By Joe Moran

There’s a lot to like about Gmail–a simple and friendly UI, lots of useful features, ample free storage, good spam filtering, and of course, ubiquitous Web-based access.

What makes Gmail especially handy, though, is using it to access e-mail that you received long ago (maybe even before there was such a thing as Gmail), yet still need to consult regularly. It turns out that if you have e-mail software like Microsoft Outlook that’s chock full of previously downloaded messages, you can upload it to Gmail– preserving the original dates– so access to the old mail will no longer be limited to a particular PC.

Setting Up

The first step in the process (aside from creating a Gmail account if you don’t already have one) is to configure your existing e-mail software to access your Gmail account via IMAP. (See this link for instructions on how to do so for a variety of popular mail clients like Outlook/Outlook Express, Thunderbird, and others.)

Why IMAP? Unlike the more commonplace POP mail, in which a mail client generally downloads messages and then deletes them from the server, IMAP is a two-way link between client and server in which both provide mirror images of the mailbox. In a nutshell, by setting up Gmail in your existing mail software and using it to transferring your old mail to your Gmail account, you’re simultaneously uploading it to Gmail’s servers where it will be available whenever you use the Web-based client.

Time and Storage Considerations

Although straightforward enough, this isn’t quite a start-it-and-walk-away process, given that mail folders should be transferred one at a time. Thus, depending on how much accumulated mail you want to transfer, the process of getting old mail over to Gmail can take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours or longer. A big factor will be the upstream speed of your Internet connection. When I used an admittedly speedy 5 Mbps upstream FiOS connection, some larger folders (100 MB+) took as long as 45 minutes to upload, though most folders crossed the wire in 5 minutes or less. All in all, it took about six hours to transfer 1.5 GB worth of mail, but as the saying goes, your mileage may vary.

If you’re using Outlook, you can get a sense of how big your folders are by right-clicking Personal FoldersProperties, and then the Folder Size button. This will give you the size of each individual folder (as well as the entire mailbox) which in turn should help you gauge which folders are likely to take the longest to upload– in case you want to prune them before doing so or just walk away from the computer while the transfer takes place. Keep in mind that a large folder could be due to lots messages, lots of attachments, or some combination of both. (Gmail will only accept attachments smaller than 25 MB.)

While we’re on the subject of mail storage, the 7 GB Gmail provides for free should be more than enough provided you don’t want to transfer every e-mail you’ve received since Bill Clinton was president. But in the unlikely event you do need more, you can upgrade to 20GB of storage for $5 per year.

Transferring Mail

Once you have Gmail configured in your mail client, you’re ready to begin transferring your old mail folders to Gmail via the client’s copy folder option (in the menus or right-click a folder, depending on the client) Be sure to copy the mail and not cut or move it. This way, should something go awry during the transfer, your mail will be intact in its original location.

After you initiate a folder copy, sit tight– the client may initially appear hung, but it should come back to life after a minute or two. When the transfer of a given folder is complete, you’ll see it listed under the Gmail folder structure in your client, as well as when you log into the Gmail Web client. Actually, Gmail’s Web client doesn’t use folders per se; it calls them labels, so when you upload a folder the folder name is automatically converted to a label. Gmail doesn’t allow certain characters–like the slash–in labels, so you may need to rename some folders before transferring.

After a transfer, you may notice that the number of messages Gmail’s Web client reports is less than the number listed by the original folder (or new Gmail folder) in your mail software. That’s to be expected, since the Web client treats messages with the same subject line as a single continuous message thread. Some of the transferred messages will have a parenthetical number next to them indicating how many messages there are in the thread.

Once the transfer of your old mail is complete, you can remove the Gmail account from your mail client. But you don’t have to– in fact, you might consider leaving it there, because it will give you the ability to read old messages or compose new ones even when your Internet connection is down. Having Gmail configured in your mail client also serves as a form of local backup.

Switching Over Your Account

If you’ve uploaded to Gmail from a POP account you still use, you have the option to access the account via Gmail going forward. To set this up, log into Gmail, click Settings, then the Accounts and Import tab, then the Add POP3 e-mail account button. A wizard will prompt you for the account address, username, password, and server info, and ask if you want to send as well as receive mail through the account. If you choose to send, you can stick with your account’s native outgoing mail servers or Gmail’s servers instead.

If you do set up POP account access via Gmail, don’t forget to disable access in your old mail client so the two aren’t competing to download the same messages.

As useful as Gmail is, you’ll likely find it even more so once you can use it to access years worth of your old messages from the nearest Web browser.