Linux email clients, a quick overview

A review of various Linux email clients:

  • Thunderbird
  • Evolution
  • Geary
  • Sylpheed
  • Claws Mail
  • Balsa
  • Trojita
  • GNUMail.app
  • Mulberry (last update 2007)
  • Spicebird (discontinued)

Thunderbird

Thunderbird is produced by Mozilla Org. It’s a relative youngster, being just over 10 years old. Development officially stopped in 2012 but there has been regular security updates and bug fixes. In 2014 the Thunderbird Council announced that more time would be spent on improving Thunderbird, but I’m not clear what that really means.

But, overall, Thunderbird is a mature, stable and very usable mail client and I’ve been using it for about 10 years. And (spoiler warning) after testing all the above clients, it’s the one that I’ve stayed with.

Current version 38.4

Evolution

Evolution is available from Gnome. When I first tried Evolution (a long, long time ago) it was a complete resource hog and my computer ground to a halt. So I’ve never bothered again, but recently I decided to give it another try. Seven or eight years have gone by…

One immediate problem is that it seems impossible to get the latest version on Ubuntu 14.10 – the standard repo version is 3.10.4, the latest official version is 3.18 but can only be installed by building from the source code, as far as I can tell.

I installed 3.10.4, I don’t want to build a complex application like Evolution from source unless I’m really sure that it will work for me. Installing from the apt repo’s is straight forward. It pulls in a lot of other packages (Evolution runs as a server daemon and a gui client, with a bunch of useful plugins) but once installed everything worked.

I have to say, it all looks quite nice and polished. There are included a Calendar, a Task list and an Address book. It’s a very full featured application and I was happy to see that it didn’t slow my computer down to a crawl. So resource usage was good.

Geary

Geary is an IMAP client for Gnome, produced by Yorba. It’s a pretty little client, very simple to use with a good feature set. It seems to be in slow but steady development.

I found it easy to setup a couple of email accounts and everything worked as it should. It is written in Vala and uses SQLite for a database backend, which also provides a full text search capability (which I didn’t test out). But it was missing a few features that I would have liked (tags and smart search for instance). And there weren’t many keyboard shortcuts so it needed too much mouse usage.

Currently at 0.10.0

Sylpheed

Sylpheed is from Japan. Development seems to be slow but steady. I tried the client for a short while and it installs easily, set up is fast and simple and so is the usage. It felt like one of the fastest of the email clients I tested. The interface is built on GTK+ and is well organized. But development is slow, and I moved on to Claws (see below) as being similar but more up to date.

Currently at 3.4.3 (2015-07-06).

Claws Mail

Claws Mail is an offshoot from Sylpheed, although it split off about 10 years ago and is now a completely separate development. It shares the same strengths as Sylpheed, being simple, powerful and fast. It won’t allow you to send HTML emails (which is kind of cool) and so should be required for everyone!

Installation was straight forward and setting up a couple of email accounts went ahead easily. It is indeed quite fast and switching between accounts, viewing threads and messages was all very smooth. For a program based on GTK+ it doesn’t look to bad either.

Currently at 3.13.0 (2015-10-11)

Balsa

Balsa is another Gnome email client, one that has been around for a surprisingly long time (at least to 1999). And has been under almost continuous, though slow, development for all that time. I use it for local site testing as it catches any emails that my applications send out and displays them (with HTML if needed). For this it is incredibly light weight and fast.

Currently at 2.5.2 (2015-05-30), Ubuntu is stuck at 2.4.12

Trojita

Trojita is an IMAP client based on the QT library As such it’s oriented towards KDE desktops so I didn’t install it.

Currently at 0.5

There is also GNUMailApp, Mulberry and Spicebird

All of which seem to have been discontinued some years back. I haven’t bothered installing these.

Conclusions

I tried, for a few days, each of Evolution, Geary and Claws as they seemed the most active and well developed and they are all very usable email clients.

In the end, I’ve stayed with Thunderbird. My email workflow has evolved around the abilities of Thunderbird, which makes it hard to move away from it. On the way I’ve had a good think about how I handle email and those thoughts probably belong in another article.

I’ve kept Claws installed as it’s good to have a second client in case something breaks in Thunderbird. And sometimes I just want a change :)