POPping The Cork

By Jayesh Limaye Published Date
01 - Jan - 2007
| Last Updated
01 - Jan - 2007
POPping The Cork

E-mail clients aren’t all Outlook! There’s a whole bunch of them out there—and it’s time we did a round-up of the lot

Despite Instant Messaging, SMS, and other new forms of communication, the de facto way of keeping in touch is still e-mail. It was the killer app of the Internet, and its importance has not diminished one bit. In fact, it’s the lifeline of many businesses.

The simplest way of checking and sending mail from anywhere is by using Web-based e-mail. In this case, you need to be online and log on to the Web site of your e-mail provider—such as Gmail, Rediffmail, and so on. However, there are times when you can connect to the Internet only once in a while; in such situations, Web-based e-mail solutions cannot be relied upon. Another scenario: you have a company e-mail account, and you’re connected to the Internet all the time. Why should you log on to a Web site each time you want to check your mail? It’s preferable to just let the mail come into your Inbox as and when it is received. Here is where e-mail clients come in.

When you send an e-mail, it goes to the e-mail server and is stored there. An e-mail client retrieves the mail from the server to the computer. Not only does an e-mail client let you view your e-mails when you’re offline, it also lets you compose mails without having to be connected. Mails composed offline can be sent across once you connect to the internet. This way, if you’re on dial-up, or on any other access scheme that makes you pay by the minute, you’re better off using an e-mail client than Web mail.

Still, Web mail services offer the convenience of letting you check your mail from anywhere. Many e-mail service providers have revamped their interfaces to mimic that of e-mail clients.

Some of us use both—an e-mail client at work for our office e-mails, if, for example, we aren’t allowed to check personal e-mail during work hours—and Web-based mail at home. Ultimately, each method has its pros and cons, and this test is for those who do use an e-mail client—which will be Outlook or Outlook Express in most cases! We wish to remind you that there are alternatives.
We will take a look at twelve of the most popular e-mail clients. These are RimArts Inc.’s Becky! Internet Mail, Qualcomm’s Eudora, IncrediMail Xe, MemeCode’s i.Scribe, Mulberry, Opera Mail Client, Microsoft Outlook 2003, Microsoft Outlook Express 6.0, Pegasus, Sylpheed, RITLABS S.R.L.’s The Bat! Home Edition, and Mozilla Thunderbird.

The Postmen

Becky! Internet Mail

Becky! Internet Mail 2.29 is a mere 2.3 MB download, and starts up very quickly, probably due to its no-frills interface.

Becky! Internet Mail does not have a polished interface; attention seems to have been paid only to functionality. There are no Wizards or guides, and a newbie will feel lost. However, the simple menus do everything one would expect of an e-mail client.

While it supports HTML e-mail composing to some extent, it can hook up to an external editor such as Word to enhance your composition. This is a configurable option. If you attempt to enter ActiveX content into the mail, Becky! will warn you about its potential dangers. You can even directly edit mail in the viewer window, and this can even be the HTML message you created earlier using the external application.

The search as well as the mail rules are a pain to understand, and not very customisable. Becky! has a unique Reminder capability, using which you can send yourself an e-mail and specify the date when you wish to receive it. The Mailing Lists Manager helps you maintain multiple mailing list subscriptions. Becky! also comes with a PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) plug-in preinstalled, which lets you encrypt messages before sending them.

Becky! has a feature called the Remote Mailbox, which lets you decide whether to delete or download a certain mail or mails while they’re still on the server. All basic mail functions such as copy, paste, delete, forward, reply and drag-and-drop are supported when using the Remote Mailbox feature. Becky! is, however, priced at $40 (Rs 1,800), which seems too much for just an e-mail client.

What We Looked For

Protocol support
POP3: Post Office Protocol version 3 is an application-layer Internet standard protocol that lets you retrieve e-mail from a remote mail server over the Internet. Many e-mail service providers provide a free POP3 service, while some such as Yahoo! provide it for a fee.
IMAP: This was earlier known variously as Internet Mail Access Protocol, Interactive Mail Access Protocol, and Interim Mail Access Protocol. This is an application-layer Internet protocol that allows a local client to access e-mail on a remote server. It is also known as IMAP4. Almost all modern e-mail clients and servers support it.
NNTP: Network News Transfer Protocol is an Internet application protocol primarily used for reading and posting Usenet articles, as well as to transfer news among news servers.
News Feeds: This is a family of Web feed formats used to publish frequently-updated digital content such as blogs, news feeds, and podcasts. It is again divided into formats such as ATOM and RSS (Rich Site Summary); the latter again has versions 0.91, 1.0, and 2.0.

Security features

SSL encryption: Secure Sockets Layer is a cryptographic protocol that provides secure communications on the Internet for things such as e-mail, Web browsing, Internet faxing, and other data communications and transfers.
Preview before download: Some e-mail clients support reading mail off the POP3 server directly without downloading it to the PC. This provides you with security against mallicious e-mail. The image-blocking feature also has the same advantages.
Junk filtering: Spam can be irritating and also means a waste of time. Inbuilt Junk/Spam filters are therefore a big plus.


Formatted mails: HTML-formatted messages have much better visual appeal than plain-text messages.
Customisable Interface And Keybindings: The interface and keybindings (combinations of keystrokes) should be customisable to suit individual needs.
Mail Notification: Mail notifiers alert you when you receive a new mail so you don’t need to keep checking for new mails.
Ease Of Use: We looked at the ease with which a new mail account could be created, whether the interface is user-friendly, and so on, and collectively rated this on a scale of five.

PIM features

Personal Information Manager features such as Calendar, Notes, Tasks, Scheduler, Memo, etc. were noted. Though these aren’t that important for the home user, they don’t hurt!

Other features

Split large attachments: Most e-mail service providers specify a certain size limit for the attachments you can send. Anything above this size is rejected. The option we’re talking about lets you split attachments to a size below the specified threshold.
Import/Export Of Mail And Address Book: This is an important feature—very useful when you’re migrating from one e-mail client to another. An e-mail client should support importing from as many popular clients as possible.
Multiple Profile Support: For more than one user to access a mail client installation, the client should be able to handle a profile unique to each user.
Changeable Mail Store Location: It is a good idea to change the location of the e-mails stored locally on the hard drive to a safer-than-default location (such as a drive other than the one where the OS resides).
Plug-in Support: Plug-ins have the power to completely revamp an e-mail client, so this is a very welcome feature.
Additional features: We looked for any additional features to the above that the e-mail client offered.

Eudora 7.1
Along with support for POP3 and IMAP, Eudora has a special feature called ESP (Eudora Sharing Protocol) that allows you to create a group of users who can synchronise and share a set of files via e-mail.

The e-mail composer supports plain-text as well as richly-formatted text, and you can even send emoticons if you use the paid version. Then there is MoodWatch—an offensive-vocabulary alert that warns you about profanity if you accidentally type in some. Eudora has extensive search options, and it also supports indexed search for faster performance.

It’s SpamWatch Bayesian spam filter is quite effective. Also featured is ScamWatch, which warns you about deceptive URLs in phishing e-mails, but you need to be a paid user to use these.

Eudora’s PureVoice plug-in lets you send a voice message as an attachment, and this can be opened by the receiver using the PureVoice plug-in. it also gives you the option to redirect your e-mail to a different address.

This program is available in three versions: Paid, Sponsored, and Lite. The paid and the sponsored versions have the same features, except that the sponsored version is adware. The Lite version has fewer features. At the end of the day, Eudora is a good e-mail client, but will be somewhat tough to get used to. Eudora is set to go open source in the first half of 2007.

IncrediMail Xe

This is one of the best looking e-mail clients we have seen, and it seems to be aimed at the young. The download is just 450 KB, but this is a deceiver—it is a Web installer, and over 10 MB is downloaded.

IncrediMail has support for POP3 as well as IMAP, but support for news feeds has been left out.

The interface is similar to that of Outlook Express (OE), only more colourful thanks to Flash, which is what most likely contributes to its slow load times.

When you open the e-mail composer, along with it opens a Style Box that lets you choose from loads of colourful backgrounds—including some animated ones. You can even choose to add 3D effects and also emoticons. You can send audio mail, where you record a message and mail it with the text.

IncrediMail sits quietly in the System Tray, and when new mail arrives, the Notifiers let you know. These Notifiers are animated characters—something similar to the search assistants in XP.

IncrediMail’s spam blocker automatically determines ad-based messages. The safety concerns  are the same as those in OE—maybe even more, considering the presence of Flash content. IncrediMail, too, has the ability to read POP mail without downloading it. This way, you can delete unwanted mail directly from the POP3 server.

With so much colour and animations, we revise our earlier view: this isn’t really for teens, but rather for kids being introduced to the world of e-mail!

Windows Mail

“Finally, Microsoft is taking steps to do away with the buggy-yet-popular version of their e-mail client—Outlook Express. Windows Vista will feature a new e-mail client—Windows Mail.” This rumour has been around on the Internet for the past few months. But the excitement is not warranted: Microsoft has not built this e-mail client from scratch—rather, this is Outlook Express’s new avatar.
Let us first look at what new features are offered in Windows Mail. An integrated spell-checker is provided, so you don’t need to install MS Office for this feature. It also includes a new storage engine that is more reliable and performs better than OE. Windows Mail makes use of Internet Explorer 7’s Phishing Filter, and also has a Junk Mail filter—similar to Outlook. Other than this, Windows Mail offers only a few cosmetic enhancements over OE.
While it gains some features, it loses quite a few. You can no longer access Web mail accounts like Hotmail (and the soon-to-be Windows Live Mail)—only POP3 and IMAP mail accounts are supported. It also does away with the Identities feature of OE, but this is a feature that was often left unused and hence won’t be missed much.
Vista comes with Windows Calendar and Windows Contacts, and integrating Windows Mail with these two would have given it good PIM functionality, but it is speculated that Microsoft didn’t do so to protect Outlook from being threatened.

i.Scribe 1.88
An open source cross-platform e-mail client, more popular with OSes other than Windows, i.Scribe is just 790 KB! It requires no installation, and can be carried around on a thumb drive. You can even take it to a Linux computer and continue checking your mail. It supports the POP3, IMAP, and LDAP protocols.

i.Scribe has a simple three-pane interface, with the mail folders at the left, mails at the top right, and message content at the bottom right. You are guided by a wizard to create your account on your first run. This version being free, you are limited to creating only one account, and once we did create one, we had a hard time trying to delete it.

You can only compose messages in plain-text, but you can view HTML messages. i.Scribe uses its secure internal engine to render HTML, but can also use Internet Explorer’s HTML rendering engine.

i.Scribe does not provide a sufficient number of options in its mail search—you can only provide one search term, and search in only one field, such as To, From, Subject, etc. Message rules are also inflexible, and it takes a while to understand how to set up a certain rule.

The powerful Bayesian spam filter can effectively discard spam and allow only good e-mail to end up in your Inbox and the duplicate message filter looks for and deletes duplicate messages.

 Small doesn’t mean less, because i.Scribe even has PIM features such as a Calendar, which lets you share your appointments with others. You can also expand i.Scribe’s functionality using the large number of community-created plugins.

Mulberry 4.0.6
Here’s a powerful mail client that supports almost every platform. It supports all the protocols expected of an e-mail client, but Mulberry fails miserably when it comes to simplicity of interface and ease of use. It took us a considerable amount of time to figure how to even configure a new mail account.

The e-mail composer supports messages with plain-text, rich text, and HTML formatting. The text macros let you specify commonly-used text, so that you can quickly insert such text into your messages using hotkeys. The Speak mail feature uses the installed text-to-speech engine in the OS to read your e-mail to you.

The search engine is simple yet powerful, and you can also save search criteria for future use.

Mulberry has taken care of security and privacy. It supports OpenPGP and S/MIME message encryption in addition to TSL/SSL.
From this version on, Mulberry also comes with calendaring support. It’s free software—so you can always give it a try!

Opera Mail Client
Opera Mail Client was the only e-mail client we tested that was integrated with a browser rather than being a separate piece of software. While all the received e-mails are stored in the Received folder, mails with attachments are also categorised according to the attachment type—such as Documents, Images, Music, Videos, and Archives, for faster retrieval.

Integration within Opera does have its advantages. It can accept all kinds of RSS as well as Atom feeds, and these are well-sorted into folders—one per feed. This is the only e-mail client that supports all the required protocols—POP3, IMAP, NNTP, and even Chat (IRC).

The Opera mail composer is still primitive, and does not support HTML. The lack of HTML and JavaScript support however means that this mail client is well-protected from viruses. Integration with the Opera browser also allows you to create a new mail from just about anywhere within a window in the browser—just select text, right-click, and click on “Send by mail.”

The search option lets you specify very basic search criteria. Ditto for the message rules. Opera creates folders when you create a filter, and filtered messages are copied to this folder. You can create filters within filters to refine the categorisation of your mail. The spam filter is Bayesian, meaning it keeps learning.

The wizards let you import mail easily. E-mails can be imported from Eudora, Opera, OE, Netscape, and Thunderbird. Unlike previous versions, versions post-9.02 don’t crash while importing Thunderbird mail.

You can take notes and send them as e-mails if required. This is the only PIM feature to be seen here. The e-mail storage location cannot be easily changed, and you need to go into the advanced configuration options to do that.

Opera Mail Client is a good client overall, but you may probably use it only if you use the Opera browser.

Microsoft Outlook 2003
Microsoft Outlook 2003 comes bundled with Microsoft Office 2003, but is also available as a standalone product. The interface consists of a shortcuts panel where the different features can be quickly accessed; the Folder List and a third pane is where you can view the features activated from the shortcuts panel. It can be a bit confusing in the beginning, but a closer look reveals that everything is in a proper, logical order. Keep in mind that this is primarily a PIM client, and the e-mail client is only a part of it.

Outlook supports the POP3 and IMAP protocols, and you can also connect to HTTP e-mail servers such as Hotmail. The real power of Outlook is realised only after it connects to the MS Exchange Server, but you won’t see this as a home user.

You can compose great-looking HTML mails thanks to its integration with Word as an e-mail editor. The spell-checker is the same that comes with MS Office, so you can expect it to work very well. You can add ActiveX content to the mail using Word. This opens the door of vulnerability to viruses and worms, but thankfully, Microsoft periodically issues security updates to patch holes in Outlook—just remember to update!

Outlook 2003 comes with a good spam filter that efficiently weeds out most spam. You can even set the level of filtering. By default, messages are sorted by date, and are arranged into groups. You can also set messages to display as threaded chains. Since this is a product aimed primarily at the corporate user, it comes with PIM features such as Calendar, Notes, and Tasks. It costs $109 (Rs 4,900)—too steep a price for a home user!

Outlook Express 6.0
Outlook Express 6.0 (OE) is part of Windows XP and has a very simple and easy-to-use interface. It is well integrated with the OS and also with Internet Explorer. An e-mail setup wizard launches on your first run, and guides you to set up your account with no hassles. Due to its integration with Windows, it performs with ease and speed.

Along with the usual POP3 and IMAP, you can also set up newsgroup accounts, or even LDAP for that matter.

Though you can create HTML messages in OE, there are certain limitations. While replying with HTML formatting, you cannot insert lines below the quoted message or within it because of the irritating vertical line that appears to the left of the quoted text. Plus, you can only add simple backgrounds to your e-mails.

It is easy to arrange mail in different virtual folders, and you can easily create rules that automatically transport e-mails to the required folders.

Integration with MSN Messenger lets you synchronise contacts between the two. You get all this at a price: Outlook Express is one of the least secure e-mail clients, and is rather vulnerable to attacks by worms and viruses. But then, do you find computers around that are not protected by an anti-virus these days?

Pegasus 4.4
Pegasus is one of the oldest e-mail clients around, having first been launched in 1990. The interface is far from polished—the functionality is there, but is in scattered form, and takes time to get comfortable with. Thankfully, it comes with an exhaustive help system.

All messages you send are stored in a folder named “Copies to self”—realise that that’s the correct way of addressing sent mail! The Main Folder contains all the mails it receives, but there is a New mail folder that contains unread mails, so you don’t have to search for an old mail you forgot to read.

You can sort messages by thread, sender, date, and more criteria. Public folders allow multiple users to share access to the same messages in Pegasus Mail.

Pegasus supports POP3 and SMTP, and can also manage multiple accounts of each type. Unfortunetly, it does not support Atom or RSS feeds.

HTML-formatted mails can be composed in Pegasus. The Glossary lets you store a list of abbreviations and their long forms, so that you can use and expand them in mails at the click of a button.

While Pegasus has an extensive e-mail filtering system and is highly configurable, it is likely that the general user would be left confused because of the lack of Wizards for this purpose. The Bayesian filter takes care of spam, while the integrated phishing protection alerts you about malicious Web sites.

You can review your mail on the POP3 server and choose to directly delete it if you so wish. Along with TSL / SSL, Pegasus can also work with third-party e-mail encryption solutions.

Sylpheed 2.2.10
Sylpheed is an open source, cross-platform e-mail client that works with Windows as well as Linux. It not only supports all major protocols including RSS feeds, but also supports IPv6—the next-generation Internet Protocol.

The user interface is somewhat similar to that of Outlook Express, and is quite comfortable to work with. The usual Inbox, Sent, Draft, etc. folder structure is strikingly similar.

The mail composer lets you create new templates according to your needs. Messages can be composed only as text, but you can view HTML messages.  You can either use the inbuilt editor or bind and use an external editor for this purpose. Sylpheed’s message editor cannot reflow text: it can only wrap it. Sylpheed takes care of your privacy issues by means of GnuPG keys for encrypted communication, in addition to TSL/SSL support.

The search feature is quite powerful, and allows you to save the results as a search folder. Spam is taken care of by means of bogofilter and bsfilter, which feature a learning function that improves their performance with use.

The Bat! Home Edition
The Bat! Home Edition 3.85.03 was the one e-mail client that had a markedly different menu system. Unlike the usual File, Edit, etc. menus, here we have Messages, Specials, Accounts, etc.—much more relevant for an e-mail client. This may confuse the user at first, but it actually makes navigation much easier and faster.

Like most mail clients, The Bat! has support for POP3 and IMAP protocols. It can even connect to an MS Exchange Server using the MAPI protocol. The Message Dispatcher tool shows you the most important message headers, and lets you delete messages directly from the server. In some cases, the sender and subject might not be enough for you to decide whether you want to keep the message, so The Bat! can automatically download a few body lines together with the headers.

This version, unlike the previous versions, is capable of sending as well as receiving messages in the HTML format. The e-mail composer is also feature-rich; in fact, it is the only e-mail client we have seen that supports aligning even in plain-text mode. The spell-checker can even correct words based on phonetics!

You can set rules and search with seemingly endless options that yield highly refined results. A point to note is that though we have a large number of options, they are neatly named and thus not confusing. This multithreaded e-mail client can send as well as receive at the same time!

Mail Chat lets you chat with other The Bat! users by means of e-mail, so you remain protected from the potential threats posed by IMs. A flashing icon informs you about Mail Chat replies.

The Bat! is very secure against viruses and worms. It supports various PGP standards such as OpenPGP to encrypt your messages. You can also password-protect individual mailboxes if you wish.

With features such as Scheduler and Memo, The Bat! competes head-to-head with Outlook, and is good even for corporates and can also work as a server on your home network. Synchronisation and backups are also easily achievable. It costs $24.50 (Rs 1,100), which is just right.

Mozilla Thunderbird 1.5

Thunderbird is an open source, free e-mail client from the Mozilla Foundation. The interface is pretty simple and straightforward, and allows you to arrange mails into different virtual folders. E-mails can be sorted according to importance, time of reception, and even according to attachment. It has a themes-based interface, which means that the looks can be changed by applying themes.

POP3 and IMAP are the supported mail protocols. In addition, it also supports NNTP, which lets you subscribe to Newsgroups. Like Firefox, it supports feeds from RSS 0.91 and Atom to keep you updated, and can be viewed as regular e-mails.

The search feature does not have too many parameters, but they seem to be adequate for a home user. Message filters (rules) also do not have too many options, but a home user may be better off with the limited set of options.

This is a basic e-mail client like OE, while being less vulnerable to viruses because of the lack of ActiveX support. Pair this with the included Bayesian spam filter, and you have a very safe e-mail client.

We must also mention that Thunderbird supports a variety of plug-ins or extensions developed by the open source community. These extensions bring in new functionality and can enhance the client. Some extensions like the Adblock Plus filter block ads and increase system security, while others such as United States English Dictionary, add to the vocabulary of the e-mail composer.

                                                  POP3 vs. IMAP
POP3 and IMAP are the predominant protocols of e-mail services. They are popular and hence are supported by most clients. But there are certain advantages and disadvantages with both of them, and here we try to make a general differentiation between the two.


You may encounter the following problems with POP3 access since e-mail needs to be downloaded onto the PC before being displayed: You are required to download all e-mail again when using another PC to check your email. If you need to check e-mail at office as well as home in this way, it can lead to confusion. Depending on the settings of your e-mail client, the downloaded e-mail may be deleted from the server.Since the email is kept on the server, it has the following benefits: There is no need to download all e-mail when using other PC to check your mail. Unread mail can be easily identified.
During the “Check new mail” process, all messages as well as their attachments will be downloaded to your computer.
A complete message will be downloaded if and only if it is opened for display to access its contents.
While multiple mailboxes can be created on the PC to download the mail, there is only one mailbox on the server that stores all the mail.IMAP has the provision of letting you create multiple mailboxes on the home PC as well as on the mail server.
Incoming and outgoing messages are filtered and transferred only to local mailboxes.Incoming and outgoing messages are filtered and transferred to other mailboxes no matter where the mailboxes are located (on the server or on the PC).
Outgoing mail is temporarily stored locally.Outgoing mail is stored on a mailbox on the mail server and can be accessed from another computer.
While you can delete the messages on the home PC very easily, cleaning up messages from the server requires you to download all messages with the mail client configured to delete mail after downloading.You can delete messages directly on the server, thus making it more convenient to clean up your mailbox on the server.
If your hard drive crashes, you lose all your e-mails.Since the mail is stored on the server, you won’t lose your mail if your hard drive crashes.
The client connects to the e-mail server for a short period of time, only as long as it takes to download any new messages.When using IMAP4, the client stays connected to the server as long as the user interface is active and downloads message content on demand. In case of many or large messages, this can result in much faster response times.

Who Delivers?
Of the twelve e-mail clients we tested, we found that many of them are good when catering to a particular segment of users. We therefore break away from the tradition of crowning a Gold and Silver winner. Instead, we will mention the noteworthy ones here—the ones we think are worth a try.

Windows comes with Outlook Express 6.0 as the default e-mail client, and though it is buggy and prone to worms and viruses, applying frequent bug-fixes and patches from the Microsoft Web site and using a good anti-virus will minimise the risks. Outlook Express is very simple to use—no wonder there was a hue and cry following rumours in August 2003 that Microsoft had decided to stop further development of Outlook Express: within a week, Microsoft pledged allegiance to its free e-mail client.

If you are always on the move, need to check your e-mails and also carry them around, i.Scribe is the e-mail client for you. Not only does it allow you to password-protect your e-mail folders on a portable drive, it also has advanced features that let you preview your e-mails on the POP3 server without downloading them. This is useful in a scenario where you’ve run out of free space on your drive, but still want to check new mails without downloading them. In addition to this, it runs on both Windows and Linux.

If you are a novice or if you are, well, young, IncrediMail Xe with its colourful interface and animated emoticons will surely appeal.

If you are willing to pay for better features, The Bat! should be your choice because it has all the features one might ask of an e-mail client. Corporate users, too, will not be disappointed, because it can connect seamlessly to Microsoft Exchange Server. It even packs in PIM features such as Scheduler and Memo, and at $25.50 (Rs 1100), the price is not too high.

We have to mention that when it comes to pure performance and compatibility, nothing comes even close to Outlook 2003. This PIM-plus-e-mail client rips the competition apart because of its excellent integration with Windows. It has excellent drag-and-drop support, and integration with components of MS Office. When coupled with MS Exchange Server, Outlook 2003 takes on a whole new avatar as a collaboration tool, complete with the ability to assign tasks to subordinates and delegating correspondence while you take vacations. Corporate users who have the money should definitely opt for it—nothing works better with MS Exchange Server than Outlook 2003.

Jayesh LimayeJayesh Limaye