Lately I’ve been pondering email clients. Yeah, something as simple and yet profoundly necessary as email. The whole of email has become a bit of a conundrum, as so many people are now getting their fix via mobile devices…or they’re working within webmail.

So where does that leave the email client? It’s still a crucial part of everyday business. Yet, when fewer and fewer are depending upon the email client…how do we trust that those precious apps will continue to be developed and/or released?

This gave me pause to wonder about the state of email clients on Linux. After giving it much thought, I came to realize the situation is, sadly enough, lamentable.

This all came about the day I finally got an invite to try the N1 email client by Nylas. This is an extensible, open source email client that will eventually be released to the public for the Linux, Windows, and Mac platforms. When I finally was invited to give this app a try, I was quite excited. Why? Because of late I’ve become a bit disheartened by the state of the email client I’ve used for years…Thunderbird. Thunderbird has always been that tool I could count on to get the job done and done with spectacular efficiency. Now? Not so much. It seems features have crept into the mix to and development has crept out of the picture.

And so, I installed N1. Upon first run, my level of thrill rose even higher. The interface was seriously clean and well thought out (Figure A). After adding two of my primary email addresses, I dove in and started using what I’d hoped to become my new default email client.

Figure A

The N1 interface is a thing of spartan beauty.

I was wrong

Unfortunately, after using N1 for a day, I quickly realized a few things. I should, of course, preface this by saying N1 is very much not ready for prime time. There are certain key features the client doesn’t have (such as a Delete function). In fact, from everything I’ve seen, this client seems to have been designed more with developers in mind than end users (hence the Developer menu in the toolbar and the ability to create packages to extend the features of the client). And even though the designers of the client have done a marvelous job with the interface, the client is cannot be considered usable at this stage.

Which leads me back to my original point.

Consider what the main options are for email clients on the Linux desktop:

  • Evolution: This GNOME-centric client isn’t nearly as buggy and slow as it once was, but it’s still a heavy-footprint client and doesn’t fully function with the likes of Google (try adding additional Gmail calendars without headache). But my biggest beef with Evolution (and one that will seem really shallow to many) is the fact that, since its inception, the UI hasn’t been given much attention. Desktops have changed quite a lot since 2000 and it would be nice to see the design aspect of this client get a bit of an upgrade.
  • Thunderbird: Everyone’s favorite client from Mozilla isn’t really getting much in the way of development now, since Mozilla has shifted most of its attention to Firefox. And what little it did receive of late has made the interface a bit clunky (those delete/archive buttons have caused me grief more often than not).
  • Geary: Is an okay client, but can be incredibly slow at syncing email (especially when you have multiple accounts). To lesson the value of Geary, it offers next to nothing in the way of options. The nice thing about Geary is that it does have a clean interface, does a good job of displaying threaded conversations, and even has a delete button!
  • Claws Mail: This client is great if you don’t mind feeling like you’re still in the late ’90s or early 2000s and you’ve got plenty of time to monkey around with settings. Claws Mail is incredibly powerful…too powerful, in fact, for the average user who wants nothing more than to be able to read their email with efficiency.
  • KMail: Another client who still believes we’re living in a decade since past. KMail is part of Kontact which, guess what, offers everything but the kitchen sink. And even using KMail by itself, it suffers from the same issues as does KDE…will it crash or won’t it?
  • N1: Outside of the lack of Delete, the N1 client happens to also make use of what Nylas calls the Nylas Sync Engine. Some users won’t like this one bit as it passes all email through a Nylas server before it reaches your email client. If you’re paranoid about security, this is a serious deal-breaker.

What we really need

If the developers of all those clients came to me and asked what Linux needed for an email client, here would be my answer:

  • N1’s interface (with the addition of a delete button, of course)
  • Geary’s user-friendliness
  • Thunderbird’s syncing speed and plugin system
  • Evolution’s desktop integration
  • A bit of Claws Mail’s flexibility

To that, I would also add the threading feature from Google’s Inbox. That, my friends, would be an amazing email client.

It never ceases to amaze me that something so fundamental to getting work done seems to get so little attention on the Linux platform. And yes, I understand that it’s challenging to warrant the necessary effort on something that could very well be heaving its last breathe of life (thanks to improvements in webmail and mobile devices). But for a large portion of users, the email client is still a part of the daily grind and webmail simply doesn’t cut it.

What is your take on the state of Linux email clients? Is there one that fits all your needs?