Sylpheed: A fitter email client
One of the first things I learned after starting this gig at LinuxWorld.com was that it's not at all unusual to hear from readers who are much better informed, and much more knowledgeable about Linux, than I am.
If I had harbored any secret desires to be taken for a Linux guru just because my name was on the masthead, they were quickly dispelled. Many of my best columns have come as a direct result of reader feedback. I don't always acknowledge that, but I should. This week there will be no pretense. Not counting vendors pitching their wares, I heard from readers about two applications that were new to me. One is a nifty email client called Sylpheed. Forum regular Raskinite mentioned Sylpheed in response to my recent column on Evolution, and I'm writing about it this week.
I learned about the second application from John Lederer, a chum from bygone days in a forum far away called Canopus. He wrote recently to let me know about a project he's involved with called Rolodap, which is an LDAP-based contact manager application. I'll write about that app in the near future. You can find the URLs for both projects in the Resources section.
I found Sylpheed on Freshmeat, just as Raskinite had said I would. I chose to download it in the RPM format, and in less than five minutes from start to finish I had a new mail client ready to go. One of the features listed on the Sylpheed homepage is the ability to handle news as well as mail. Since that feature is currently on hold in Evolution, I decided to check it out right away.
One important caveat about Sylpheed -- the help manual is currently only available in Japanese. That gave me an excellent opportunity to test its user interface for intuitiveness and ease of use while trying to set it up as a newsreader. Having done so, I would give it high marks in both categories.
I flailed about for a minute or two, but then decided that I would need a new user account. That makes sense to me, since each individual email account requires a separate user. So from the Configuration menu, I selected Create New Account. Lo and behold, in addition to POP and IMAP server types, there was an option for News (NNTP protocol). That allowed me to define the news server and to specify the maximum number of new articles to download at a time.
I didn't find a way to browse the server and retrieve a list of available newsgroups, but that doesn't mean there isn't one. I did know the names of the newsgroups on the server, however, and by selecting News from the folder tree, and then clicking the right mouse button, I was able to enter the name of the newsgroup I wanted. That created a folder for the newsgroup. Double clicking on it gave me a list of message headers and I was off to the races.
Get yer picture
I was curious to see how well Sylpheed handled mail attachments, so I dumped nearly a thousand emails, probably 20 percent of which had images attached, into
/var/spool/mail/warthawg. I was impressed at how quickly Sylpheed moved those messages into its Inbox and displayed the message tree after I clicked Get Mail. Sylpheed is much faster in all aspects of handling mail than the current version of Evolution.
I began to wade through the Inbox, hitting the N key to move to the next message, until I came to one with a photo attached. I was expecting to see the photo appear without having to click on an icon to expand it, but it didn't happen that way. Instead, a new pane opened in the mail window showing the component parts of the message: in this case one part was
text/plain and the other was
image/jpeg. The text portion of the message was displayed below this new pane. When I hit the N key again, instead of advancing to the next message, it simply advanced to the next part of the message and the image was displayed.
I liked the way Sylpheed was handling the images by default, but when I saw that it was doing the same thing with HTML mail (showing me the plain text part first, then showing me the raw HTML) I began to have doubts about the approach. It may very well be that this is a tunable configuration option, but I didn't find a way to tell it either that I wanted to see the mail in HTML format or that I didn't, so I ended up with the worst of both worlds. How rude HTML mail is in the first place, since it more than doubles the bandwidth necessary to tote the mail. But that's another story.
I looked for, but couldn't find, any hints on how to create new folders. Once again I was forced to rely completely on the design of the UI to reach my goal. It took less than a minute to find a Create New Folder option after right mouse clicking on the mailbox in the folder tree. I quickly created a new folder, then a subfolder, then a subfolder in the subfolder. Nothing to it. Again the UI gets good marks for ease of use.
The final item on my email client litmus test is filtering. Under the Configuration menu item from the main Sylpheed window toolbar is a tab called Common Preferences. Clicking on that produced a menu bar that included Filtering. In very short order I had created a filtering rule that would select all the messages from a particular individual and put them in a particular folder when I grabbed new mail. Testing with the same 813 messages I'd used previously gave me exactly what I wanted. The filtering may not be as sophisticated as that found in other mail clients -- you are limited to two rules, must define specific headers, and can only choose between "contains" or "not contains" the keyword -- but it is certainly as fast as or faster than any I've seen.
In summary, Sylpheed is exactly as Raskinite described it in the forum two weeks ago: a full-featured email client that is available today. I really like the speed with which Sylpheed handles its tasks, perhaps because I've been using the not-quite-ready Evolution. My "must haves" for an email client are the ability to handle multiple accounts, nested folders, and filtering. Without losing mail. Sylpheed does all that and more. It also offers speed, a newsreader, and an address book.
Hiroyuki Yamamoto created Sylpheed and licensed it under the GPL. According to comments he made on the Sylpheed mailing list (information for the mailing list is available on the Sylpheed homepage), he is responsible for about 90 percent of its code. The name is loosely based on the word sylph, the spirit of air or wind. Others have contributed patches to Sylpheed, and in fact there is a separate site dedicated to such patches (see Resources). One of the patches allows you to add the sender of a message to the address book, another displays HTML mail, and still another lists the newsgroups available on a server. All of these are good features that have yet to be folded into the latest version. The version I downloaded did not include these patches, but now that I know about them I will probably grab and install them.
Sylpheed is faster, more stable, and more complete than Evolution is today. It may be the best Linux email client I've used, although I want to spend a little more time with it before making that pronouncement. It also provides an opportunity for someone to become a hero on the Evolution project. Currently the newsreader functionality of Evolution is dormant and unmaintained. Some brave soul could try taking Hiroyuki's newsgroup support from Sylpheed and making it work with Evolution.