We have so many ways to access email. Gone are the days of the desktop email client being the only route, and gone are the days of having to track down obscure IMAP and SMTP settings to get mainstream services to work.
We expect to be able to send and receive emails seamlessly to our phones, tablets, PCs and, before long, probably our clothes and fridges. We expect everything to stay in sync and – if we’re using a mainstream email service like Gmail or Yahoo! – we think it should just work.
Does KMail – the default Email client shipping with KDE – come up to the mark? Despite the ubiquity of web-based email and email apps, Desktop email clients still have their uses.
Kmail can be installed on pretty much any Linux distro and desktop – though it’ll work best with KDE as it’s designed to be integrated into the desktop.
Installation is smooth enough and, on start-up, KDE is smart enough to know about the main email providers like Gmail and automatically connect when you’ve put in your email address and password. Unfortunately, in my testing it wasn’t quite smart enough to do it seamlessly: I hit an error sending mail right away and a web search revealed the fix was to reboot my computer.
If you do need to put in custom email settings (for your company email server, for example) that’s fairly simple to do. If, however, you want to connect to a proprietary email server such as Microsoft Exchange, it’s a lot more difficult. There are ways it can be done with additional software and gateways, but they are complex and will not give you the full Exchange experience.
Kmail uses a traditional three-pane approach. It’s traditional for a reason, having withstood the test of time, so that’s no bad thing.
The left hand pane holds a list of folders. At the top there’s a list of messages in the current folder, with the content of the currently selected message in the bottom pane. Extensive options under the View pull-down menu allow you to configure how much information is shown and how it’s displayed. For example, in View > Message List > Theme you can switch between Classic, Fancy or even design your own theme.
Hovering over a folder or message pops up a box with more information about it.
One of the key reasons to use a traditional email client rather than a website is for those occasions when you’re offline. Maybe you’re travelling or your web connection’s gone down – wouldn’t that be a good opportunity to wade through your clogged-up inbox without distractions.
KMail does the job, though in a slightly annoying fashion. You can switch to offline mode with File > Work Offline from the pulldown menu. Reading emails is no problem (as long as they’ve already been downloaded, of course). Composing emails to send works – with your written emails queued until KMail has web access again. The annoying part? It insists on prompting you to take KMail back online after every email.
Another benefit of many email clients is the advanced search options, though with Google’s search engine expertise powering its web email, that’s a gap that’s closing fast.
KMail’s search is fast, and the advanced mode allows “and” searches along with “or” searches on pretty much everything you can think of from author, subject and body text to the more obscure headers. You can search on days ago (e.g. ‘show me emails from Joe between 30 and 90 days ago’) or date based (‘between September 1st and November 30th’).
You can use regular expressions in searches, which is handy if you understand them. In short, if you’ve got a bit of programming knowledge under your belt, you’ll find KMail’s search very strong. If you haven’t, you might struggle to figure out how to best use some of the advanced features, and think there must be more user-friendly ways to present them.
KMail has the useful advanced feature of templates. Define your templates under Settings > Configure KMail > Composer and then use them to create a message with File > New > Message from template or to reply with Message > Reply Special > Reply with Custom Template.
Suppose you’re in customer support and want to send reply emails to every enquiry with a couple of standard paragraphs, but adding your specific tailored text. A template saves you having to type or paste in the standard sections while giving you the freedom to add and amend it as you need.
Archiving and importing emails
When you get too many emails to sensible manage them, KMail allows you to archive off a set. Go to Folder > Archive Folder to hive off all the emails to a compressed file. If doing that every now and again by hand is too much hassle, Tools > Configure Automatic Archiving allows you to set up regular archiving events.
To import an archive (i.e. get those email message back in KMail) go to File > Import Messages.
File > Import Messages from the drop-down menu is also the place to pull in emails from another programme, such as Evolution, Outlook Express or any emails stored with the mbox standard, if you’re migrating from another email client.
A nice KMail feature is the ability to add a note to an email. With the message selected go to Message > Add Note from the pull-down menu. The note – just a short bit of text you can type in – is then linked with the email in your view, but of course will never be seen by anyone else when you forward or reply to the email.
If you want a Linux email client, KMail is far from the only option. Thunderbird, from the people who brought you Firefox, is strong enough that some distros are bundling it with the KDE desktop and leaving KMail out in the cold. Some prefer Gnome’s Evolution client. Other options worth a look include Balsa, Sylpheed, Zimbra Desktop and Claws Mail.
KMail’s been around for quite a while and in the last couple of years a lot of work has gone into bringing it up to standard as a modern email client that allows the user to do the simple stuff easily.
At heart, though, KMail is a client written by hackers for hackers, and it shows with the huge numbers of fairly obscure options. If one or more of those is useful to you, KMail could be the answer.