Email applications

First there was Pine and then Eudora and later The Bat. Then there was mutt and Thunderbird. Somewhere in there was a brief stint with Evolution. Then came travel and IMAP and dead laptops and new desktops and again, a change of scene. After a couple of weeks of toying with other mail apps, I'm headed back to Thunderbird. Here's why:


I've spent a fair amount of time in the Gmail web interface over the last few months. I've got the hang of labeling instead of sorting, and although multiple labels is cool, it turns out that I still think in folders, not by tags when it comes to emails. Part of the reason for this is the desire to do a physical and visual "domain switch" when I change projects. Just like spinning the prayer wheel, I need a physical action (selecting a folder) to create a visual set of related and relevant emails (not conversations) to orient myself according to the task that I am about to perform. This is not the metaphor that Gmail uses.

In addition to this fundamental difference in how Gmail's UI works vs. how my brain works, here are a few other pain points I've run across:

  • While I do find the interface easy to use, my mail tool occasionally doubles as my TODO list. Having the Gmail labels at the bottom of the stack on the left side makes context switching more difficult. In other words: I like to have the list of projects that I am NOT currently working on.
  • Within Gmail labels there does not appear to be an easy way to sort the emails by "column." By default the newest email is at the top.This is simply not the way I like my email to be sorted. 14 years of "old at top" is a very hard habit to break, sorry Gmail.
  • Gmail lost a good portion of my email when I opted to empty my trash. Because it sorts things by "conversation" instead of individual emails. When I emptied the trash, any conversation that had a single email in the trash can got entirely deleted. This was unexpected.

Overall I quite like Gmail as a Web app. Now that I'm using IMAP instead of POP, it's pretty much super-fantastic as email gets properly synced (sort of, see above re. Trash) if I'm switching machines.


Next up is the default mail client for Ubuntu. I haven't used it in years and thought I might as well give it another shake. I'm still looking for a nice calendar option that I don't need to go out of my way to use. I gave Gmail a try, but without the use of the Google "home" page there's no easy way to be forced to look at the calendar without actually going to look at the calendar. I thought Evolution might fix this for me, so I gave it a shot.

To be fair, I've only given Evolution a couple of days, but I'm already bailing back to Thunderbird. Here's what I liked about Evolution though:

  • Very easy to migrate contacts from Gmail back to Evolution
  • Syncs the entire set Gmail folders (including "Archive").
  • has the integrated calendar
  • Can easily send re-sized photos from F-stop to my contacts.

Now for the things I don't like:

  • Nag window when checking for mail. 
  • Entire of all folders are scanned when looking for new mail (including "Archive")
  • No option to re-wrap an entire email that isn't properly formatted (control-E in Thunderbird; Edit menu has "re-wrap email" option in Thunderbird; although there is control-K in Evolution but it seems to be per-line).
  • No obvious way to "minimize" the email details (the pane between the list of emails in the folder and the email you are currently viewing).
  • No obvious way to "show images" for the email I am currently viewing (I have a few mailing lists that I do want to see images for)
  • No obvious way to list attachments towards the top of the email (instead I have to scroll past 1,097 top-posted messages)

Ultimately I think Evolution could be a winner for me, but there are too many little details that I quite like about Thunderbird.

For now I'm going to switch back to Thunderbird and will be giving Lightening a try for calendaring. But I'll also be keeping an eye on Evolution just in case some of my pain points get resolved in future releases.

PS I can't create new calendar events in Lightening (even though I've restarted Thunderbird). Um. RLY? This should work flawlessly without me thinking about it. Am I doing something wrong, is Jaunty doing something wrong? or does it simply not actually work?

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Sync or centralize or both

For nearly my entire computer career I've had only one machine at a time. Backups have existed on physical media (CDROM, external drive) or in the cloud (currently Amazon S3 via Jungle Disk and Dropbox for a project where I'm working with a contractor on shared files). Things that went on a server were obviously things that needed to be there, and things that were on my work station obviously needed to be here. This week I bought a desktop so that I can also run some Virtual Machines and have a better testing environment for a few things that I'm playing with (hint: there is more video in my future). For the first time ever I've truly been faced with the personal dilemma of: should my data be synchronized or centralized?

In theory the desktop will become my central machine, except when I'm traveling or feel like working in a room other than my office.  I'm copying files from my laptop to my desktop via rsync (yes, rdiff would be better and yes, I did try unison but the gtk tool was a bit useless so I went back to straight rsync). In theory I can update the relevant computer on a quasi regular basis, or set up NFS or Samba file sharing and mount the relevant partition whenever I'm at home and working not at my primary machine. In reality I wonder if this will become a huge pain. I don't think I want my laptop to behave only as a thin client because there are times that I will need the data while on the road (and without an internet connection).

Factors to consider:

  1. I will have two laptops as soon as the EEE comes back from being repaired. For those of you who are playing the counting game, this makes three computers that need to be synchronized (or at least updated from a central machine), two of which will likely be turned off most of the time.
  2. Right now I use Amazon S3 as a backup system only. (And I have restored from it, so I can call it a backup.) I don't really want to have the cloud as my central data server though. That would just end up getting expensive to pass data between my laptop and desktop and it would be pointless considering they are sitting right next to each other on the same local network. I do plan to continue using S3 for backups, but I will have to decide which machine to run Jungle Disk from (which implies a centralized model).
  3. Using something like rdiff or Bazaar would allow me to add another layer of complexity into the whole thing--version control across synchronized machines. But then I'd have to remember to check things in and out and pull and push updates and if I have to do that I'll end up spending more times keeping files syncronized than I will actually doing work.

For those of you with more experience running multiple personal work stations (desktop/laptop/combination), how do you deal with data? Is it centralized or synchronized or a combination of both?

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