Linux Desktop Email Clients Compared: Thunderbird vs. Evolution vs. KMail vs. Claws Mail

Looking for a Linux email client? Here’s a breakdown comparing the four best options.

Webmail use is still on the rise, and it’s not hard to understand why. There’s Gmail’s webmail-specific features, the ability to always see all of your email, and the convenience of viewing your email anywhere with just a browser and login credentials are just a few reasons why people have made email clients (outside of enterprise environments) almost obsolete.

These advantages aside, there are still enough reasons to use a desktop email client as well. Some include desktop integration features such as system notifications for new emails (this is most common on Linux, anyways), offline email management (especially if you don’t use Gmail with Google Chrome), and integrated encryption support.

While Linux isn’t graced with the presence of all email clients (I’m looking at you, Postbox), there are still more than enough options to satisfy the average email user. I compared the top four choices — Thunderbird, Evolution, KMail, and Claws Mail — to see what type of users they cater to.

Thunderbird

Thunderbird is the most common email client for practically any operating system. Developed by Mozilla, Thunderbird hasn’t actually seen any recent major updates because Mozilla has shifted most of its development efforts to Firefox. This could be attributed to the gradual decline of email client use or a simple lack of innovative new ideas to be implemented into an email client. While Google has been innovating email with features such as Priority Inbox, they require a lot of processing power, along with proprietary algorithms, that desktop email clients like Thunderbird can’t use. The software still gets security updates (the version at time of writing is 17.0.8), but there hasn’t been a new major release in a while.

linux email thunderbird   Linux Desktop Email Clients Compared: Thunderbird vs. Evolution vs. KMail vs. Claws Mail
Thunderbird provides great features, such as an easy setup wizard (which usually guesses all the correct settings using only your email address and password), a great extensions system that cannot be rivaled, and a high level of customizability.

While Thunderbird is simply a respectable email client with its base features, it really flourishes once you add some extensions. Some of my favorites include extensions that add GPG/PGP email encryption, a visual thread view of email threads, and “Lightning” which adds calendar support to Thunderbird.

Ubuntu users can enjoy desktop integration with Thunderbird thanks to some self-developed packages — Thunderbird is Ubuntu’s default email client. Users of other distributions will have to find their own solutions or miss out on desktop support.

Users can take advantage of our shortcuts cheat sheet for Thunderbird, if they want.

Evolution

Evolution is the default email client for most Gnome-based distributions. As mentioned above, some distributions like Ubuntu have other default preferences (like Thunderbird), but any distribution which sticks to pure Gnome experiences will include Evolution. Fedora, openSUSE, and Debian are great example distributions where this is the case. Either way, if Evolution isn’t installed on your system, you can easily find it in your respective package manager.

linux email evolution   Linux Desktop Email Clients Compared: Thunderbird vs. Evolution vs. KMail vs. Claws Mail
While Evolution was previously known to be slow and buggy, it  improved quite a bit over the lifespan of Gnome 3. It includes support for all major email protocols, as well as fairly decent support for Exchange servers (a feat none of the other three email clients listed here can claim).  It also has an easy-to-use interface (in my opinion it looks somewhat similar to Outlook), and support for calendars, task lists, and memos/notes without the need for extensions.

While certainly customizable, it isn’t nearly as customizable as Thunderbird. My primary reason for saying this is that Thunderbird does an excellent job of letting you choose different settings for each mail account that you have configured. Evolution’s settings, by way of contrast, apply to all mail accounts — which is an issue if you want , say, one account’s replies be written at the bottom instead of the top. Evolution also provides great desktop notifications for Gnome Shell users. It is a very solid choice for a desktop email client.

KMail

KMail, similarly to Evolution, is the default email client for the KDE desktop environment, except where otherwise replaced by specific distributions. KMail integrates very tightly into the desktop and other KDE applications — the KDE PIM, or Personal Information Manager, handles accounts used by KMail, the KDE IM application, and other elements found in the Kontact application. If you don’t already have KMail or other KDE PIM applications installed, it’ll be really hard if not impossible to get KMail on your system.

linux email kmail   Linux Desktop Email Clients Compared: Thunderbird vs. Evolution vs. KMail vs. Claws Mail
While the interface isn’t quite as friendly as Thunderbird or Evolution, the application is still very functional and configurable. It also supports all of the major email protocols, so you shouldn’t have any issues with getting started with KMail. For more information, you can check out our more detailed article about KMail.

Claws Mail

Claws Mail is an email client found as the default in a number of lightweight distributions. Compared to the other three options, Claws Mail is by far the most resource-friendly email client — and it shows. While the application is still quite functional, the interface looks simpler and stripped down — and features like easy setup aren’t present.

Even the icons seem like they would be more appropriate for the 90′s, but then again functionality is more important than looks for some people (especially the resource-conscious ones). Claws Mail continues that simplicity by only showing email in plain text (I’m sure as a security measure). However, Claws Mail does allow for plugins which can be installed via available packages and loaded via Configurations –> Plugins. It still supports POP3, IMAP, and SMTP, so it’s a great quick choice if you like and/or need a solution like this.

linux email claws mail   Linux Desktop Email Clients Compared: Thunderbird vs. Evolution vs. KMail vs. Claws Mail
Looking through your respective package manager with the search term “claws” should lead you to a Claws Mail package that includes the application. You can also install other plugins that may pop up in the list, but none are required. Just know that if you do install any that you also need to load them while inside Claws Mail as outlined above.

Conclusion

My ultimate winner is Thunderbird — mainly for its large user base and  an extensions system that give it all sorts of extra features. However, I’d easily recommend any of these email clients. The only situations I wouldn’t recommend would be to install Evolution on a KDE system or KMail on a Gnome system. Otherwise, feel free to install whatever you like.

Do you use webmail or an email client? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments!

Image Credits: Penguins Via Flickr

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15 Comments -

0 votes

TechnoAngina

Really good breakdown of the different email clients. I’d really like to see some visual updates to Thunderbird and I’m not super sure I enjoy the different Chrome/Office 2010 like tabs, but it’s easy to get used to. I’d like to see some work done on better mail visualizations and better calendar/ tasks integration as calendars and task management always seem to be an afterthought in Linux applications. It might be nice to see a cleaner interface somewhat like inky or Alto mail.

0 votes

Danny Stieben

Sadly, Thunderbird won’t be getting any of that anytime soon since Mozilla has suspended development of Thunderbird except for maybe the occasional security update.

0 votes

TechnoAngina

Then I guess I could always just quit complaining and do it myself. It is open source. I’m not really a fan of the whole everything in the cloud concept. How email isn’t better organized by now is a mystery to me.

0 votes

Dan

I use TBird because of its extensive addons library. But personally I prefer Sylpheed.

0 votes

Howard Helbein

For those of us tied to Exchange servers, what are the options besides Outlook Web Access? I’ve tried to get the Thunderbird plugins working, but no success with Exchange 2010. A Thunderbird plugin that uses ActiveSync would be great!

0 votes

Alucard

Your best bet with Exchange support is Evolution. Though, not perfect, I hear it’s the best we’ve got for Linux.

0 votes

Danny Stieben

Yeah, Evolution seems to be the best solution for Exchange right now. I believe it still uses Outlook Web Access, but as far as I know you won’t really be able to tell the difference. (As long as your Exchange server offers OWA.)

0 votes

Vadim P.

ExQuilla works pretty well and is under active development (and is actually getting itself a funding model, which means you can trust it to be less flaky than another addon).

0 votes

Alan

I just started using Thunderbird for PGP and was delighted to discover it has a fantastic Twitter client built in, just about the only linux twitter client I could find that still works! Big thumbs up for Thunderbird.

0 votes

jose

Thunderbird also works with Exchange using the davmail tools

0 votes

Efrain B. Garcia

Real nice review of email clients for Linux. I agree that Thunderbird is a very good email client and I use it when I am on my Linux computers. I would also like to let you know that you can use the Conversations Add On and it will get rid of the folders icons and the pane looks like GMail and the whole appearance of Thunderbird really looks good to include your email conversations, etc. Additionally you can install Postbox in Linux using the PlayOnUnix app to install and it really works well. I have been using Postbox with the Zorin distro for about two weeks with no problems. Again, thank you for your review.

0 votes

Rusty Dixon

Well Thunderbird certainly isn’t dead. You said at the time of writing (23 Aug 2013) that it was on version 17.0.8. As of my post (19 Oct 2013) Thunderbird is on version 24.0.1, released October 11, 2013.

0 votes

vs

geary how?

0 votes

vs

who?

0 votes

Boogie

The one and only is Evolution.
Thunderbird sucks and ugly.