vs. Push, sanity more important than Push?

UPDATE: Thanks to reader comments, I discovered that this mini-rant concerning Gmail Push was due to my handset being unable to sync properly. Formatting the phone and following the Google Sync setup instructions agin resulted in a properly synced phone. Thanks Camron.

Boxcar Push notification

iPhone toting Gmail users with a knack for pulling out their phone to check for the latest emails raved when Google announced Gmail Push. What’s not to like? Instant notification of unread emails on your iPhone without looking like “that guy” pulling out the phone to refresh in the middle of dinner. Exactly what you wanted right?

As soon as the setup info went live, I enabled Google Sync, flipped the Email toggle and waited. Minutes later, 5 unread email notifications popped up (exaggerated, more like audible notification alerts). Twenty minutes later, another 7. A short time later, even more emails.

Browsing the web, playing a game, or reading a Kindle book. There it was, yet another Push notification from Gmail.

What had I done? I realized that Gmail Push suddenly became the service I wished for and hated all at the same time. I mean, how could I focus on beating my personal best score in Orbital (iTunes) or Chain Rxn (iTunes) if the screen was routinely hijacked by Push notifications?

Understandably, the average internet user receives a manageable set of emails on a daily basis but I’ve moved everything online [which means all sorts of notifications]. Filters can only go so far and a lot of info lands in the inbox (despite the option of selecting which labels can Push alerts). A barrage of Push notifications wasn’t the only nuisance. I discovered another trade-off enabling Gmail Push.

Addicted to IMAP

In order to understand why IMAP is so slick, you’ll need to understand the difference between POP and IMAP. For a good walkthrough on the differences between the two, check out this the Official Gmail Blog.


The benefits of accessing your email via IMAP could not be any clearer. So you go on, accessing and reading your email from your fancy iPhone via IMAP. Then Google announces Push. You jump for joy and follow the setup instructions to add the Google service as an Exchange Server. Guess what, if you didn’t delete your existing IMAP Gmail account, you now have TWO Gmail accounts on your phone.

Gmail #1 syncs your unread / read and deleted email with your inbox. Downside, emails are fetched automatically at set intervals OR manually fetched on refresh.

Gmail #2 pushes new messages alerts to your device but has zero sync capabilities. Those 30 emails marked as read you had in your inbox a few minutes ago aren’t showing up in your iPhone inbox. Confused, you back out of the inbox and climb back up the Mail tree and are reminded of your two different accounts.

What do you? Do you continue accessing Gmail IMAP and leave Gmail Push enabled for a hybrid overkill system to satisfy your email addiction? Or, do you disable Push, marvel at the convenience of IMAP access and wait for Apple to put a little more attention into managing Push notifications?

Somewhere in the middle: Gmail IMAP + Boxcar

So you want the convenience of IMAP but the instant gratification of Push notifications at the same time? Try the Gmail IMAP + Boxcar (iTunes) combo. Boxcar is the best choice for Push notifications from services too slow to deliver their own solution(s) without having to rely on Exchange.

With Boxcar, I can fine tune Push notifications from both a personal and work Gmail account, change sound settings, and keep my Exchange account open and unused.

How can Apple make Push notifications better?

Apple’s lack of fine grain control over Push events can easily drive a iPhone user mad. Your Push options are either on or off. You can toggle sounds, alerts, and badges off, but what’s the point of Push with those limited notifications disabled?

Why can’t standard iPhone users enjoy the same useful utilities available for jailbroken handsets? Don’t actually answer that. There’s a great utility which adds a icon to the iPhone menubar for new notifications. What changes to the Push notification settings would you like to see in order to make Push a little more to your liking?

Gmail IMAP vs. Push, where do you stand?

Which method do you prefer for accessing Gmail from your mobile device – IMAP, Push, or mobile version of Gmail? How about Push notifications, have they improved or taken away from your mobile experience?

Discuss - 17 Comments

  1. Pat says:

    I have switched from having my IMAP Gmail fetch at set intervals to only downloading messages when I manually ask it to. I have done the same with on my Mac.

    There’s an underlying principle I adhere to that causes me to set things this way: whatever I am doing, I have chosen to do in that moment, and nothing coming to me through email is as urgent as what I’ve chosen to do in that moment.

    Email does not interrupt my day. Ever. Instead, I allow it access into my life when and where I am able to fully process the contents of my emails. If I don’t have at least 10 minuets to properly process email, I won’t bother opening it. It’s that simple.

  2. Camron Flanders says:

    What gmail push are you using? Push email via google sync does not send a “push notification” like other apps – it’s simply exchange activesync. It acts exactly like push or any other exchange push server mail account.

    You must be using a product like gpush if it’s “taking over your screen” or “making you have 2 gmail accounts”.

    • Derek says:

      Reading what I wrote again I guess I didn’t clarify that alerts = new mail notifications. Attached a screenshot of what the Mail app looks like when you have both IMAP and Google Sync enabled – two separate methods for viewing email.

      iPhone screenshot

  3. Barney says:

    I remember a conversation in a restaurant about a year ago whereby one of my colleagues was telling another (decidedly gadget-geeky) friend how surprised he was at him not having an iPhone. The reply was “I’ll stick to Blackberry — iPhone doesn’t have push email notification”.

    At the time I thought the comparison of Blackberry to iPhone was a bit ridiculous, but it’s helpful in that, now that iPhone does have push email notification, we can see a distinction in purpose between the two:

    • On the Blackberry, which is typically paid for by my company, has a crap browser, incredibly dull design, decidedly average software and a great keyboard, I will have a great work phone. I can be in a meeting, get discreetly alerted the minute I receive an important (work account) email, and reply to it there and then.

    • On the iPhone, which is a consumer luxury gadget and a joy to use, has some awesome games, plays film and is my primary music player… Why the hell would I want instant email notifications interrupting all my fun?

    The distinction is between necessity and possibility; work and fun; attention, focus, and use of time.

    I have always railed against the notion that we should be using one gadget for everything. I personally don’t even want a phone on my iPhone (although I do want the internet). I think this illustrates the fact that we want different things for different purposes, and all-in-one isn’t always a user experience dream come true.

  4. Camron Flanders says:

    I don’t think you’ve got it set up correctly. You only need _one_ mail account . This will be the one you set up as an “exchange server”, which is your google sync account.

    It works _exactly_ like a mobile me or exchange account. When new mail comes in, it’s in your inbox, the phone beeps/vibrates (if you have it turned on), and increments the red badge on the mail icon.

    Your boxcar setup is what is interrupting you while playing game, browsing the net, etc.

    Gmail itself sends ZERO “push notifications” to your device.

    • Derek says:

      I don’t have anything setup incorrectly. When Gmail push was released, I immediately toggled the Email slider ON (already had Google Sync setup on the iPhone). In the post, I’m describing the fact that if you did so w/o disabling your IMAP account, you will have two Gmail accounts in Mobile Mail. There were no other Push apps polling my Gmail account at the time.

      When I realized the results of keeping both IMAP and Push enabled, I disabled IMAP and used nothing but Gmail Push. That was until I realized the downside – NO synced inbox or labels.

      Farther down the post I explain an alternative solution for having BOTH synced mailboxes (Gmail) and Push using Gmail IMAP + Boxcar. I clearly state that by enabling Gmail Push, there is no way to keep your inbox or labels synced between the iPhone and your Gmail account. It’s a trade-off for electing to go the Push service route.

      AFAIK the "notifications" that Gmail sends (when configured using the single iPhone Exchange account) are indeed classified as Push notifications

      Using Google Sync, you can now get your Gmail messages pushed directly to your phone. #

  5. Camron Flanders says:

    1. I have both a synced inbox AND labels with Google Sync.

    2. You state:

    “As soon as the setup info went live, I enabled Google Sync, flipped the Email toggle and waited. Minutes later, 5 unread email notifications popped up. Twenty minutes later, another 7. A short time later, even more emails.

    Browsing the web, playing a game, or reading a Kindle book. There it was, yet another Push notification from Gmail.

    What had I done? I realized that Gmail Push suddenly became the service I wished for and hated all at the same time. I mean, how could I focus on beating my personal best score in Orbital (iTunes) or Chain Rxn (iTunes) if the screen was routinely hijacked by Push notifications?”

    The screen is _not_ hijacked, nor are there any pop-up alert notifications. I’m simply saying that I think something is wrong with your setup. On my phone, it operates exactly as my IMAP gmail account did — except it’s pushed, not polled.

    • Derek says:

      There must be something wrong with my account then. I just deleted Google Sync, disabled IMAP, and setup Google Sync again. Gmail pushes a notification telling me I have new mail but none of the previously read emails in Gmail (browser) are showing up on the iPhone (Mail client). Only unread email is showing up in my iPhone inbox.

      Alerts popping up redacted. Meant audible alerts. Sorry.

  6. Camron Flanders says:

    And there are “notifications” sent to the device, so they aren’t “push notifications”. Look in your “Notifications” settings in, gmail isn’t listed.

    It’s a push email system utilizing ActiveSync, not a system using the Apple Push Notification Service — like boxcar is.

  7. Camron Flanders says:

    That’s too bad. Mine (as well as everyone else I’ve talked to) operates _just_ like IMAP, but it doesn’t require polling to update changes (in either direction). Read, unread, etc all the same as IMAP.

    The one downside to it (as of right now) vs. IMAP is that you can’t edit drafts on the iPhone. Personally, it doesn’t bother me. For the very few times I need to, I use their mobile site – which is _fantastic_ imo.

    • Derek says:

      So 50 or so recent emails in your All Mail label show up on your handset – read or unread? Now I need to figure out what is going on with my setup.

  8. Camron Flanders says:

    Yep, you got it. I happen to have 8 unread in the 50 on here, with both blue dots next to them and the “All Mail (8)” title in the nav bar.

    My inbox has 3 unread and 2 read, also showing up appropriately.

    • Derek says:

      Formatted the iPhone and setup Google Sync. Everything works as it should now. All labels sync as far back as I specify in the settings. Now I feel like a bit of a doof using this post to rant. Good thing you insisted I had a iPhone + Google Sync functioning improperly.

  9. Semidoppel says:

    I can’t relate, I don’t have that iPhone. T_T

  10. Mike says:

    Yeah, the iPhone notifications are horrible. That’s something they could steal from Android, where notifications don’t make you hunt for an app, don’t alert more than ones, and are ignorable.

  11. Dave says:

    I also switched back to imap.. Push did not download attachmenst or pictures in email or use reply-to addresses when replying to emails that use a special address to reply to for comments etc.
    I dont see whats so great about push, you can set imap to download every 5 minutes and every time you send.