email bandwidth conservation

Email is something we take for granted until we can’t get it; then it’s a First World Crisis.  Luckily email can be extremely efficient because text is cheap to send/receivetext.  And since so little data is moved in minimal setups you can often get email through when nothing else works.

We need to look at the two major ways to do email:  webmail and traditional email clients.


Webmail means accessing your email via a webpage like or   The upside is that you can check your mail from anywhere there is a web browser:  your friend’s place, a library, work, etc.  The downside is you are tied to a website that might not be bandwidth friendly.  Ever see graphics or ads alongside your webmail?  Yeah, on a metered mobile plan you’d be paying for those to be displayed.  Also, if you are having intermittent connection issues or have very little bandwidth the page may fail to load completely.

Here are some approaches to minimizing webmail bandwidth using Gmail as an example.

  • Turn off automatic display of images in your webmail.  When email comes in and you want to see all the graphics you can click on the “Display images below” link.  Or if you always want to see pics from that emailer click “Always display images from [sender]” in the email.

  • Use the low-bandwidth html version of Gmail.  No fancy AJAX interactivity, just plain webmail which uses much less bandwidth.  You can switch back and forth at will.

  • Use bandwidth conserving techniques for webpages in general, as discussed earlier

Email clients

Before webmail all email reading was done in an email client.  It is called a client because it is the user part of the client-server model.  Your client would collect your email from the server and show it to you.  (this is how the web works, btw.  Your browser is a web client although no one calls it that anymore.  It talks to a web server. See?)

The most common mail clients now are Outlook for windows and Thunderbird for linux.  There are many, many other smaller players.

Email clients access the mail from the server using one of two different protocols:

  • POP3 (aka POP) - an older, simpler model most useful when reading from a single client

  • IMAP - a folder-based model most useful when you need to read the same email box from different computers.

POP3 is a “lighter” protocol and generally uses less bandwidth.  IMAP is quite chatty and talks a lot with the server, eating your bandwidth.  **For boondockers POP3 is a reasonable default **unless you have a compelling reason to use IMAP.

Here are some approaches to minimizing email client bandwidth:

  • tell your client you don’t want to download “remote content” (graphics and other media) automatically.   You can enable the content per email, per site, or per sender if you like.  Very often the additional baggage is spurious, like a signature image people attach to their email.

  • tell your client to download headers only at first.  This is the top of the email without the body/text/etc.  Quite often you can ID spam from just the headers so you never have to download the whole thing.

  • write your email in plain text rather than html.  This is a relatively small gain but every bit counts.

  • tell your client to check for mail at a reasonable interval.  Polling for new email every 5mins is a cost without a benefit for boondockers.  Think about once an hour, once every few hours, or just checking mail manually instead.  Remember that if your client is left running it will check mail all night, eating your bandwidth with each poll.

Gmail offline

If you are a google webmail addict but want your email to deal elegantly with loss of connectivity check out the Gmail Offline app for Chrome.  It loads in your browser but acts more like an email client.  It syncs when your connection comes back up.