The best (and the worst) email clients for Windows

I’m normally a Linux user, as a developer I believe that is the best platform. I have good text editors/IDEs, native server tools (apache, node, php, etc) and a no-compromise terminal. The Mac doesn’t add enough benefit to justify the expense. Of course I also have a MacBook, but when I’m at home my main rig is Linux.

For a recent work I had to build myself a dedicated Windows machine. It was since 2008 that I didn’t use a Windows computer on a daily basis so I had to spend quite some time to find what’s new in the Windows software landscape.

At the same time I decided to finally get rid of gmail. It will be a slow process, but the first step is to change client. I handle most of my emails through gmail’s web interface. It’s a fantastic application and it spoiled me to the point that leaving it has become almost impossible.

So here starts my hunt for the perfect desktop mail client. It seems that all efforts nowadays are spent on mobile. Is the desktop email client dead? Am I just a retro-junkie, a dinosaur that will have to adapt or extinguish?

MailBird – Beware, it phones Home!

Few days ago Mailbird v2 has been released.

First of all let me say that it’s kinda sad that your privacy is always the last thing companies care about. It’s never granted, you have to fight for it!

I’m happy to see that they finally encrypted the data! It is not clear what data they send to themselves, but I’m pretty sure they are still collecting your email address, name and user session (so they can track your habits). They also collect usage statistics to “improve user experience”.

The security issue about Mailbird is so lowered to DEFCON 3, but still the fact that there’s no way to opt-out bothers me. After all the noise Mailbird finally made clear what data they are collecting.

If it wasn’t for this post nobody would know what Mailbird was collecting and probably your data would still be sent over a clear connection. Honestly a company so desperate about my data is not worth my trust.

The review below refers to v1.8.

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mailbird

Let’s start from the new kid from the block. MailBird look and feel comes from the now defunct Sparrow. Google acquired the little Mac and iPhone app few years ago and basically killed the project.

Email changed and MailBird (and Sparrow before it) tries to change the client with it. I see it as a porting to the desktop of the gmail web interface, which is actually a good thing.

That being said, with all the security concerns raised this year, MailBird phones home and shares your data over unencrypted connections.

As soon as you open the client at least 3 connections are established to:

  • api.mixpanel.com, this is used for statistics. MailBird analyses how you interact with it, which functions you use the most, etcetera. It is an anonymous report that helps the developers concentrate their efforts on certain features instead of others. There’s nothing wrong with it BUT there’s no way to opt-out.
  • sites.fastspring.com, this is the payment gateway, I don’t understand why they have to check the application pricing every time you open the application. Anyway, nothing terribly bad about it.
  • magicalmailapp.com, here comes the security leak. A connection to this domain is established on a standard unencrypted port 80 with the following information: 1) user session, 2) user email, 3) user name.

So they send themselves your name and email, without asking for permission of course. They do that so blatantly that they don’t even care to encrypt the data. Indeed soon after the installation you receive the first spam email from the MailBird team, alas you are kindly subscribed to their mailing list (you can unsubscribe of course).

I was pretty shocked so I contacted MailBird support and they put me in contact with their CTO. From the few emails we exchanged I had the feeling that there’s no malice in MailBird behaviour, just maybe a bit of naivety. To be clear, they confirmed all the above connections.

This is what he says (quoted unaltered).

The account name and email to my understanding based on our research is not considered confidential data according to the law in this case, which is why it’s not sent encrypted. Your password is never sent to us or any confidential data.

When I objected that my name and email address are indeed confidential and that I have no way to stop MailBird to phone home, he replies:

That’s a good point. I didn’t mean it to sound like we’re not willing to add it [an encrypted connection], I just meant that we didn’t feel like it was required at the time we decided this, since the email isn’t typically considered confidential data as I’m aware. And that we hadn’t really seen any requests for this.

I’m sorry but I can’t take seriously an email client that doesn’t value or prioritize the security of my email.

You should be aware that, if you use MailBird from a public network your email and name can be easily spoofed (by just opening the application, you don’t even need to check for email).

I can’t recommend to install MailBird and if you already did, you should remove it.

Apart from that, is it a good client?

It’s a fine and refreshing email client but it still lacks some important features such as an unified inbox if you need to manage more than one email address (who doesn’t?). Anyway, it could be the best client on the planet, until they don’t let you decide what information is sent back to them, the software should be avoided.

My vote is 2.5/5.

The Bat!

thebat

The Bat! is an incredibly light and sophisticated email client. In my tests Task Manager never exceeded the 15MB mark with an average of just 8-11MB of ram constantly used. Of all, this is the lightest client I tried.

Ritlabs (makers of The Bat!) stresses on security. The client supports PGP, S/MIME, CrypoAPI, SSLv3, TSL, ASLR, DEP and a bunch more of fancy security acronyms. It uses an internal address book and an internal HTML viewer, both designed to avoid virus attacks to known Windows and Internet Explorer vulnerabilities.

The Bat! is a solid and elaborated application, but all this power comes to a cost: it is quite complicated and tedious to configure.

None of the email accounts I tried have been configured automatically, not even the usual suspects (hotmail and gmail). You have to manually configure everything, including telling which IMAP folder is trash, which is inbox, etc. The emails in the junk folder are left as unread and you have to set up a filter/rule if you don’t want to be notified of new spam.

The interface also needs quite some time to be personalized and some options are hard to find or not trivial to use. To rearrange the columns in the email list for example you can’t simply drag and drop them; you have to go in the preferences, change the column arrangement (without preview), click apply, see if the end result suits you and repeat until you are satisfied. Long and tedious process.

If you need to heavily customize the interface and you have many email address, the initial setup might take quite some time.

What it completely lacks is any kind of spam filter. I know that it should be installed on the server level or maybe the anti-virus already has it, but an email client without spam filter seems hard to believe.

The Bat! has a plug-in system that lets you connect to external spam filters and I believe AntispamSniper is the suggested one, but that brings the cost of the whole lot to €40/$47 for the client + €17/$19 for the anti-spam.

Apart from that The Bat! is an email client like it was in the late 90s. It can be a good or a bad point to you, but email evolved and I find this lack of innovation quite annoying.

That being said Ritlabs’ software is probably the best client I tried so far. If you value lightness and security, The Bat! is definitely for you but it’s a far from perfect email reader.

My vote is 3.6/5.

Windows Live Mail

Windows Live Mail –formerly Outlook Express– is not part of your standard Windows installation any more but it comes with the Windows Essentials tools.

You have to download a unified setup program and selectively install Windows Live Mail from the advanced options, otherwise you end up with Photo Gallery, Movie Maker and God knows what other crap.

The software itself is not bad. It obviously connects very well to Microsoft services, but Gmail and Yahoo work as well (like any other IMAP/POP3 account). It’s pretty light and snappy, with an average of 40mb of ram constantly used.

The interface is modern and the level of customization is higher than you’d expect from a free software. The automatic configuration worked very well out of the box and I hadn’t to manually fine tune anything.

If you have few email addresses to manage, WLM is a fine casual email client.

My vote is 2.9/5.

eM Client

em-client-mail-3

eM is the right mid-way between Windows Live Mail and Outlook (both in price and functionality). It’s not the lightest of the software, but still reasonable (around 50-60mb of ram).

They tried to design a modern UI, but it’s rough around the edges. It’s clear that they wanted to be up to date with modern interface paradigms but they are not there yet (it’s very hard actually to find a nicely designed software on Windows).

eM is the only client other than Microsoft ones that connected to outlook/hotmail accounts through the AirSync protocol instead of standard IMAP. This should grant a better integration and synchronization with other Microsoft products and devices.

This was also the source of some difficulties as well, though.

I configured a hotmail account and the junk folder was clearly filled with spam. For some reason the images in those emails were displayed instead of blocked, so I opened a support ticket. Within few minutes they not only replied but also offered to connect via TeamViewer to my PC to try to understand what was going on. I set up a test PC and let them play with it on remote desktop.

We couldn’t understand why this was happening, anyway, if you ever happen to slip into a problem you surely won’t feel left behind. Support is top notch.

I installed Windows Live Mail (which operates on AirSync) and the images in the junk were shown there as well, so it’s probably an issue with the AirSync protocol and not eM client itself. So, eM is working correctly but please keep reading, the story is not over.

Inside the spam there was a virus (Virus:VBS/Ramnit.B). I believe it’s something activated with VBScript. eM Client executed it and Windows Defender blocked it. As soon as I opened eM client again the email database was corrupted and I had no way to repair it. I had to delete the db and start from scratch.

With WLM I hadn’t this issue, the images in the junk were displayed but apparently the virus was not loaded/activated (I triple checked my PC).

Maybe I was just unlucky. I reinstalled eM, cleared all whitelists both locally and on outlook.com, reconfigured the hotmail account and… boom… again! Same virus, database corrupted.

I’m pretty sure mine is an edge case, the client seems solid enough. It supports calendars, contacts and even chat, but for me the constant threat of a corrupted database is too much to bear ?

To get things worst at version 6.x they still don’t support threaded/conversation view, it seems they are promising it for years and the preview of version 7 seems very sweet, but it’s not there yet.

If you have to use outlook/exchange emails, my suggestion is to make some tests with a disposable address before going full throttle. If it works for you and you can live without conversation view, eM is a fine piece of software.

While The Bat! is the best hacker’s tool, eM is probably the best business/corporate tool… if you don’t want to go Outlook.

My vote is 3.4/5.

Thunderbird

This review won’t be long. It is clear that Mozilla doesn’t believe in Thunderbird any more and to my understanding they won’t make substantial updates but only bug fixes (since 2012).

If the software worked that wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately Thunderbird is a conceptually old application which still lacks the most basic functionalities (such as PGP). There are plug-ins that let you do virtually anything (eg: EnigMail), but the software feels slow and buggy. Integration with gmail is sub-optimal and it still suffers of memory leaks.

That being said, it’s probably the best client for casual use. The one you’d suggest to you uncle.

My vote is 3.2/5.

Unfortunately there are not many other alternatives. Mailpile seems very interesting, I even backed the project on Indiegogo, but after a year of development they are still in beta with a v1.0 which lacks quite some important features.

Opera a couple of years ago removed the mail app from the browser and released a stand alone client called Opera Mail, but it’s clearly not at the top of their priorities. The client is polished but lacks many options and hasn’t received any update in 18 months.

If you really live in the past and love that retro look there’s Sylpheed or Claws Mail (that I believe are based upon the same engine). They are both open source and incredibly still under development. They run on GTK so possibly not the most optimized environment for Windows, but they are nice little pieces of software. Just not my cup of tea.

Lastly Postbox. It is a client built over the Thunderbird engine, with even the same plugin system (but TB plugins don’t work out of the box and need to be updated). The interface is more polished and they added some missing features, but the core is the same and you can feel it. The client seems still developed but no important updates have been added recently. Honestly, if you had to use Postbox, you better install Thunderbird with some plug-ins.

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