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A Fortnight of Evolution

Two weeks ago I decided to try an email client instead of the web email interface I've always been used to. There were a couple of reasons for this, one was that I wished to have a copy of my mail on one of my machines, as I don't trust Google (as I have an account) entirely to keep my mail safe, the second reason was so that I could read and write replies to emails while not connected to the Internet (this came about as I recently got a laptop, which could be used in places without an Internet connection).

The email client I chose to do this was Evolution as I use the GNOME desktop and thought it would integrate well. Basically what follows is a short review of Evolution in comparison to GMail's webmail interface, although I will bring more general points in when they are apt.

GMail allows you to set up Post Office Protocol (POP) forwarding, which I did before configuring Evolution based on the configuration examples Google give in their POP help documentation. The next step, as I started to receive emails was to sort them out into some coherent state. In GMail I had used the labels feature which allowed me to label emails according to different categories and if appropriate put them in more than one category. Evolution uses the more traditional directories, but it has quite a strong hierarchical filtering system which makes things easier. For instance you may want emails to go to the 'docs' directory, emails to go to the 'i18n' directory and emails sent to both to go to the 'i18n' directory - to do this you just set the 'i18n' filter higher than the 'docs' filter. An advantage directories have over labels is that you can put more directories inside them, so if you have many emails from a project you can have a hierarchy like this:

Those of you who have used GMail will know that emails as such are not shown in your inbox, instead threads are shown in your inbox. You click on a thread in your inbox and you are given as a list of each email in that thread, expanded if you havn't read the email(s) and contracted if you have. This makes it easy to associate replies and quotes with their source in long 'conversations'. Evolution doesn't have this exact feature, it uses a list of emails in an upper pane and the email's contents in a lower pane. However you can still have threads, with the subject of replies indented after the first email. These threads can be expanded and contracted depending on if you want to see the whole thread or if you just want to see the first email. I've found this behaviour quite acceptable, though also quite different. The main thing I feel is that I read emails more thoroughly in Evolution as I can't just mark a whole thread as read by scrolling through the screen pretending that I read it all.

The offline capability of email clients such as Evolution is great. Once I had to go out for the day into the countryside, where there is definitely no wi-fi. Before leaving home I fired up Evolution and let it fetch the emails which had been sent over night, then I turned my laptop off and took it with me. This allowed me, later in the day to read my emails, write replies and have my email collection there for reference despite not having any Internet connection. This meant I got to fill the unforgiving minute with work I used to need the Internet for - email clients help free work from the web.

One disappointment I've had with Evolution in comparison to GMail is how it handles my address book and contacts. In GMail if I'd emailed someone I could just start typing in their name and I'd get a drop down box with list of people who had that name and their email addresses. This made it easy for me to get the email to the right person without having to remember their email addresses, or go and fill in an address book. In Evolution if you want to add someone's address you have to press a button to get a new window where you search for the contact details. This is only a couple more steps, though I find it slightly annoying now that I'm used to javascript drop down boxes. However it is nice that you can configure Evolution to add people to your address book when you send them emails, as long as a name is specified with the email address.

A side affect of starting to use Evolution was that I started to digitally sign my emails. I know this is possible in GMail via a FireFox plugin, but somehow that felt clunky, thus I never used it. Evolution checks incoming signed emails against your keyring automatically, without setting anything up, and it is very simple to setup signing your own emails via a preferences dialogue.

All in all I'm enjoying the use of an email client after years of using web email interfaces. It makes it easier for me to sort mail in directories and sub directories and somehow makes me a more careful reader of emails. It is unfortunate that its address book feature is slightly lacking on the user interface side in comparison to GMail, but Evolution's contacts framework seems more complete.