2006-12-22

Review: Evolution 2.8.1

It's strange to think that just ten years ago, Linux wasn't really useful to me. It didn't have a decent web browser, it didn't have a decent Java VM, and it didn't have a decent mailer. Even if there had been some kind of killer app, I still couldn't seriously have used it. Sun fixed Linux's Java VM woes (and soon we'll know no-one will be able to take it away from us, either), Firefox fixed Linux's web browser woes, and, well, Linux still doesn't have a decent mailer.

A friend has been fighting Thunderbird lately, and since I've been trying to use my Linux box more and my Mac less (because largely giving up the Mac to my girlfriend seems easier than inflicting Linux on her), I thought I'd give Evolution another go.

It's been a while since I last used Evolution. I hated it last time, and stuck with it for less than a week. (I tried Thunderbird the week after, and it lasted about as long.) I've been through three different Ubuntu releases since then, and it seemed like time to try again.

Installation was free; Ubuntu ships with Evolution installed, and there's a little envelope with a clock on it in the GNOME panel. I don't know why there's a clock. Maybe to remind you that Evolution is really slow? Or that you'll sit around waiting a lot while it's locked up? Truth in advertising.

Configuration wasn't bad. The buttons to "Check for Supported Types" when choosing authentication for receiving and sending mail didn't work at this point, so I guessed, but guessed wrong. Luckily, when you're then presented with a barrage of errors (that don't offer to take you to the preferences dialog, even despite the fact that this is your first attempt to connect) and make your way to the preferences dialog, those same buttons now work, and draw a line through the options that your server doesn't support.

So now I was set.

Evolution didn't like my mail server's certificate. I had to manually download and install the certificate from cacert.org before Evolution would stop informing me "Signature: BAD". I'm sure it could usefully have been a little more specific there. As my friend says, "for some reason Free [software authors] don't think security should be free". The certificate installation process was a little odd, too. The "Certificates" icon in the preferences dialog was noticeably lower-resolution than the others, and scaled up. When I chose to open my downloaded certificate from the open dialog, another dialog appeared in the top left corner of the display; dragging it to the middle of the display revealed that this new dialog was actually below the old open dialog in the z-order. When I finally had the certificate installed, it wasn't obvious that it was installed because it appeared under "Root CA" (rather than the "CAcert" I was expecting) and Evolution made no attempt to highlight the newly-added entry in the list (or even ensure that it was showing).

So now I was really set.

Disappointingly, Evolution makes no attempt to actually go and get your mail. I manually checked "Copy folder content locally for offline operation" in the INBOX folder properties, but that neither causes it to automatically download message bodies and attachments until I view them, nor does it actually seem to obviate the need for Evolution to block while it goes to the network every time I click on a message. The status bar says "Retrieving message 2345 (...)". I don't know what the ellipsis means, nor why it's in parentheses. Maybe it's some kind of emoticon I'm not familiar with. Going off-line is faster when you've got fewer new mails for it to cache, but still: why isn't this happening automatically in the background?

When I am shown message content, for reasons known only to itself Evolution will sometimes position the scroll-bar as if I'm already well into the message. So I manually scroll back to the top so that I can read the beginning. Apple's Mail does this too, but very rarely. Evolution is already, after less than a day, really wearing my patience thin. (This turns out to be the fault of "Caret Mode", which can be enabled or disabled on the view menu. Caret mode does not, despite what I'd hoped, allow me to edit messages in my inbox.)

CSS support in HTML mail continues to be lacking. I wondered why Netflix's mail still looked right, even though my commit mails look wrong. "View Source" suggests it's because they're doing everything with tables and bgcolor attributes and images, presumably because they found that mailers don't do CSS very well.

If you tell Evolution you want to work offline, only at that point does it decide that it needs to start "Preparing folder 'INBOX' for offline (1% complete)", and then slowly start downloading messages. Despite the fact that it's been online for almost 24 hours now. No, it won't cache anything until the very moment you tell it you're going off-line. Obviously no-one ever does that when they're in a hurry; that's probably not even a feature laptop users have any call for. Anyway, once you've done this, Evolution's performance sucks a lot less. But this is tiresomely manual.

(On a similar note, when does Evolution actually get rid of junk mail? I flagged a mail as junk 12 hours ago, and although I can't see it in Evolution, Apple's Mail shows me it's still there. Am I really destined to end up this time next year with an INBOX carefully storing every junk mail I ever received, on the mail server?)

On the bright side, I'd forgotten how much I like Evolution's attachment handling. I really like their inline display, and the fact that they still have them conveniently collected at the top of the mail.

Mail editing is a bit strange. For some reason, when I reply, my text is wrapped; I don't know if it's soft or hard wrapped because I haven't checked. If Evolution crashes or has to be killed (and remember, this is my first day back using Evolution; it's been a long time since Apple's Mail or even MS Outlook last crashed on me or ran amok), and I start editing the last saved draft, my text is no longer wrapped.

Editing quoted text is pretty good; better than I remember it being in the past. It's more transparent than most mailers, and its behavior is less surprising. It also doesn't seem to mangle long lines when it quotes them, which I'm sure used to be one of my complaints. It's not as good for HTML messages as plain text, where its behavior is every bit as opaque and surprising as other mailers. Worse, I haven't found a way to convert a reply to plain text, which is my usual work-around.

The spelling checking continues to be fine.

While I was editing one reply, Evolution decided it needed all my physical memory. This made my computer understandably unhappy, and I ended up using control-alt-f1 to log in on the console and kill it. (By the time I accepted that it wasn't going to just come back of its own accord, it had already made the desktop completely unresponsive.) Again, not an awesome first impression, and it wasn't like I was doing anything fancy.

Search is poor. It isn't as-you-type, and there's no progress feedback while it searches. It feels like someone should buy these C programmers a second thread. It's reasonably fast now I've manually "prepared folder 'INBOX' for offline" (whatever that means), but it's not impressively fast; not as fast as it ought to be with as small an inbox as I have at home.

In summary, Evolution 2.8.1 is very slightly better than the last version I used, which I think was 2.6, and it's not bad enough that I'm uninstalling it as I write, but it do wish something decent would come along and put it (and me) out of its misery.