Outlook has been copping some heat lately, largely for attracting virus writers, while Thunderbird has been getting all of the good press. We examine the two products, and other e-mail clients available today, so you can see if replacing Outlook really is an option.
If you are setting up a new office, updating or upgrading, or even trying to save some money, it can be worthwhile looking at your options for your e-mail client software.
Many people won't give much thought to e-mail client software, thinking "I use Outlook Express -- it came with Windows." or "I am a Mac user, I will use the standard Mail package". But a business cannot really afford such a laissez-faire attitude toward its computer operating system. What a business should be thinking is: what features do we need from our e-mail software? Do we need integrated e-mail/organiser software? How vulnerable is the software to malicious attacks? How much are we willing to pay for something different?
In this review you will find e-mail packages that run the gamut of options.
Some of the packages reviewed are more than simple electronic mail facilitators (such as Barca, the Bat, Outlook, Eudora, and Lotus Notes), and some are complete personal information manager's (PIM's) that include calendar, planner, and diary functions. Others are pure, plain-and-simple, e-mail clients. In fact, the programs we reviewed that are purely e-mail programs, are actually free.
"Wait a minute!" I hear you say. "Free software? What's the catch? Advertising, poor quality?" Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is often simple altruism (yes, it does exist). Pine and Pegasus, for example, are the products of university staff who have perceived a need at their local campus. Having arrived at a solution the creators apparently saw no reason why others shouldn't benefit from this work, and as such both programs are available for free download.
Equally, Mozilla Thunderbird is part of the Open Source project which operates from similar ideals. Open source programs are available to all for free distribution and even modification -- since the original source code is available. Pine and Pegasus are not open source in this sense. The fourth free product is Calypso and this is another kettle of fish. It was shareware, but became freeware when a later version became available. If you like this version you might like to pay for the next one.
Avoiding e-mail worms
It is a sad fact of life that we are being constantly bombarded with e-mail viruses, worms, and Web bugs. These critters are designed to either damage computer systems or to spy on us to determine our browsing habits, or, even worse, to seek out passwords and other private data stored on our machines. The manufacturers of all the reviewed software are very much conscious of security issues.
Another method of stopping e-mail viruses is HTML stripping. This is a process by which HTML tags with the capacity to interact with system functions are removed -- leaving only the formatted text of the message.
Scripted viruses such as these are particularly insidious because the user does not have to activate the virus in anyway (say by opening an attachment). Simply viewing the message exposes the computer to the troublesome code -- which may then activate an attachment of it's own accord.
Virus scanners are generally capable of checking incoming and outgoing e-mails for viruses. Make sure yours is up to date!
If you are infected by a virus it will probably head straight for your address book and spread itself to all your clients, colleagues, and friends. Again, the effectiveness of this may depend on the format of the address file. Address books may be encrypted or an unusual format may stump a marauding code segment.
There may be something to be said for choosing a lesser-known software package. Consider the amount of malicious code designed specifically to invade Microsoft products. This is not necessarily a condemnation of Microsoft, it is just that they happen to be the biggest target around -- and it's true, there are those that don't like the company. By being a little unorthodox you can avoid a whole lot of trouble. But be careful in the package that you pick. Swapping to Thunderbird shouldn't be a problem, however if you swapped to an e-mail client like Calypso you would have to manually re-enter all of your addresses.
One last security issue is the protection of the message itself. Hackers could potentially intercept sensitive messages being sent from or received by your computer. Message encryption can be applied by software familiar with the S/MIME protocol.
Scratching for Support
Suppliers of freeware generally cannot offer the kind of technical support that companies like Microsoft and IBM can offer, however support still exists. A quick search of the Net will uncover at least one news group devoted to your favourite e-mail client or even an e-mail address linked to volunteer technical staff. Unfortunately, you probably won't be able to call by phone and ask for step-by-step instructions to solve your problem.
Barca PocoSystem's Barca is a full, integrated personal organiser includes planner, diary, and calendar and also comes with the PocoMail e-mail client. The user interface is flexible, functional, and fashionable. You can view your schedule by hour, day, week, or month. It comes complete with its own scripting language, PocoScript, which can be used to create complex macros for processing or filtering incoming or outgoing mail. PocoMail supports emoticons and auto-complete addressing, and the dictionary is available in a range of languages. Security controls include HTML stripping, inability to read scripts (other than PocoScript), and mailbox encryption. It is also immume to jpeg borne viruses. Mailboxes and address books use standard formatting, RFC822 and CSV respectively, to allow easy conversion from your existing client software.
Calypso Now the property of Rose City Software, Calypso was originally developed by Micro Computer Systems. While the version tested here is freeware, the next version -- Courier 3.5 is Shareware (you can purchase Courier for about AU$40 if 3.3 is your choice). The user interface is reasonably attractive but nothing exotic. The idea was to produce an e-mail client with all the things you really need without a bunch of unnecessary bells and whistles. Calypso's mailbox format is purposely different to the various standard formats in order to offer protection from worms. Unfortunately, this also means you will need to transfer any addresses from your existing e-mail client to Calypso manually. Calypso still comes with handy e-mail features that we all know and love, such as auto-response messages, message templates, and spell check -- the latter supports multiple languages. The toolbar can be customised, and Calypso also offers mail filtering, optional HTML support, and address auto-completion. PGP encryption support is available, but it only runs on Microsoft Windows, and requires 6MB of disk space.
Eudora Eudora is available in three versions: Paid -- full technical support and includes Spamwatch; Sponsored -- free, but with advertising (no Spamwatch or tech support); and Light -- free, no ads or tech support, but with fewer features. Eudora is strictly e-mail -- it doesn't have diary or calendar functions, but it does have a full set of features for e-mail editing, filtering, and filing. The online spell checker comes in US English, but dictionaries are available in UK English and other European languages. The written manual needs to be downloaded in PDF format -- the hardcopy is no longer available, so you will need to print out your own copy. As for security, Scamwatch and Spamwatch protect you from dodgy Web sites and junkmail respectively. Secure socket layers provide message protection, and you can choose whether to allow scripts, and so on, to be active in incoming HTML e-mail. Other features include emoticons, auto-complete names and addresses, and tools to improve the quality of your language. The user interface is attractive, but (and this applies to other products as well) you will probably want to user smaller icons on the toolbar to avoid wrapping and reduced work space. While the system requirements specified say that only 9MB are required, the installation program claimed 18MB were required. Eudora is for Windows and Macintosh users.
Lotus Notes IBM distribute this full featured e-mail client and personal organiser package. It has a calendar, planner (showing day, week, or month), to do list, and meeting list. IBM keenly informed us that instant messaging is now included with Notes. This feature allows users to see which of their colleagues or friends are currently online and initiate a "chat" or text meetings with multiple people (assuming they have the same software). Other collaboration tools are optional -- AU$224 with, AU$161 without. Messages can be digitally signed and encrypted, address books can also be encrypted. Users have the option of blocking Java Applets and scripts in e-mails. Lotus can import data from word-processors and spreadsheets and can handle a wide range of graphics files. The dictionaries for the spell checker come in English versions that include New Zealand, Jamaica, and even a medical dictionary, but somehow manages to miss Australia. Lotus also has mailbox searching abilities, and clever users may be able to develop suitable macros -- called Agents by Lotus -- for mail merge and other tasks. As usual Lotus does not scrimp on pretty graphics for the user interface. Lotus prefers 128MB of RAM and twice that in disk space. It will run on Windows or Mac operating systems. Editor's Note: This review has been updated. Lotus Notes comes with mailbox search functions.
Outlook Microsoft Outlook is a complete e-mail client and personal information manager consisting of calendar(s) (including "team calendars" to assist meeting scheduling), daily/weekly planner, to do list, and notes. Naturally it integrates with other Microsoft office products; mail merging works only in conjunction with MS Word. Outlook comes with all the shared functions of Microsoft Office including file converters and tools for proofing and graphing. Various dictionary versions are available. Digital signing and message encryption are available naturally, as are mail filtering and options for controlling whether scripts and other potentially nasty attachments and HTML inclusions are allowed to operate. Mail and other messages can be searched according to criteria such as sender and content. Automated tasks can be arranged using Visual Basic macros. Address books can only be imported and exported in VCard format, but most other applications read this format -- except for those packages that make a point of being different for security purposes. Of course, this is a Windows-only package. It requires 128MB of RAM and at least 150MB of disk space.
Pegasus David Harris was an early pioneer of client e-mail applications and his software remains a very up-to-date package. It has good network support, particularly for Novell Netware. When combined with Pegasus' Mercury Mail Transport System, you have a complete mail server and mail management service. This software is well presented and big on security. Its features include mail merge and PGP encryption. Pegasus has state-of-the-art rule-based mail filtering and script blocking. The spell checker comes with UK and US dictionaries plus user additions. This product competes very well with its competitors. While the software itself is free, you may choose to purchase an hardcopy manual and technical support (which is how Pegasus stays airborne). Two newsgroups dedicated to Pegasus also exist. All of its features are packed into a very small bundle; required disk space is only 8MB and 4MB for RAM. This is an excellent option for Windows users.
PC Pine No fancy user interface here. Pine was designed by the University of Washington for the university. Originally created for the Unix environment, it is the only option for Unix users amongst the nine products being considered. Although the Windows version trialled had mouse support, this is basically a keyboard-driven text-based program. The versions for MacOS, OS/2, and Solaris are developed independently of Washington University, so don't expect backup from that institution. Commands require single keystrokes. It has all the basic e-mail functions. The spelling facility is only available to Unix users, but Windows users would probably choose a different package anyway.
The Bat The Bat, by RITLabs, comes with a semi-separate program called Smart Bat which has calendar, schedule and notepad functions. Smart Bat opens in a separate window. The Bat has mailbox searching and a park facility which prevents important messages from being moved or deleted. Other features include mailbox searching, message threading and filtering and spell checker. PGP encryption is supported. Advanced macro creation allows functions such as mail-merging and auto-response to be developed by the user. PGP is supported and the user can specify exactly what type of mail attachments are to be blocked. A wide range of address book formats can be imported into the Bat. The help file is actually helpful and easy to use. Editions exist for the Windows operating system only. Requires 23MB of disk space.
Mozilla Thunderbird An open source application with lots of add- ons available for download at the Mozilla Web site. Mozilla's offering does not include organiser functions, but it does have spell checking, PGP encryption, adaptive mail filters, and optional script blocking. The Web-based help files are a continually evolving project and a little bit different from your usual help files. Open source fanatics are continuing to develop support for this software (and the software itself) and online forums can be accessed via the mozillaZine site. Being open source, if you have the right technical support you can adjust Thunderbird in any way you like to suit your needs. Add-ons available on the Internet include: calendar, calculator, search tools, buttons, and a macro editor (to name a few). Thunderbird is available in versions to suit the Windows, Linux, OS/2, Solaris, and MacOS platforms. Various language versions are also available including Dutch, Korean, and Turkish. It requires 50-70MB of disk space.
Ultimately, there is no single "best product". You need to consider every aspect of your business' needs before making a decision. What can you afford to spend? (When considering prices note that multiple user licenses may work out to be less expensive.) Are all your machines running the same operating system? Do you need to import existing data? Are you already committed to a single vendors e-mail server solution which "value adds features" to their e-mail client software (more on e-mail server software in the coming months). Certain types of security may be less critical to your situation. Don't pay for for features you don't need. Whatever e-mail product you end up choosing, it is very likely it will be a compromise.
Editor's choice: Thunderbird
Price is always going to sway my opinion and so I'm inclined to choose a freeware product. I rather think that Mozilla Thunderbird has a great future ahead of it. Add-on features already include a calendar and macro editor -- how long until Mozilla have a fully fledged PIM? Thunderbird is also available for a wide range of platforms (rivalled only by Pine). I think I'll keep a copy! This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
About RMIT IT Test Labs RMIT IT Test Labs is an independent testing institution based in Melbourne, Victoria, performing IT product testing for clients such as IBM, Coles-Myer, and a wide variety of government bodies. In the Labs' testing for T&B, they are in direct contact with the clients supplying products and the magazine is responsible for the full cost of the testing. The findings are the Labs' own -- only the specifications of the products to be tested are provided by the magazine. For more information on RMIT, please contact the Lab Manager, Steven Turvey.