No, I’m not kidding.

Some time ago I had occasion, nay, the need to find an alternative to GMail’s wonderful email interface. No, it had nothing to do with Snowden/CIA leaks or the fear that someone was spying on my correspondences. Along the way, I experimented with Yahoo Mail, Microsoft Exchange on the Mac, Apple Mail, Airmail, and mutt.

You know what? They all kind of suck. Maybe I’ve been too trained by GMail’s paradigms, to be able to “tag” emails as opposed to filing them away into folders. Or the ability to do almost everything with keyboard shortcuts (this is perhaps the biggest time saver for me), and find anything with an expressive search language.

Yahoo Mail

Let’s start with Yahoo Mail. This venerable email service has been around for years. I still know former colleagues who swear by their email addresses. Recently, Yahoo refreshed their Mail product, and I believe it’s generally better for it.

The old version had these annoying tabs. Which, if the internet is to be believed, people loved. OK, you’re entitled to your own opinion. But the keyboard shortcuts…dear god. Arrow keys? I mean, they’re (mostly) there, but they’re really annoying. I’m an ardent vim user, but even emacs-style shortcuts would be an improvement here.

They finally added conversations. Now, tabs + conversations could be a neat feature differentiator from GMail, and I can see that being useful.

Microsoft Exchange

Eww. Terrible keyboard shortcuts (or flat-out non-existent ones), an excessively spammy notification system, and massive bloat. Oh yeah, one time it asked if I wanted to update Microsoft Office. I said yes. IT CLOSED ALL MY BROWSERS. WHAT.


I’ll be honest here. I don’t understand the hype. Maybe all this is invalid, because I was testing with a beta version. I leapt for joy at the mention of GMail-style keyboard shortcuts. I had such high hopes for you, Airmail. But those shortcuts? They don’t work quite right. Jump to the search bar, type something in, hit enter. Search results show up. But your keyboard focus is still in the search bar. How do you jump out? Honestly, Airmail is quite nice, but wasn’t quite what I wanted. I’m willing to keep an eye on it.


Old faithful. I spent a good few weeks on mutt, to force myself to learn to use it. The old Unix tools were never that user-friendly, but certainly powerful. Setup took hours, and for the most part I was following Steve Losh’s excellent guide.

I got a kick out of composing emails on the terminal with vim, or piping HTML emails through lynx. But there are a few problems with that. If you ever have to deal with corporate email users, “inline” responses with highlights are fairly commonplace. Status reports in graph form are visually easy to digest. Neither of those come across really well via text, and jumping into a browser to view them felt like a jarring context switch.

I really wanted to like mutt. I still dream of a modern mutt, with modern GUI elements. These were some of the bigger annoyances, for me:

And so, finally, I caved to the fact that I’m just not that 1337 and put mutt usage on hold for the time being.

Apple Mail (or what I’m unhappily using now)

Blazing fast search, a pleasant UI, easy connection with an Exchange server (as you might’ve guessed, considering I mentioned Exchange/Outlook above). BUT, keyboard shortcut support is terrible. Amazingly, there’s a shortcut for attaching a file (which GMail surpisingly lacks). Unfortunately, insists on adding an icon, or even a preview of the attached item inline. It’s really distracting when composing email.

But ultimately, I liked enough of what I saw (and the fact that it’s native to all Macs helps) that I tried to fix the shortcut issue. Enter GMailinator! It’s far from complete, and I’d love for people to contribute and submit pull requests, but it already makes working with much, much better.

But seriously…

If your email workflow isn’t as heavily keyboard-driven, you may not take issue with most of these email clients. I admittedly had very specific criteria. I’d definitely keep an eye out for Airmail, and perhaps Yahoo Mail. There are also other self-hosted webmail clients out there. Mailpile recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, and product looks like it’ll be gorgeous. Finally, if someone wants to take another stab at converting me to mutt, I’d be more than happy to entertain them.