In the last year or so, we've looked at a lot of email tools in this column, including SpamAssassin, Squirrelmail, grepmail, and Mailman. But so far, we haven't looked at any desktop mail programs. To remedy that, let's look at the GNOME project's Balsa.

In the last year or so, we’ve looked at a lot of email tools in this column, including SpamAssassin, Squirrelmail, grepmail, and Mailman. But so far, we haven’t looked at any desktop mail programs. To remedy that, let’s look at the GNOME project’s Balsa.

Balsa isn’t the most well-known mail program around. It lacks the flash and publicity of Evolution ( and the raw geek appeal of Mutt (, but it’s also not trying to be a Microsoft Outlook replacement or the Swiss army knife of email.

Simple Design

Balsa’s greatest strength is its simplicity: it’s very lightweight and sports an uncomplicated interface. After a few minutes using Balsa, it’s clear that “normal” users — the people who may have been using Eudora on Windows 98 for the last five years and are now wading into the Linux pool — are the target. We’re talking about users who want a nice GUI for their email but don’t need integrated calendaring, fancy address books (Balsa leaves that to GnomeCard), Microsoft Exchange plug-ins, and PDA synchronization.

The Eudora comparison is a good one. Balsa’s user interface (see Figure One) is uncluttered and straightforward. It uses the standard 3-pane view with mailboxes on the left and the message list and preview pane on the right.

FIGURE ONE: Balsa is an easy to use mail client

The default toolbar is composed of large, simple buttons: Check [for new mail], Compose, Reply, Reply to All, and so on. An Outlook Express user could use Balsa without any trouble and without ever touching a menu.

All of the application’s initial settings are configured the first time you start Balsa. A wizard-like series of dialogs walks you through the process of setting up your email (see Figure Two).

Following in the tradition of Eudora, Balsa also provides ample configuration options for power users who want to adjust its appearance and behavior. You can adjust the fonts, toolbars, and other properties for the Message, Compose, and Main windows. You can define multiple “identities” for separate mail accounts, or you can use a single identity to pull from multiple mailboxes (POP or IMAP, normal or using SSL).

Power Under the Hood

But don’t be fooled by its simple interface: Balsa has some powerful features under its hood. While many mail clients don’t offer threading, those that do often make a half-hearted attempt. Balsa lets you choose from the standard “flat” view (no threading), simple threading, and “JWZ” threading (the latter model is an implementation of Jamie Zawinski’s mail threading algorithm, shown at

FIGURE TWO: Balsa’s configuration wizard

A lot of mail programs have trouble properly quoting messages that you reply to. Balsa lets you customize the regular expression it uses to determine what parts of a message are already quoted. Balsa also gives you the option of using either ispell or aspell for spelling, and it handles internationalization quite well. You can switch character sets on a per-message basis.

Finally, for users of old-school mail software, trying Balsa is easy. It’s one of the few graphical mailers that can handle mbox, maildir, and MH style mailboxes.

Balsa is a great example of the 80/20 rule: it’s not the fanciest mailer around, but it serves most people just fine. If you’ve been looking for a good emailer, give Balsa a try.

Do you have an idea for a project we should feature? Drop a note to and let us know.

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