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How can I read my email on more than one machine?


I just bought laptop so I can work downstairs as well as on my desktop. Is
there a way I can use Outlook on both machines in such a way that they are
synchronized? Right now if I open email on one it doesn’t appear on the other,
and vice versa. Any way around this?

This is a problem I’ve dealt with for years. Being the geek that I am, I
have several computers, and often will want to use one, or the other or another
still to read email.

I’ve settled on one solution, but there are many, many approaches to this
problem. Naturally each has both pros and cons.

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To recap the problem, the most common configuration for email uses POP3
accounts that download email to the machine you’re reading it on; the machine
on which your email program is installed. That means that if you go to another
machine to read email using the same technique, the email will get downloaded
to that machine instead. Some email on one machine, some email on another …
it can get fairly confusing.

So let’s look at some of the alternatives.

Webmail Services – services such as HotMail, GMail and the
like are accessible anywhere you have an internet connection. The mail is not
downloaded, but rather lives on the HotMail or GMail servers. Login from one
machine and you’ll see the same email as you would logging in from any

There are two problems. The first is simply that you must be on-line to read
your email. If you can’t get on the internet, you can’t read your email.

The more serious problem that I’ve discussed before, and remind people of
often, is that free email
services should not be relied on for critical information
. By that I mean use
them only in conjunction with a backed up, fully supported, email service from
your ISP or other email service provider. My favorite approach is to simply
automatically forward a copy of all your email from a “real” email
account to a free webmail service such as GMail. That way your email can be
downloaded, saved and backed up normally using your POP3 account, and yet you
can read it from any computer that has connectivity using the free webmail

Webmail from your ISP – you may not need to use an
additional free service. Many ISPs and email providers now include a web
interface to your email as part of their service. The downside here is that
these usually only display email that hasn’t been downloaded yet. That means
that once you read your email by downloading it to your PC, it’s no longer
accessible via the web interface.

Since it’s supported by your ISP, though, it’s definitely safer to rely on
this type of webmail, and if you felt like it, you could simply not download
email at all, relying on the web interface entirely. If you do have a problem,
you’ll have your ISP to call.

“The great news about IMAP is that in most respects it
operates much like you’re already used to.”

IMAP – IMAP is an alternative to POP3. Rather than
downloading your email, a mail program configured to use IMAP leaves the email
on your mail server. Depending on how you use and configure your email client,
IMAP may require connectivity to even read your mail, though most clients do
support local caching.

The great news about IMAP is that in most respects it operates much like
you’re already used to. Most common email clients including Outlook, Outlook
Express, Thunderbird, Eudora and others, support it. You’ll need to check with
your ISP or email provider to see if they support it, and exactly how to
configure your email client to use it.

Copying your email folders – this is my “plan B”. Since
Outlook stores all its information in a single file, the “.pst” file, I simply
have Outlook installed on multiple machines, configured almost identically. I
can read email on machine A, shut down Outlook, copy the pst to machine B, and
now pick up with my email on machine B right where I left off on machine A.

This particular approach fits in well with my backup strategy as well, since
I copy my PST to several machines each night. Should my laptop, for example,
die – I can quickly and fairly seamlessly, switch to my desktop for email.

The downside is that you have to copy the PST. Depending on how big the PST
is, how fast your network, and how often you switch machines, that can be a bit
of a pain. Also, you need to configure Outlook on multiple machines. That, too,
can be a pain since Outlook makes it difficult (nee impossible), to move
account settings easily from one machine to another – you have to do it all by

Remote Desktop – this is what I’ve settled on and have been
using for a couple of years now. Outlook is installed and running on my laptop,
which either travels with me, or lives in my family room when I’m at home. If
I’m in my office at my desktop, I simply use Remote Desktop to open a window to
my laptop. Thus I’m always reading email using Outlook on my laptop – even if
that laptop is in another room in my house. I find this the simplest, over all,
for a home network or even a small business situation.

Not a solution – one thing you’ll not is not listed as a
solution, and that’s using file sharing to share out your email folders and
access the single set of folders from multiple computers. Outlook Express, for
example, doesn’t support folders across the net – at least not without an
unsupported hack. Outlook does, but not with two instances of Outlook at the
same time. Even running only one instance at a time, Outlook kind of “assumes”
that the file is local, and as a result depending on the speed of your network,
accessing an Outlook pst across the net can be slow. You’d have to check with
other mail clients to determine if, and how well, they support accessing mail
folders across the network, but in general I strongly discourage it for your
“primary” mail folders. (I do keep my email archives on a network share, and
only connect to them as I need to – that seems to work just fine. Usually.)

As you can see there are lots of alternatives. I like my Remote Desktop
approach as being simple and effective for me. I have several friends that
swear by IMAP, and I have at least one client who’s forwarding all his email to
his GMail account. All work, and work well.

It’s up to you to determine which best fits your needs.

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14 comments on “How can I read my email on more than one machine?”

  1. Another alternative, and the one I use, is changing my POP configuration in my mail client.

    In Thunderbird and others, you have a choice of whether or not to delete messages from the server after downloading them. With my laptop, I merely check “leave messages on server” in the “Server Settings” section of the “Account Settings” dialogue for the particular account.

    If you have your own domain and can create multiple e-mail accounts, you can also create a separate mailbox that only gets downloaded by your desktop. You go into the “Copies & Folders” section of the account settings for that account and check “BCC these e-mail addresses”, then put in that address. That way, any e-mails you send are copied to that account.

    That’s what I did. When I log on to my desktop, all the e-mails sent to that secondary address are retrieved, marked read, and placed in my sent-mail folder.

    So, while my laptop doesn’t get/keep copies of every e-mail I send or receive with the desktop, the desktop gets and keeps copies of every e-mail I send or receive with the laptop.

    It gives me one “master” mailbox, and occasionally, I copy it over to the laptop, overwriting the laptop’s less complete mailbox.

  2. I actually use the method of file sharing here. We have 3 computers, my Mum wants to be able to use her email on 2 of them. So, using my networked hard drive, I put the profile in there, set Thunderbird to use that and it works like a charm. I just told her not to have it running on both at once which isn’t an issue.

  3. When I used Windows remote desktop was the best option. For now all my email is forward to my gmail account. I have a couple of domains and unlimited forwarding addresses, if something were to happen to my Gmail account all I have to do is change the alias to a Pop account.

    One option that you seemed to miss, is checking the leave mail on server option. With POP3 leaving the mail on the server would enable to download the mail multipule times and most clients remember what messages they’ve already downloaded. The only downside is you have to remember to manually delete the messages on the server weather by a webmail interface or through a your mail program.

    Another option for the really geeky people who have their own home server is to write a script to transfer the database to the server on shutdown and to copy the db to a local folder on boot. This would only work for accessing mail on 1 machine at a time but who needs to read their email on more than 1 machine at the same time?

  4. There’s a better answer than all of these, IMHO — which is to use MS Exchange for your email. Exchange integrates tightly with Outlook, and automatically keeps all of your Outlook-equipped PCs in total sync. You don’t even have to do “send/receives” – it does real-time sync. And this means not just email, but also other Outlook objects like your calendar, contacts, notes, etc. It even syncs things like whether an email has been read or flagged. You have complete and virtually identical Web access via OWA (Outlook Web Access). Your mail, calendar, contacts, etc. are all stored on the server, so if your machine crashes you can instantly recover everything. And the final touch is that Exchange now supports true “push” email to Windows Mobile phones like the Treo 700w (which I have) — fully synched with the server and nothing to download. Trust me, this is as close to “email nirvana” as you’re going to get.

    Problem is that Exchange Server has usually been used only by larger corporations for employee use. But now, there are several vendors offering “hosted Exchange mailboxes” (just search that term in Google). I’ve tried both 1&1 and 4SmartPhone, and ended up choosing the latter for a few minor reasons — but both are the same price and both work great. The cost is only $6.99/month for a mailbox, which includes 1 gig of server storage (I keep every email I receive or send), antispam and antivirus scanning, etc. It even includes a free copy of Outlook 2003 if you don’t have it already.

    Although you get a new email address for your Exchange account, you don’t have to really use it — I simply forward everything from my multiple other accounts (Gmail, Earthlink, business, etc.) to my Exchange account and it’s transparent. In Outlook, it’s even easy to reply or send email “from” those other accounts so they don’t show your Exchange address.

    If you really want to do it right, pick up a personal domain with email, and route all your incoming mail to Exchange. 1&1 offers a personal domain for just $5.99 a year, and you can set up as many incoming email addresses as you like — all forwarded to Exchange.

    So for a whopping $90 a YEAR, I’ve achieved “email nirvana” with lifetime independence from any particular ISP. It’s easy to set up, painless to use, and I’ll NEVER go back to POP3, IMAP4, or only Webmail again.

    I’ve tried virtually every other solution that was suggested in this thread, and they all have shortcomings. After using this setup for close to a year, I have discovered NO downsides at all.

    Hope this helps —
    Rob Vonderhaar

  5. Microsoft almost make this easy. If you want to be able to send and receive Outlook email, add dates to your diary etc and keep the data synchonised between a PDA and a PC then just use ActiveSync. If only you could use it with your laptop and home PC it woud be perfect. But sadly ActiveSync won’t sync btween two full Windows machines.

    Maybe the next release of Outlook will offer this :-)

  6. I use XP media center and outlook express. I have my wife as the mail e-mail so when I open outlook express it opens to my wifes e-mail. I then have to switch identities and go to my e-mail account. How can I create a link on my desktop to go directly to mine without have to read her e-mail.She uses this computer more.

  7. I have a client that Added their exchange account to their laptop and it removed their email files from their desktop? Does anyone know of a way to get this back or change it to where it works with both being opened a the same time?

  8. Greetings,
    I moved the outlook pst files to a Network Attached Storage device and all instance of Outlook reference these pst files (4 pst files one for each user). The NAS device is available to all 5 computers. There are 4 user accounts setup one on each computer. Setup this way it doesn’t matter which computer one logs onto, the mail is the same including calendar, flags etc because the user is accessing the same outlook pst file. The mail is not stored on the POP server, so I don’t have to worry about going over my quota, only problem is that a user is not able to open two instances of their e-mail, since there is only one pst file per user account.

  9. I use web mail myself. My wife uses web2mail to check her mail at work but it is a POP3 so it is a problem if she leaves her home computer with outlook open. Our ISP comcast allows for a setting to keep a copy of all messages on their server even if they have been downloaded to outlook. Another option is Apple’s Mobile Me which allows for syncing between computers Mac or Windows to some degree. This has always been one of my favorite Apple products when it was .MAC but lately I have not been impressed with Mobile Me and its $100 a year costs. But I guess Apple has been working the bugs out.

  10. I set all the “alternate systems” (systems I wish to read & respond to email, but not my “main system” where I file email) to “leave email on server”. That way, I can read and respond to email on my laptop (always adding myself as a BCC recipient). But when I go on my “main system” at home, all the emails are still delivered and I can delete or file them as I wish.
    Since most of my trips and use of the laptop are brief, the volume of emails on the server doesn’t become a problem.

  11. Ia am using one laptop in the office and et home. I have no problem using Outlook at office, but whem I’m at home my outlook can receive but not send mail. What can i do to fix it? We have pop3 email, why my outlook can not send?

  12. Hi There, I work from home remotely for a company in another country(I am in Australia and my head office is in New Zealand). I find remote access email a pain as it doesn’t fit the screen very well. I have been using outlook directly off my laptop but I would also like to have it sync with the exchange where my head office is so they have access when required to my emails / folders etc. Can you do this? I don’t want to run outlook if I can help it off the remote access exchange. I am running Windows 7 and the head office is using Vista


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