Top 5 desktop email clients for Linux

Top 5 open source desktop email clients

Posted 08 Oct 2015 by 

Jason Baker (Red Hat)
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Desktop email clients
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Judith E. Bell. Modified by Opensource.com. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Which desktop email client is your favorite?

Mobile and web technologies still haven't made the desktop obsolete, and despite some regular claims to the contrary, desktop clients don't seem to be going away any time soon.

Open source email clients

For more open source email clients, see our complete collection.

And with good reason. For many, the preference for a native application (and corresponding native performance), easy offline use, vast array of plugins, and security needs of certain users will long outweigh pressures to switch to a webmail email client. Whether you're sticking with a desktop email client because of a corporate mandate or just personal preference, there are still many great options to choose from. And just because you may be stuck on Windows doesn't mean Outlook is your only option; many open source clients are cross-platform.

In this roundup, we take a quick look at five open source options for desktop email, share a little bit about each, and try to provide you with some options you may want to try out yourself.

Thunderbird

For many years, Mozilla Thunderbird was the king of the open source email client. It was available across all major platforms, and it had great success alongside Mozilla's other well-known project, Firefox. Thunderbird has now been around for over a decade, and was immediately popular from the start, receiving over a million downloads in its first ten days of public release.

In more recent years, the thunder behind Thunderbird got a little quieter, and in 2012 the project announced it was no longer a top development priority for the Mozilla Foundation. However, just last year this position was reversed with new resources being put into the development of new features rather than simply supporting its longterm maintenance.

Thunderbird is full-featured, with a number of well supported plugins adding in everything from calendar support to advanced address book integration, and many specialized features including theming. Out of the box, it supports POP and IMAP email syncing, spam filtering, and many other features you would expect, and works flawlessly across Windows, OS X, and Linux.

Thunderbird is made available under the Mozilla Public License.


Claws Mail

Claws Mail, a fork of Sylpheed, is a fast and flexible alternative that might be appealing to anyone who is concerned about performance and minimal resource usage. It's a good option, for example, if you're working within the limited processing and memory capacity of a Raspberry Pi, for example.

But even for those with virtually unlimited computing resource to throw at a mail client, Claws Mail might be a good option. It's flexible, probably more so than Thunderbird or some of the other options in this list, and it has a number of plugins available for those who want to extend it. And it prides itself on being fast and reliable, too, in addition to sporting a simple interface that's perhaps ideal for new users.

Claws Mail is based on the GTK+ framework, and is made available under the GPL.


Evolution

If you're a user of the popular Fedora or Debian distributions, you're probably already familiar with the next option on our list, Evolution. Evolution is an official part of the GNOME project, but it didn't start out that way. Originally developed at Ximian, and later Novell, Evolution was designed from the ground up to be an enterprise-ready email application.

To this end, Evolution supports Exchange Server and a number of other email setups you might find in a corporate environment. It's also a full Personal Information Manager (PIM), sporting a calendar, task list, contact manager, and note taking application, in addition to handling your email. Even if it's not the default mail application in your distribution, you might be interested in taking a look if you're interested in these feature or the included spam filtering, GPG support, RSS reader, integration with LibreOffice, or slew of other features.

Evolution is made available as open source under the LGPL.


Geary

Geary is a project of the Yorba Foundation, who make a number of different GNOME software tools, and are probably best known for their Shotwell photo organizer, which is the default image organizer in many popular Linux distributions. Geary supports a number of popular webmail services as the mail backend through IMAP.

Geary doesn't have a lot of features compared to some other clients on this list, but its simple interface might be appealing to users frustrated with unnecessary complexity in other email programs. Geary is available under the LGPL.


KMail

KMail is the mail component of Kontact, the personal information manager included with KDE. KMail supports a variety of email protocols, including IMAP, IMAP IDLE, dIMAP, and POP3, and through its integration with the other Kontact components could be considered a complete groupware suite. Despite its Linux routes, a Windows build is also available.

With its long history, KMail has developed most of the modern features you would expect to find in a modern mail program. While it fits nicely into the KDE group of applications, some may find its interface clunky compared to others. But give it a try and see what you think.

KMail is made available under the GPL.


And an honorable mention, N1

N1 is, simply put, an email client that puts its clean look and feel first. It's a refreshing focus for a desktop Linux application, where subtle design factors like typography and proper use of drop shadows are sometimes ignored in favor of feature creep.

It also may be the easiest of the clients in this list to extend, as it makes heavy use of JavaScript with familiar tools like React and NodeJS making it accessible to those who perhaps have no desktop programming experience but have worked on web-based projects.

While I'm excited about N1, it's not packaged for public consumption yet. You can check it out and install it from source on GitHub if you'd like; N1 is available under the GPL.


Of course, there are many more options above and beyond what we included, and your personal preference might include some choices we didn't include here. Trojitá or GNUMail, for example, are both great choices to take a look at. So we're asking you. What's your favorite open source desktop email client? And with webmail as the first choice of many users, what do you see as the role of the desktop email client in the years to come? Let us know in the comments below.

22 Comments

Goksin Akdeniz

You missed sylpheed. http://sylpheed.sraoss.jp/en/

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Jason Baker

Thanks, Claws Mail in the list above is a fork of Sylpheed; I'm not overly familiar with the original. What would you say its main selling points are?

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bcotton

How is the Exchange support in Evolution these days? It's been a few years since I've had to use it, but I recall it being rather unstable.

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Jason Baker

Fortunately it's been a few years since I've had to use Exchange, so the extent of my endorsement on that end is "it worked that one time I set it up several years ago."

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dmacleo

run exchange 2013 here and ubuntu 14.10 with evolution worked fine. initial sync took some time but none of the old ews issues it used to have, worked fine for me.
actually right now working on installing i on kububtu 15.10 as its one of the few clients that work well with exchange w/o paying for plugins like thunderbird

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Bruno Miguel

I like Thunderbird (or Icedove in Debian) very much. The customization is a major plus with this client.

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SimonJ22

You ought to look at geary too. http://yorba.org/geary/help/

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Jason Baker

Thanks, Geary is actually #4 on this list. And in full disclosure, one of the former lead devs of Geary is a good friend of mine from middle school who may very well have been the first person to show me Linux, probably 15 years ago.

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Justin

N1 saves emails on their own server. How can you recommend such a client which compromises privacy???

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Josh

Apparently the server is hosted on your own machine. I don't really see the appeal.

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r3bl

That kind of depends on how you're actually using it. It offers you to run your own sync engine (https://github.com/nylas/sync-engine) on your machine instead of relying on their server to do the work. So, it's up to you whether or not you want to use their server.

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EmielBrok

Thanks for this interesting overview.
I (as non-IT technician) like Zarafa as email client. I am curious if you know this open source product and if so is there a reason why you did not mention it in this Top 5?
Looking forward to your reply.

https://www.zarafa.com/

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Jason Baker

Hi Emiel, I looked into Zarafa just a little bit. The authors say it is based on open source technology, but I couldn't find a link to the source code anywhere. Do you happen to know where this is made available?

Meanwhile, this list is limited to strictly desktop clients; we did a roundup of webmail clients a few weeks ago which you might be interested in: https://opensource.com/life/15/9/open-source-alternatives-gmail

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r3bl

I never really tried it, but I took some time to browse their website and it seems to me like this is the link you're looking for: http://download.zarafa.com/community/

Also, I feel obliged to link to this post on their forum: https://forums.zarafa.com/showthread.php?11434-A-change-in-the-availabil...

As I have already said, I have never tried to use their software, so I'm not really capable of understanding what exactly does that forum post really mean.

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r3bl

The thing I like the most about Thunderbird is that by default it automatically blocks remote content in messages, so the person (or a company) that's sending you an email does not know whether or not have you read the email until you decide to allow remote content. This stops senders from using web beacons (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_beacon) to track its readers.

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Dan the Man

How many Open Source e-mail clients are there?
I count mail, mailx, alpine, elm, and mutt.

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Adamowsky

You did not mention Zimbra Desktop, which is open source.

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Niraj

Excellent article, Jason. Great list, and neatly explained too. Thanks, Niraj (Founder at hiverhq.com)

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Larry

I'm surprised mutt hasn't been mentioned thus far. I love mutt. It works with a wide variety of scenarios. I have used it in a unix environment, Windows exchange, and recently O365 environment. Sometimes a GUI just gets in the way. :)

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David Picard

You should discuss stability and performance in addition to features. I've had issues with both stability and performance in Evolution, but I run multiple I map connections and multiple calendars.

With the same configuration, Thunderbird is more stable but the password management is subpar - I have to enter my keychain password 5 times at startup for the account passwords to apply for all accounts and calendars.

I have yet to find a mail client on Linux with a good user experience for complex setups

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dragonbite

Thunderbird, with the calendar extension, is probably the closest to the Outlook layout. I haven't used it in a while but may be setting it up sometime soon, otherwise I usually end up using Geary or the web browser.

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chrisod

I ran Thunderbird with Office 365 at my last job with no problems. Both email and calendar worked fine.

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Jason is passionate about using technology to make the world more open, from software development to bringing sunlight to local governments. He is particularly interested in data visualization/analysis, DIY/maker culture, simulations/modeling, geospatial technologies, and cloud computing, especially OpenStack. Follow him on Twitter or Google+.