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Linux Mail Clients Deep Dive: Evolution

E-mail has been around forever, predating even the web. Despite its age, and the continuous influx of new messaging platforms, it remains the most widely employed form of electronic communication. It offers a combination of reliability, ease of use, flexibility, with an open and non-proprietary structure that appeals to both new and seasoned users. When it comes to accessing e-mail the options are numerous and the choice can be deeply personal.

Most e-mail services offer web-based interfaces that can be accessed through any device and with any operating system. While this can provide users with basic functionality, many users require a dedicated mail client for expanded functionality, the ability to review messages offline, and for managing multiple accounts. In this series of reviews, the ItsMOSS team will review the various mail clients available to Linux users and share our experiences.

GNOME Evolution Mail

GNOME Evolution (generally referred to as simply Evolution) is a mature client that has been around for over 20 years. Initially developed by Ximian, it has been free from its inception. It is the default mail client for GNOME, although it is compatible with most other Linux Desktop environments. I have personally used it in Mint Cinnamon, Mint Mate, Manjaro Mate, Lubuntu, and ZorinOS without major issue.

Installation and setup considerations

Evolution is available is most respositories and there is also a flatpak available. It is the default mail client in Debian GNOME and Fedora GNOME. Regardless, finding this application is straightforward for most distros. One thing to bear in mind during installation: if you wish to use Evolution with an exchange/office 365 account then you will need to also make certain it installs exchange-ews, and if it does not, do it yourself.

On first launch, you will be asked to configure one or more mail accounts. POP3 account installation should be as simple as providing a address and a password. Exchange accounts are a little more complicated (see further detail below) but feasible.

Summary of my usage case

I am a very heavy e-mail user both personally and professionally (I am a researcher and university professor). I rely heavily on productivity features like calendar integration and task management.

At the moment I have 8 separate accounts that I use regularly. I have a Hotmail account that I’ve held since before it was owned by Microsoft; it is mostly for spam these days but a number of old friends still use it. I also have a Gmail account (for using the google ecosystem), a ProtonMail account (main personal account), two office365 accounts for work, a POP3 account from my internet service provider (rarely used except for billing), and an account for a professional organization that I volunteer with which I hold temporarily while I sit on the board of directors. Given the breadth of accounts I monitor at any given time, web-based solutions are not appealing and I require a dedicated client. For the past 15 years, that has been Microsoft Outlook; before that I used Lotus Notes and, initially, Eudora.

Regular readers may remember from my February article on Office Suites that finding a replacement for Microsoft Outlook was a major priority for a permanent switch to Linux. So I enter this exercise with this as my main focus.

User Experience

Anyone who has experience using Microsoft Outlook will instantly feel at home with Evolution. The layout is very similar with the account list and mailboxes on the left with a message pane and preview window to the right. The preview window can be re-arranged in the settings menu (again with options very similar to Outlook). Below the account list you will find tabs to access mail, contacts, calendar, tasks, and memo’s similar to what you would see in Outlook. I actually find these tabs more intuitive and easier to navigate than the current Outlook setup.

This similarity to Outlook permeates absolutely everything about Evolution. The signatures feature (accessible under edit, preferences, composer preferences) is almost identical to Outlook and most basic functions (including folder management and flagging of messages) are functionally equivalent. One difference in basic functionality is in forwarded messages. In Outlook you have the option of the message being included in-line in the text. Evolution is similar to earlier versions of Outlook where the forwarded message is included as a separate attachment. Another minor issue is when you receive e-mails from outside your time zone it does not automatically convert, so if I receive an e-mail from Australia it sometimes appears as if it arrived “tomorrow”. Outside of these minor considerations I find the functionality to be near equivalent.

In looking through reviews of Evolution there seem to be two schools of thought on the similarity to Outlook. Some people are turned off by this, wanting nothing to do with Microsoft whatsoever. Others, like myself, appreciate the familiarity which eases the transition process. Much like LibreOffice this an application that you can give to longtime Office users and have them “up and running” reasonably quickly. The learning curve is not what one would face (for example) when switching from Adobe Photoshop to GIMP.

The primary difference between Evolution and Outlook isn’t actually in the features but in the integration of other applications. There is no Teams or OneNote plugin; Zoom integration is also incomplete (i.e saving a meeting opens an e-mail with the invitation details but it does not embed into your calendar automatically). This is true for most e-mail clients in Linux, although Thunderbird does play nice with Zoom and can expand functionality with various plug-ins. Unlike Thunderbird, Evolution does not really have a “plug-in” culture to change appearance or expand functionality. It does have a list of plug-ins under the edit menu but these are fairly limited and there is no download centre like you would see with Thunderbird or Firefox. This does mean that appearance and features are limited to what is available within the application. For most users I think that this will be fine.

The calendar and task integration in Evolution is quite strong compared to other options on Linux. It allows for multiple calendars including Exchange, google, nextcloud etc… and you can choose which ones to display at a given time by checkbox as in Outlook. One papercut issue with the calendar right now is that calendar entries are in plain text rather than HTML. So if there is a link in the invitation (say a Microsoft Teams invitation) then you have to copy and paste it into a browser rather than clicking on the link.

Exchange Integration:

When considering mail clients on Linux there are a variety of options, but when exchange/office 365 is a requirement then the options become quite limited. In fact, as best I can tell, Evolution Mail is the only client on Linux that offers the ability to manage exchange mail and calendars without any associated costs. Mailspring can synch exchange mail but has no calendar integration, Thunderbird requires a plug-in (OWL) that costs ~$10 USD per year, and Hiri is a proprietary software that costs money (it also appears to be no longer in development).

So in many ways Evolution is the logical choice for anyone using an exchange server. However it is not without its challenges. First, as mentioned above, you must make sure that you have installed the evolution-ews package. Second, is that adding an account is slightly more complicated then simply adding the address and password. It can be as simple as manually adding a “host URL” such as is seen in this example:

https://www.eduhk.hk/ocio/content/faq-configure-evolution-access-office-365

However it can also require providing a bit more information (tenant and application IDs…) that may require contacting your system administrator or working with Azure yourself. For such cases the Evolution wiki instructions are clear and accurate (if slightly complex):

https://wiki.gnome.org/Apps/Evolution/EWS/OAuth2.

Which method is necessary depends on how the server is configured by your company/institution but using one of the two approaches you should be able to confirm your account via your preferred 2FA method and then be up and running.

If you absolutely require exchange but the above procedures sound too complicated for you then I would encourage you to consider Thunderbird with the OWL plug-in. It costs $10/yr but once the plug-in is installed then configuration is as simple as providing a log-in and password (and 2FA).

The Verdict

Choice of mail client will always be dependent upon your use case. If you are only interested in receiving mail from a single POP account and do not require a calendar then you may be interested in a lighter client such as Claws or Geary (I will have write-ups for these clients in the future). However if you a heavier user, require calendar and exchange integration then Evolution should be on your radar.

For me, Evolution was really the final domino to fall in my switch to Linux. If you have any affinity for Outlook then you will instantly feel at home with this powerful and intuitive e-mail client. In my opinion it offers greater functionality than most Linux mail clients and better visual appeal and free exchange integration compared with Thunderbird (the only real competitor from a business/productivity standpoint).

I will take my position one step further: it is time to make Evolution the default client in major Linux distributions. Thunderbird (the most common choice) looks like it crawled out of 2003, does not have exchange integration out of the box, and even when you have exchange configured, generating a professional signature is time consuming and complicated. Other clients lack adequate calendar integration or the ability to add all of your accounts. As it stands right now, new Linux users who prefer a powerful mail client will be left longing for Outlook and either switch to a web-based interface or leave Linux altogether. Evolution offers new users familiarity and functionality that could ease the transition. I know from experience: a year ago I was that person and it wasn’t until I found Evolution that I truly felt ready to switch full-time. The impact on experienced users should be minimal since they are either entrenched in Thunderbird/Geary/Claws, using a web interface, or doing e-mail via their phones. Asking them to install their preferred client after the fact shouldn’t be an issue.

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