Towards a better webmail experience

I've got a Linux server that runs on my ADSL connection at home, with a dynamic DNS address so that I can always reach it at the same URL.

The server fetches my email from a number of accounts (I think I'm up to eight), washes it through SpamAssassin to filter the junk, and then sits waiting for me to look at it.

For a number of years, I've run SquirrelMail running on Apache/PHP on the server to enable me to connect and manage my mail over the web. To be honest, this works fine. Recently though, having used GMail and knowing about enhancements to Yahoo! Mail and what-used-to-be-Hotmail, I wondered whether there might be any AJAX-y goodness in the pipeline for SquirrelMail, so I went searching.

I found RoundCube.

RoundCube is pretty funky. Go check the screenshots. It provides a much more application-style interface to my mail, featuring double-click to view, drag-and-drop to move. It is in beta, whereas SquirrelMail is a more mature offering – but it works, and is functional.

Like SquirrelMail, it also runs on Apache/PHP, but also requires a DB backend… I have MySQL sitting on the box supporting a WordPress installation, so that was straightforward, although just another dependency.

I used a combination of a couple of installation guides to get myself up-and-running:

Some general comments….

The documentation is sketchy. The general rule where I've seen users asking for for a user guide is "play with it and see!". This is a bit of a problem, since at the moment I don't see any information on how to DELETE mail. I can see a button that lets me move mail to the Trash, but not to delete it.
Update: actually, I just found it. When you are in the Trash / Deleted Items folder, you need to click Empty at the bottom of the folder list. This makes sense. I'm just dim…

The IMAP folders need to be called Sent, Trash, Drafts (and I think, Junk, although I don't have this configured right now) in order to be shown as special folders in the left-hand sidebar. I used to have SquirrelMail-default names of sentbox, draftbox, etc. and I had to change them in order to get RoundCube to display them with the correct icons.

It seems slower than SquirrelMail, which is not entirely surprising since it has a richer UI.

It doesn't appear to have a plugin architecture, although it might exist and I've just not seen evidence of it. Not sure how complex it would be to extend the application. SquirrelMail has a lot of plugins.

There's a nifty-looking address book, with an export feature, but I don't see an import option…

The range of configuration options seems much more limited than SquirrelMail, but then this is a much newer application and is probably aimed at users with more straightforward requirements. Do I need to be able to specify the text wrap options, HTML display options, etc.? In some ways yes, but if the application has sensible defaults, maybe not.

After reading back over my thoughts, it looks like I'm fairly biased in favour of the "old faithful" SquirrelMail option. Not necessarily. RoundCube is in early development, but it works well, so the future could be very bright indeed. I've got both tools installed, so I'm going to perservere with RoundCube for a while and see how I get on. If you need to have a webmail service of your own, I'd encourage you to give RoundCube a try. You might like it! 🙂

Some other reviews:

2 thoughts on “Towards a better webmail experience”

  1. Thanks for the tip, Brett. I’ll take a closer look.

    So far I’m fairly happy with Roundcube, but I’m finding the performance (particularly over 3G/dialup connections as opposed to WLAN) is not so great. It seems to work pretty well, though.

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