Ask LH: Should I Use A Desktop Email Client?

Dear Lifehacker, Desktop email clients like Sparrow and Postbox seem like they’re breathing new life into desktop email, but I’d also heard that Thunderbird is going into “maintenance mode”. It got me thinking: Should I be using a desktop email client?

A lot of people I know just use Gmail and seem very happy, but the desktop options are intriguing. How do I know which option is best for me? Sincerely, Stolen Thunder

Title image remixed from tele52 (Shutterstock), Calvin Bexfield, PSDGraphics.

Dear Stolen Thunder,

These are interesting times for email; there are more great tools to help you manage your email now than ever, possibly because we get more email today than we ever have in the past. Still, the core question is whether or not you should be using a desktop mail client, and the answer to that depends on you. Let’s dive into who should be using a desktop client, what all the fuss around Thunderbird is, and what your desktop email options are.

Desktop Client or Webmail?

If you’re struggling with the “which is better” question, you’ll find no definitive answers here, mostly because there is no definitive answer. For some users, a desktop client will run rings around webmail any day of the week. For others, a desktop client is unnecessary and limiting compared to webmail. Here are some factors to keep in mind for deciding which is best in your case.

A desktop email client may be best for you if:

  • You have multiple email addresses with different domains, and enjoy checking, reading and responding from each one as each address, all in one place.
  • You need access to email offline.
  • You prefer to back up your mail regularly or have limited storage with your email provider.
  • You use security features like digital signing, public key infrastructure (PKI) or encryption.
  • You use advanced mail rules and filtering based on multiple factors (words, senders, subjects, headers)
  • Your email provider’s webmail client sucks or is non-existent.
  • Your email provider uses Microsoft Exchange or another mail solution with special perks for desktop users.
  • You enjoy integration with desktop apps like Dropbox, Cloudapp, your calendar or other tools.

Webmail may be best for you if:

  • You prefer a single, unified inbox of all of your accounts.
  • You only have a few email accounts and you prefer to forward them all to one inbox.
  • You’re a Gmail ninja, addicted to Labs or can’t imagine using anything else for email.
  • You prefer web apps and web services to downloadable applications (or you can’t install software on your work or school computer).
  • You enjoy integration with web services or plugins like Google Calendar and Tasks, Boomerang, Smartr or Rapportive.
  • You feel more secure keeping your mail off your computer and all online.
  • You prefer to keep all of your mail rules and filtering on the mail server, as opposed to running them on your desktop.

There’s room for cross-pollination here, so if you match some things in both groups, think about which one you identify most closely with. Don’t forget to weigh your personal preference. Like we said, there’s no right answer for everyone, but there’s a right answer for you, and you should use what suits you best.

So Is Thunderbird Dead or Not?

Mozilla’s announcement that it would be suspending active development on Thunderbird and focusing only on stability and security certainly caused a stir. Mozilla tried to clarify that its definition of “dead” is different from everyone else’s definition, but the fact remains that we shouldn’t expect to see much in the way of major feature or interface uplifts. We actually asked whether Thunderbird was dead over three years ago, and here we are today — it’s still alive and kicking. So don’t count the app down just yet.

Remember, Thunderbird is open source, so it will never be truly dead as long as there are developers out there who love it. In fact, Postbox is based on Thunderbird’s source, so it’ll live on through Postbox (which itself is not open source). Plus, if you love Thunderbird the way it is now, there’s no reason to stop using it: it will still get patched for security, and you don’t have to worry about feature creep or unwanted bloat in future updates. That said, if you were sitting back hoping add-ons like my favourite, Thunderbird Conversations would be integrated with Thunderbird, or that it would get proper Exchange support, or a better contact manager, you’re out of luck.

If you love Thunderbird, stick with it, but there’s no harm in looking at alternatives. After all, you don’t want to be that person using an ancient email client just because it’s what you’ve always used — you know, like that guy still using Eudora or Incredimail when there are better, well-supported options out there.

What Are The Alternatives?

There are hundreds of desktop email clients out there, but if you’re looking specifically for a Thunderbird-like option, you do have a few that rise above the pack and won’t cost you too much money (we’re looking at you, Microsoft Outlook, though that is a very solid product).

  • Webmail: You can always make the switch to webmail if the reasons above mesh well with you. However, if you’re a die-hard desktop user, even Gmail’s advanced features may leave you a little wanting. Still, check out your email provider’s web client. You may find you like it.
  • Postbox: Based on Thunderbird and developed by the team who created it, Postbox is a great alternative to Thunderbird. It offers incredible Gmail support, integration with Dropbox and other desktop apps, supports Windows and Mac, connects with your social networks and more. It’ll set you back $US10, but you can see what you get for the money here.
  • Sparrow: If you’re a Mac user and appreciate a lightweight but still functional email client, Sparrow has all but redefined the category. It’s our favourite email client for the Mac, it offers stellar Gmail support, it can switch to traditional or minimal views, and it supports Dropbox and Cloudapp. It’s free with ads, but $10.49 takes them away.

There are others, such as Windows Live Mail, or Opera Mail (which adds email functionality to the Opera browser). If you need Exchange support, you’re probably going with Windows Live Mail or Outlook. Even so, for an experience like Thunderbird, these are your best options.

So How Do I Choose?

Even if you use webmail from time to time, or use webmail in addition to a desktop client, many of us are still using desktop apps to manage email, and those apps are only getting better, faster and more feature-rich. Make no mistake, there’s a lot to love about webmail and some people should definitely switch to it and never look back, but apps like Sparrow and Postbox wouldn’t thrive (and be willing to charge for their products) if the environment weren’t conducive to it.

Personally, I use a combination of Gmail’s webapp and Thunderbird every day for the seven or so email accounts I manage. Without a desktop client it would be impossible to keep them all clean and tidy without the flexibility to respond as each account, move mail between them quickly and tailor my notifications. What’s right for me may not be right for you though, Stolen Thunder, so weigh your choices, try a few different alternatives, and then decide whether you want to move to webmail, use a new app, or stick with Thunderbird right now.


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