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Claws Mail: Mail with Attitude

When other mailers aren't doing the trick, it's time to break out Claws: An extremely configurable and extensible GUI mailer that gives you all the control you'd ever want over your mail without sacrificing ease of use.

Want to take full control of your email? Tired of the limitations of Webmail, or GUI clients that are designed for users who only get a handful of emails every day. It’s time to bring out the heavy guns and start using Claws.

Modern mail user agents (MUAs) tend to hide as much complexity from the user as possible. Claws, bless its speedy little heart, doesn’t. Claws is extremely configurable, feature-rich through the use of plugins, and can be keyboard-driven to satisfy users who want the speed of text-based mailers like Mutt with a decent GUI.

Claws is a fork of the Sylpheed mailer. Initially, Claws was the “bleeding edge” development build of Sylpheed, but they diverged and Claws has been going great guns ever since. Note that Sylpheed is also actively developed and the two have quite a bit in common, but I’d pick Claws as it seems to be leading in features.

Using Claws

Most major distros have packages for Claws. The downloads page has a list of all the “official” packages, including packages for Debian, Fedora, Slackware, openSUSE, Maemo, FreeBSD and NetBSD, Ubuntu, Mandriva, and even Solaris and Windows. The Windows port isn’t entirely feature complete (missing LDAP support, for example) but it’s there if you want. Mac users can get Claws buy using MacPorts.

The Claws interface is not the slickest you’ll ever see, but it’s not hard on the eyes and some geeks might actually prefer the more minimalist approach to mail. The display is also highly configurable. Users can easily set the columns to display in the folder view and which columns to display in the message view. If you want a lot of information in the message view, you can get that, or you can winnow it down to just the sender and subject if that makes you happy.

Claws also gives a lot of control over the layout, with views for several different types of displays. Whether you’re banging out emails on a 27″ screen or 10.1″ netbook, Claws has a layout that should fit the screen well. At least as well as any GUI fits a netbook display, anyway.

Once you’ve started working with Claws you can get as complex or simple as you’d like. For non-power users, Claws provides a stable and simple to use interface. It’s as easy as any other GUI mailer to get started with. For power-users, though, Claws lets you really dig in to mail.

One word of caution for GMail users. Tags in Claws and tags in GMail are not the same thing. So tagging a mail in Claws won’t have the same effect as applying labels in GMail.

Getting Mail

Claws is pretty speedy, but if you have a ton of mail stored in IMAP it might take a little while the first time you set up Claws. The first time I threw my “All Mail” folder at Claws (with all 184,320 messages) it pretty much paralyzed the poor thing for more than an hour. This can be a bit annoying, because it literally does paralyze the client while Claws is fetching mail. You can’t switch folders while Claws is busy sucking down mail from another folder. Luckily, I expected a slow process and started Claws chewing on my mail right before bedtime.

Even after the first access, Claws can be a bit sluggish when accessing extra-big IMAP folders. It typically would take about 30 seconds to re-open the “All Mail” folder for GMail.

Aside from a bit of sluggishness with ridiculously large mailboxes, Claws is very zippy. One of the things I like most about Claws is that you can do almost everything you’d want with mail without touching the mouse. Navigate through your inbox, reply to mail, move mail into different folders, whatever. And Claws makes it dead easy to use an external editor, so you can edit all your mail using whatever editor your heart desires. My heart desires GVim, of course. The default external editor is Gedit, but you can change it to whatever you prefer.

Note that you’re not stuck with using Claws to retrieve mail. Go to the Configuration menu and select Preferences. Under the Mail Handling tab you can select an external program for receiving mail. If you’ve got another program grabbing your mail, then Claws can simply work with it to read and send mail.

There’s a Plugin for That

Claws has a ton of plugins available. If you use your mailer to read RSS and Atom feeds, there’s a plugin available. Want to view HTML messages in-line? Claws can do that with a plugin as well. The plugin system ensures that Claws is a very flexible mailer but at the same time, it doesn’t have the features you don’t need.

For example, many users on Linux don’t care for system tray icons. If you’re using a desktop or window manager that doesn’t support them, then no need to enable the plugin. If you don’t need to view HTML emails as HTML (rather than being shown as text only) then don’t enable the GtkHTML viewer or the Dillo plugin.

A full list of Plugins can be found on the Claws site. If you’re using Ubuntu or Debian, a lot of the plugins are packaged separately and can be installed as-needed.

Claws as Feed Reader

I’ve tried various mailers as RSS readers, and typically found them lacking. While Claws isn’t perfect in this regard either (no reader is), it’s fast and integrates well with the workflow. If I was going to switch away from Google Reader (or Feedly), Claws would probably be the client to persuade me to do it.

Claws handles RSS feeds via the RSSyl plugin. It’s one of the few tools that has actually sucked in my Google Reader OPML file and been able to handle all the feeds thrown at it and respected the folder structure I’d built up in Google Reader. If your feed reader exports a file with an .xml extension instead of .opml, you will need to change the file name so it will be recognized.

RSSyl is best if you want to read feeds as plain(ish) text, since Claws defaults to a plain-jane text view of feeds. You can opt to load HTML and images, though, if you want a prettier view.

Create Your Own Actions

Sylpheed allows you to create your own actions on mails. Let’s say you have recently switched roles at your job, and you want to be able to seamlessly forward mails on to a colleague. Not on a one-by-one basis as they come in, but in bulk. You can use Claws’ Actions configuration to set up a redirect command to send your messages on to your colleague. They’ll appear in their inbox as if they came directly from the original source, so they can reply normally and take on the conversation from there.

You can also work with shell scripts to process your mail, so the possibilities are nearly endless. Other mailers also allow some level of flexibility, but Claws definitely takes the cake here for ease of use and flexibility out of the box for a GUI mailer.

The only very minor complaint I have with this feature is that it’s not possible to create a toolbar icon out of the new action or a keyboard shortcut to go with it. Other than that, though, you couldn’t ask for much more flexibility than this.

Give it a Try

While Claws is a little rougher around the edges than Thunderbird, Evolution, and KMail, it’s a solid mail client and provides a nice middle ground between standard GUI mailers and text-based clients like Mutt and Alpine. If you want a ridiculous amount of control over how your mail is handled, like to work with complex mail filters and really tweak your mail experience, Claws is the right way to go.

Really, I’ve only scraped the surface of what Claws is capable of. It could fill a book. It’s an extremely full-featured mailer and if you live in your inbox, you owe it to yourself to try it out. Claws is easy to get started with right away, but also provides a lot of functionality that will make life much easier if you dig in and set it up just right. This will take a few days (weeks?) to get entirely customized to your liking — but once it’s there, you may not want to switch again.

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