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Introducing Sylpheed

by Oktay Altunergil

An email client is arguably the most frequently used piece of software, after Web browsers. Perhaps for this reason, there are literally hundreds of email clients on the market. Although a lot of them are capable of handling the single email account of a light user, it seems like a chaotic job to set up and use multiple email accounts on most email clients.

I have personally tried a lot of Linux email clients, including Kmail, Mutt (this is a very powerful application, but is not GUI-based), Netscape/Mozilla mail, Pronto, and Evolution.

All of the GUI email clients mentioned are very slow on a mediocre system, such as my Pentium II-300 with 160MB RAM, running Slackware 8. Most of these clients also behave erratically. They will often hang or crash for no apparent reason. Another thing that most email clients can't seem to handle is network problems that can occur while checking for, receiving, and sending email. If one of your accounts does not respond or it returns an unusual error, it is hard to guess how your client will behave. Most times, the email client will just hang and need to be killed.

If you suffer from these problems, I encourage you to give Sylpheed or Sylpheed-Claws a try.

What is Sylpheed?

"Sylpheed is an email client (& news reader) based on GTK+, running on X Window System, and aiming for quick response. Graceful, and sophisticated interface, easy configuration, intuitive operation, abundant features."

Sylpheed requires GTK+ 1.2.6 or later and runs succesfully on Linux and all Unix variants, including BSD.

I will try to briefly highlight the strengths and weaknesses, since all other information is available on the Sylpheed Web site or can be experienced by installing the software.

When I started considering Sylpheed, I was running Pronto, and had been for a few months. Pronto is written entirely in Perl and can work with plain text files or a number of databases. The plain text version is extremely slow, but the database version is much better. Still, I wasn't very happy with Pronto, which is why I gave an alternative mail client a chance when I came across it.

When you run it, Sylpheed looks no different than any other Eudora/Outlook lookalike email client, especially when you're using the default GTK+ theme. This familiar, yet usable, interface decreases the learning curve considerably.

Screen shot.
Figure 1. Main Application Window

Creating accounts is easy, even though the language can use a little work. In some instances the "default account" is referred to as "usually used." All required parameters for an email account, including personal and server info, are displayed nicely on a single pop-up. The "Inbox" text box in the account-creation window is a very nice touch. When creating an account, you can specify which mail directory should receive the messages that are downloaded from this particular account. This eliminates the need to configure a seperate filter to accomplish this task. If the directory does not exist, it will be created.

Screen shot.
Figure 2. New Account Creation Dialog.

Sylpheed really shines after you create the accounts and start to actually use the application. The first thing you will notice is the responsiveness of the application. Most of the email clients I had previously tried would pause for a noticable amount of time when you clicked a message to dislay it. I could never imagine selecting all messages in a folder and marking them as read/unread. With Sylpheed, there's virtually no delay. You see the messages in the display pane right away. Sending and receiving email does not disable the main window, which allows you to keep reading your messages or compose new ones while this operation is underway.

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This brings us to the most annoying feature of Sylpheed. Each time the application tries to check for new email, it pops up a mini window in the center of the screen. If you have a lot of accounts, this mini window will stay there for a long time. You cannot hide or disable this window. There's no configuration that will make this annoyance go away.

However, if you're thinking "well, it's open source, I can just modify the code and add that option myself," don't launch vi, emacs, or another text editor just yet. Another group of Sylpheed lovers have already done just that, and more. Their version is called Sylpheed-Claws, which is advertised as the "bleeding edge" version of Sylpheed. They even claim it "bites." This bleeding edge version routinely takes Sylpheed and enhances it to make it even more configurable. Some enhancements also find their way to the main Sylpheed release.

Some important feature of Sylpheed are:

- Support for most mail and news protocols (POP3, APOP, IMAP4rev1, SMTP, SMTP AUTH, NNTP).

  • Threaded viewing.
  • Local mailbox support and Import/Export mbox format.
  • Ability to reedit bounced/sent messages (Claws only).
  • Ability to view raw source.
  • Log window to see the actual communication with the server.
  • External editor.
  • HTML support (I haven't tested this fully, but at least it doesn't display the html tags).

Screen shot.
Figure 3. Log Window

If you are looking for a fast, all-purpose email client, give Sylpheed a try. You can also take a look at Sylpheed-Claws for faster fixes of annoyances and improved and additional functionality you need that might not be popular enough to be included in the base release.

You can find Sylpheed and Sylpheed-Claws here:

Oktay Altunergil works for a national web hosting company as a developer concentrating on web applications on the Unix platform.

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