Yorba released the first
usable version of its desktop email client Geary on May
4. Geary is heavily GNOME-based, but is focused on working well with
popular web-based email providers out of the box. The initial release
boasts considerable UI polish, but only a basic feature set.
Yorba is a relatively young non-profit software project that is
developing several GNOME-centric desktop applications. Arguably the
most well-known of the bunch is the lightweight photo organizer
Shotwell. Geary is the
newest offering, and like its sibling projects it is developed in the
Vala language and uses SQLite
for storage (in Geary's case, that includes offline email cached to
enable full-text searching). It also comes with desktop notifications
to integrate into the GNOME 3 environment.
On the one hand, a skeptic might asked why yet another desktop email
client is necessary for GNOME, when there are so many well-established
options — including the "official" client, Evolution. But that
might be a question fairly leveled at the other Yorba projects, too,
and they have gained popularity among users due to their simplicity.
There is considerable bloat and feature-creep in Evolution,
Thunderbird, and similar email clients. Geary seems designed to do
away with as much of it as possible, starting over with recent GNOME
platform components, and targeting GNOME desktop integration.
In the 0.1 release, Geary offers support for IMAP accounts only, and
the application is limited to one account. The account data is stored
in its own subdirectory under ~/.local/geary/, though, and
multiple accounts are on the roadmap.
The account setup window also comes pre-configured for GMail and Yahoo
Mail accounts, which should suit the needs of a large portion of the
user community. It does support SSL/TLS, but without much control
over the settings — I was unable to get it to connect to
TLS-equipped private mail server, for example.
But supporting multiple server features is clearly not the emphasis
in this release; a lot of work has gone into the presentation of
messages and message conversations themselves. The application window
is split into three columns: one for folders, one for the selected
folder's message threads, and one for the open thread. Geary mimics
GMail's "conversation" view, in which each thread is treated as a
unit; Geary opens the entire thread as one item, with each message
rendered in order in one long, scrollable pane. This is rapidly
becoming the most popular way to render email threads, and it has its
advantages. First, when reading long discussions, you can quickly
scroll through the entire thread without clicking to load every
message. Second, you see more of your inbox in the folder-contents
column, by virtue of having each thread occupy only one list element.
On the other hand, it is easier to get lost in a long thread, and it is more difficult to
leap right to a specific message.
Geary makes this message threading model the only option, and the
three-pane view the only window arrangement. More subtle, but equally
important, is the work that has gone into displaying the messages
themselves. Each email is rendered onto the message canvas like a
sheet of paper, with headers and metadata (such as sender's avatar
images) set off only by font attributes and spacing. The look is
cleaner, and nicer than what Evolution and Thunderbird use, both of which
employ separate GTK+ panes for message content and headers.
There are not a lot of other features to explore in this first
release; you can read, reply to, and forward email. Message
composition is not as smooth as message display — the editor
looks like any other email client's composition window, which is not
something that would be noteworthy except that it breaks with the
slick presentation used for message display. Only HTML email is
supported, and the editor sports an uneven set of editing tools. For
example, your only font size choices are the vague
"Small," "Medium", and "Large,"
but you have the full RGB / HSV color selector wheel to play with. I
doubt I have often needed precise control over my font sizes in
outgoing mail, but I have definitely needed it more often than I have
needed multicolor text. There is a basic spell-checker built-in,
which functions only in as-you-type mode.
What you do not get in this release is support for daily
email tasks beyond message reading: no attachments, no searching, no
filters, and so on. There is also no address book functionality, junk
mail filtering, or encryption. It is clear that at least some of
these tasks are already on the Yorba project's to-do list (hence the
advertisement of SQLite, despite the fact that message searching is
not implemented in 0.1). Thus, it is not a criticism of the project
to point out that these features are absent, it is merely a warning
that the client is not ready for industrial usage.
But I can't help but wonder how much of the "clean and simple" shine
that Geary 0.1 enjoys will rub off as the project is forced to add
more features to the mix (and to the window). For example, right now
the three-pane window is slick, putting message reading
front and center with each thread represented by a minimalist "card"
showing a short message preview and an unread count. But there are
not any columns in that view; it does not take long to realize that
there is no way to sort the messages any way other than date, newest
messages on top. A lot of users will want to sort and re-sort
their mail folders, and it will be challenging to implement without
adding considerable complexity to the clean and simple UI design.
That hurdle gets drastically higher when you start talking about
address book management, or, worst of all, the pinnacle of usability
nightmares that is public key encryption. In short, it is pretty easy
to make a clean and simple user interface when you only implement a
handful of features. What few projects can do is maintain the high
standard of UI design as the feature set expands outward. That is not
simply a theoretical challenge; as Shotwell has added more and more
features, its menus and sidebar have started to fill up, making the
application look more and more like every other photo organizer.
Of course, part of the reason for Yorba's projects is presumably to
develop new code-bases built on top of Vala, GObject, and other modern
GNOME frameworks, so in the long run feature creep is probably not
anathema. At the moment, however, Geary offers a smooth and
lightweight email reading experience. You could adapt
Thunderbird to mimic many of the new application's UI features (via
extensions or optional settings), but of course you do so with a
higher memory footprint and more complexity. So perhaps it is a good
idea to enjoy the simplicity of Geary while it lasts.
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