Another look at KDE Plasma's email client

KMail Revisited

Photo by Mariia Shalabaieva on Unsplash

Photo by Mariia Shalabaieva on Unsplash


KMail offers a rich feature set, but a number of minor nuisances persist, making it a less than ideal email client.

When KDE Plasma became my main desktop environment 15 years ago, I switched my email from Evolution to KMail (Figure 1). At first, I was impressed. Even back then, KMail was a mature application, with more features than most other alternatives. However, mounting problems, including security difficulties that locked me out of my account, eventually made me a happy user of Claws Mail for over a decade. But when an upgrade to Debian 12 left Claws Mail dysfunctional for obscure reasons, I decided to save some troubleshooting and give KMail another try. Surely, I thought, in the intervening years, KMail had corrected its problems.

Figure 1: KMail is a full-featured email client featuring automation and ease of use.

The Feature Set: Part of the Story

At its best, KMail combines automation with a well-considered feature set. Naturally, it includes standard features for email clients, such as a signature file and a spell check, but KMail’s standard features are designed to be understandable at a glance, while often offering a variety of choices. For example, the default pane for displaying emails provides another level of organization by displaying the date emails were received on a separate line, providing much-needed space for the subject and sender fields. However, a dozen sorting criteria are available for the emails themselves and can be easily changed if necessary (Figure 2). Emails can also be displayed separately or in threads that can be expanded or collapsed as needed.

Figure 2: Available sort options for emails.

KMail also includes numerous small items that are rare, if not unique in email clients. Some of these include separate identities for accounts and the export of emails to PDF for storage, the ability to resize images in either JPEG or PNG format, and the ability to set out-of-office replies and disable emoticons for those who are serious minded. Two especially useful features are the ability to identify mailing lists and automatically unsubscribe with a couple of clicks.

In fact, many of KMail’s features are set up with a minimum of clicks. For example, while many email clients require users to enter detailed information to set up email, the first time KMail is run, users need only to enter their email and password, and KMail does the rest, doing its best to search for the required information (Figure 3). Its success likely depends on the Internet provider’s visibility, but in my case, KMail found the POP and SMTP server and their ports in less than three minutes, without any input from me. Similarly where Thunderbird provides a wizard or manual setup for encryption, KMail asks only for a passphrase and does the rest itself (Figure 4). Concise wizards are also available for spam and virus filters (Figure 5).

Figure 3: KMail sets up new accounts with minimal input.
Figure 4: KMail does most of the work of generating encryption keys. Users mostly need to wait.
Figure 5: KMail’s wizards add greatly to ease of use. Shown here is the Anti-Spam wizard.

The complete feature list is too long to mention here, and only the basics are offered in the online KMail Handbook (Figure 6). However, to summarize, much of the time KMail provides enough features to satisfy advanced users with enough clarity of design to bring new users quickly up to speed. DIYers might complain that KMail often keeps them from hands-on control, but another perspective is that KMail relieves experts from the drudgery of tasks that they already know how to do, such as waving the cursor about to generate enough randomness for an encryption key. By the feature set alone, KMail is another example of the outstanding applications that have come out of KDE such as digiKam, Clementine, and Krita.

Figure 6: The KMail Handbook introduces basics, but does not provide workarounds for longtime problems.

The Rest of the Story

Unfortunately, the feature set is only part of the story. Despite the thoroughness of KMail’s features and their ease of use, many of the problems that caused me to flee to Claws Mail persist. I could live with minor annoyances, such as the continued display of the last deleted email, or minor nuisances like the labelling of the message pane of the current email as plain text or HTML, as if the format was not obvious at a glance. Similarly, I can overlook such defaults as the color-coding of messages, which seems too complicated and of too little value to be worth memorizing. However, others seriously undermine functionality.

To start with, interactions with KWallet, Plasma’s password manager, continue to be erratic, no matter how carefully KWallet is configured. Unsurprisingly, a web search reveals numerous complaints as well as solutions, most of which involved disabling KWallet in one way or the other. Unfortunately, Plasma is dependent on KWallet so it cannot be deleted, but one solution is to leave the password for KWallet in KMail blank, so you cannot be locked out when a crash occurs. Another is to uncheck KWallet Manager | Wallet Preferences | Enable the KDE Wallet System, which can also be done by setting Enabled=false in ~/.config/kwalletrc. Unfortunately, all these solutions mean that the passwords to all email accounts are stored unencrypted by default. The problem is with KWallet, rather than KMail, but why is no convenient alternative available for this longstanding problem?

Similarly, KMail appears to have a persistent problem with Akonadi that results in two copies of the same message appearing in folders you create, although never in the inbox. These duplicates cannot be removed, and both usually remain when KMail is restarted. Sometimes, one can be deleted, but the only way to reliably delete both is to delete their folder and recreate it, a solution that is inelegant, to say the least.

Still another major inconvenience is KMail’s slow processing of downloaded messages. Granted, the slowness is due to thorough checks for spam and viruses, but other email browsers are nowhere near as slow. The first download of emails in the morning can take as long as five minutes, and, if the unwary begins to delete read messages, the process simply takes longer. Moreover, the only clue that it is not finished is the number of unread messages after the folder name compared to the number displayed, which is confused even more by the duplicate messages. The only workaround is to start the download and return 15 minutes later, by which time it should be complete.

Do you see a pattern? None of these annoyances are crippling, but each requires that users adapt their habits to KMail, rather than work in the way they would probably prefer. I suspect that, for many users, that is simply unacceptable.

Same as the Old Boss

In other words, not much has changed since my last venture into KMail. Just like before, I was initially impressed, but rapidly discouraged from continued use. KMail, I conclude, is an exception to KDE’s usual high standards. True, developers today seem aware of the persistent problems, but either they will not or cannot address them, possibly because of the difficulty in coordinating with other app developers. Either way, my search continues for an alternative that is equally full-featured and easy to use.

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