What's an easy way to backup my e-mail yet still have it pretty easy to search?
February 6, 2007 3:05 PM   Subscribe

What's an easy way to backup my e-mail yet still have it pretty easy to search?

I am switching webmail providers and I want to save all the email in my previous webmail inbox. I want it to be easily manageable and storable. One file such as a zip would be preferable so I can save all the mail on that account and transfer it to different computers. It is also important that I am able to search the old mail in this account in case I need to retrieve something. I don't currently use a mailreader (Outlook, Thunderbird etc.) and would rather not install a whole new program just to search/read the mail as it will be an infrequent action. (If this is necessary, it should be easy so I can transfer the emails from one computer to another without issue.) I really just want an easy way to transfer the mail from one computer to another and search through it. This is a one time backup so it doesn't really make sense to me to pay in order to do the first and only backup. I don't know if an easy and free way exists to do this so if any of you do know, I would appreciate any help you could give.
posted by D Wiz to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If you switch to a provider with IMAP support you can just drag your old mail to your new account via a mail reading program like outlook express on PC or mail.app on OS X.
posted by bcnarc at 3:14 PM on February 6, 2007

Response by poster: I already switched. I need to backup my former e-mail which has POP3.
posted by D Wiz at 3:34 PM on February 6, 2007

Response by poster: Online using the web interface. I used to use yahoo and I have a pro account so it has POP3.
posted by D Wiz at 3:55 PM on February 6, 2007

Install thunderbird, do a big pop download. If your webmail provider doesnt supply the searching features you need then you'll have to use some app.

Actually, go with Outlook. A single PST file is much easier to manage than the format thuderbird uses.
posted by damn dirty ape at 4:30 PM on February 6, 2007

Best answer: If you used to use Yahoo, and you're switching to another webmail provider, I'm guessing it's Gmail, and that Gmail Loader may be of some use to you. There's a note on the Gmail Loader page dated 29th Dec 2006 saying that Gmail now has inbuilt support for importing mails from other POP3-enabled services, so you might want to look into that as well.
posted by flabdablet at 4:37 PM on February 6, 2007

Best answer: On lack of preview: I absolutely disagree with damn dirty ape about file formats. Thunderbird's mbox mail files are essentially just big flat text files that contain all the mails; you can't get much easier to manage than that. Indexes are kept in separate files, and get rebuilt automatically if they go missing.

By contrast, if a PST file gets corrupted, you need to go searching for recovery tools before you can make any headway with it at all.
posted by flabdablet at 4:40 PM on February 6, 2007

Response by poster: Yes I am trying out Gmail right now. I would prefer to have the emails in some sort of format that is storable and readable from my PC rather than in another webmail provider but loading it into Gmail does seem like an interesting idea and I may just do it. Thanks!

As far as the PST vs. Thunderbird argument...
How easy is it to port these files over to another computer? Do I just install thunderbird or outlook and then import the files? Do both programs have search functions? (I assume they do but having never used either for long, I don't know.) Does it create one file, or multiple files? I frequently reinstall windows and would like to know how easy it is to transfer the emails over...
posted by D Wiz at 5:41 PM on February 6, 2007

I prefer working with PSTs. You can make it one big flat file. Its brain dead simple to backup. Thunderbird's extensionless flat files are just more of a pain, unless you want to use an extension that backups your mail into one file.

If you have a PST you could mount it on your buddy's outlook just by going to File > Open. Or at work. etc. Its very simple.

Outlook has a pretty robust search function, but depending on your needs and what you consider 'good' you may not like it. Best to test it out before marrying into a file format.

FWIW, I use thunderbird at home and outlook at work. You may be disappointed by thunderbirds lack of features too.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:22 PM on February 6, 2007

Response by poster: Wow... It's like the war between good and evil here... and I can't tell which is which...
posted by D Wiz at 8:05 PM on February 6, 2007

Outlook has the potential to be an awesome program. It's loaded with features and is a near universal in the workplace.

It is also the 'evil' in this thread. It's riddled with security holes, it behaves inconsistently, and as stated above, it stores it's mail in a PST file which makes life so, so much harder for you when it fails.

Thunderbird is smaller, leaner, and yes. has less 'features' (though some would argue it also has far less bloat, but I will leave that as an exercise for the reader).

I have to use Outlook at work, I use Gmail as my primary mail client in my personal life, and for archiving purposes, I use Thunderbird to store all my mail on my PC. I use Thunderbird at home specifically because I have to use Outlook professionally, and I hate it with a burning passion.
posted by quin at 9:27 PM on February 6, 2007

I'm going to weigh in on the side of Thunderbird. The mbox format is a open plain-text format that's standardized and well documented, and the client is light and simple to use.
posted by chrisamiller at 9:40 PM on February 6, 2007

Best answer: The problem with pst files is that, once they go over a certain size, you start to lose your data.

Don't use PST.
posted by Arthur Dent at 10:22 PM on February 6, 2007

Best answer: Another problem with PST files is that you need to have Outlook installed to read them. Any program that can import from Outlook uses the Outlook API to read the PST file. So you're tied to Outlook forever.

If you have it as mbox format, you can index it using Copernic/Google/Yahoo/X1 desktop search.
posted by Boobus Tuber at 5:02 AM on February 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

As a plus, the Google Desktop search will bring up Thunderbird emails in the web browser - so once that set of files and folders has been indexed, you don't even need to have Thunderbird installed to be able to search your old email. The mbox files can be opened with a text editor in a pinch, if you just need to look for specific instances of a word, address, etc. in the file.

Also, every mail client out there can import the mbox files. It's a fairly standard, open format, unlike the damn PST files. You can also access these files easily on any system by installing Thunderbird, which is free, and can even run pre-installed from a USB memory stick, while for Outlook you need to have a licensed copy of Office just to get at the email - and installing Outlook is a pain if you don't need it to do anything other than just look at some old, archived mail. I've had to import several Outlook PST files into a different mail client before, and it was a pain in the ass to do so.

My wife personally likes using Gmail with Thunderbird. She checks mail on the web at work, then brings it up via POP3 using Thunderbird at home. I have a Gmail account, and do the same thing, but keep an IMAP account as my primary address. I set her Gmail to never archive old mail; mine archives when checked via POP3. She can thus always access new mail at home or online, and I need to go into the Archive to see what was new if it was checked at home.

Plus, the single copy of Thunderbird installed on our home system checks my IMAP, her Gmail, my Gmail, our supplied-by-the-cable-company POP3 mail, and my personal backup IMAP server all at once, in one interface. You can have each use a different inbox (as I do) or have different combinations of emails share common inboxes (so I could have my IMAP and Gmail dump into one inbox without affecting my wife's account). Sending mail from one of these 5 accounts is as easy as hitting [crtl]+[m] for new message and choosing one of the five identities from the drop-down list (it automatically assumes you would like to use the identity associated with the currently selected inbox).
posted by caution live frogs at 9:00 AM on February 7, 2007

I think its very easy for geeks to just recommend whatever OSS solution is currently popular and letting the user figure everything out. From the sound of your question you dont sound like the kind of guy who is going to write a parser for all that lovely plaintext email so you can push it to an unsupported format.

Thunderbird doesnt even have an export function! It just has an import function. There's a real worry of thunderbird lockin here. Hell, you cant even go from thunderbird to outlook without dancing around more than few steps and using at least one third-party piece of software. Even then its tricky. Many programs do not even list thunderbird as a supported import. You can hope they have legacy Eudora support which -might- work with Thunderbird's files.

In outlook, yes, the format is PST, but you are not locked into it as much. Outlook exports to a variety of formats. It has a better importer. There are many PST tools. All files are suspecible to corruption, etc. Hell, at least MS offers a pst fix tool.

If you have a low understanding or patience for this stuff then go with a commerical solution that is easy to get support for. Hence my suggestion to use outlook. If you want to learn the ins and outs of mailbox formats, thunderbird/mozilla mail, etc then go for Thunderbird. So you can go with whats popular (outlook) or go with something that is old and plaintext that might not be as supported to be on the extra safe side (thunderbird/evolution/etc). Are you an OSS user or an MS user?

Lastly, if youre really worried about being 'locked in' you can always hook up to an IMAP account, and copy all your mail to an IMAP server. Then redownload them into whatever client is fashionable. No need for wacky file format wars/fanboys.

I still think its more important to decide which search feature you like best and not worry about file formats so much. If you like Outlooks search features than you wont exactly be digging your own grave using PSTs. If you like Tbirds search the same thing goes. At the end of the day most people dont switch clients that often and there's always some solution out there for them, ignoring the universal' IMAP copy everything over' solution.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:05 AM on February 7, 2007

Also if hes hesistant to even run a mail client, I dont see how suggesting a resource hog like google desktop search (or any desktop search) is helping.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:09 AM on February 7, 2007

I would put my vote towards Thunderbird... I've kept every single email over the last 10 years and Outlook Express conked out at me at about the 80,000 message mark. Had a minor freak out, was able to recover from a previous database backup, but in my searching, I found that Outlook Express (maybe outlook is better?) tends to do that with higher message counts. :P
posted by perpetualstroll at 2:50 PM on February 7, 2007

Response by poster: It looks like Thunderbird is the winner here, although I may backup to both Outlook and TBird just to see for myself.

I think the real clincher was the desktop search reply. One of the keys for me is to be able to search the files easily. I used to have X1 and Copernic (not at the same time) and although I am not currently using an indexing search program, Vista has search included so some time in the near future we all will have it. Having them in plain text format will make them easy to view/search even if I don't choose to keep thunderbird installed on my computer. In addition, OSS makes it easy for me to move it to many different computers if I so choose.

Thanks again for all the responses.
posted by D Wiz at 3:46 PM on February 7, 2007

If you're going to be using Vista's inbuilt search, I would be very surprised to find that it had no support for searching inside PST files.

That said, I still think it's pretty damn funny to talk about "lock-in" from choosing an open-source, cross-platform mail client that uses a well-established transparent plain-text format for mail files. "Fog on the Channel, Continent Isolated".

As for "all files are susceptible to corruption": mail indexes do indeed occasionally get corrupted. The advantage of the Thunderbird approach, though, is that the indexes are not in the same file as the actual mails; if Thunderbird's indexes go belly-up, they don't take your mails with them. You can fix broken Thunderbird indexes just by deleting the index (.msf) files - you don't need a repair tool. Thunderbird will rebuild its indexes from scratch if it can't find them when it starts.

I have never heard of an actual mail file, as opposed to an index, getting corrupted by Thunderbird; and even if this were to happen, the vast bulk of the file would most likely be recoverable using any text editor.

The very first Google result for thunderbird outlook export takes you to a clear description of how to get it done. Yes, it's fiddlier than finding a menu entry that says "Export to Outlook". No, it's not hard. And there's more than one way to do it.

Perhaps if Microsoft would actually document its proprietary formats, instead of forcing people to reverse-engineer them, it would become feasible for [insert preferred tool here] to work reliably with files in those formats. Until then, though, the real question is: why doesn't Outlook have an inbuilt importer for a well-documented, easily read and widely-used format like mbox? Could it possibly be because MSFT wants the Continent Isolated?

Props to dda, though, for suggesting Thunderbird before suggesting anything else :-)

(strokes beard, sips open source happy drink)
posted by flabdablet at 6:18 PM on February 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Now you're being harsh, odinsdream :-)

I work with one regular Outlook user who really really likes it.

Mind you, I seem to remember that finding the PST file Outlook was actually using when we were moving her from Win98 to XP was non-trivial.

Matter of fact, finding anything in the Outlook UI is non-trivial. Damn thing needs a search function to tell you where the search function is hiding :-)

OK, now I'm being harsh.
posted by flabdablet at 8:58 PM on February 7, 2007

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