I've spent the last several months trying to figure out, once and for all, my perfect email system. All my email is in Gmail, but there were certain things I didn't love about using Gmail – the offline features are hit-or-miss, there's no reading pane, and a few notably missing keyboard shortcuts caused me some problems.
Other than that, though, Gmail had a ton to offer – integration with my Google Calendar, the ability to send and receive emails from a number of different accounts, and ubiquitous access to my updated email inbox from any computer.
My ultimate solution has been not one or the other, desktop or web-based, but both. Gmail is still my hub for email, but when I'm at my own computer, I'm in Thunderbird, Mozilla's fantastic and free desktop email client. Thanks to five great add-ons, Thunderbird is able to capture almost all of the features of of Web-based Gmail, and add a couple of capabilities of its own.
Lightning/Provider for Google Calendar
One of the great things about Gmail is that, through Gmail Labs, you can put your calendar right in the sidebar next to your email. Adding and viewing calendar events is easy, and Gmail even tries to guess when someone suggests an event for you by email, and lets you put it automatically in your calendar.
All this can be replicated, and in my opinion improved, by using a couple great Thunderbird add-ons. The first is Lightning, which adds a calendar into Thunderbird, making it more of a personal information manager than just an email client. Then, by installing Provider for Google Calendar, you'll be able to sync your Lightning calendar back and forth with Google Calendar. That way, it's always available online, but looks and feels just like a desktop calendar within Thunderbird.
Zindus is basically just like Lightning, but for your Google contacts. Zindus automatically syncs your Google contacts with your Thunderbird contacts, and any added or edited contacts are automatically synced to both.
Zindus is great, because it both keeps a backup of your contacts online and off, and because it means you've always got your contacts available to you in your application of choice.
One of the fantastic things about Gmail is how easy it is to plow through your inbox – tons of great keyboard shortcuts and useful buttons let you deal with every email quickly and easily. Nostalgy, a favorite Thunderbird add-on of mine, adds much of the same to Gmail.
Using a few choice keyboard shortcuts, Nostalgy lets you move items between folders, go to folders, show and hide messages and folders, and even search through your email. You can create your own rules and scripts, to be executed by triggers in the email itself, or by a given keystroke. With Nostalgy, you can go through your Thunderbird inbox every bit as fast as in Gmail.
GmailUI is much like Nostalgy, in that it adds some of what makes Gmail so great into Thunderbird – the navigation shortcuts. For instance, GmailUI makes it easy to archive email in a single keystroke – which is notably missing in the normal Thunderbird interface.
GmailUI also creates shortcuts to move between messages, search in one click, and even improve Thunderbird's ability to search using things like "to:David Pierce" to find what you're looking for even faster.
As I mentioned at the beginning, one of my favorite things about Gmail is that it handles multiple identities well – I can use personal, work, and blogging email seamlessly all within Gmail. Using a Thunderbird extension called Signature Switch, and a little known feature within Thunderbird itself, Thunderbird does the multiple identity thing even better.
First, go to "Tools","Account Settings" within Thunderbird. On the right side of that window, click "Manage Identities." There you can add as many other emails as you want – Thunderbird lets you send emails from a number of different addresses, all within the same account.
The Signature Switch extension lets you create a number of different signatures for your emails, and then insert whichever one you want into your emails. It's a simple extension, but actually handles multiple signatures for multiple addresses better than Gmail itself.
There's something special about a desktop email application for me – I like the reading pane, I like the look and feel of the apps. The ubiquity of Web email, though, can't be ignored. Using these extensions, I get the best of both worlds – all the goodness of Gmail in Thunderbird, and all my email and data is up-to-date in Gmail when I'm away from my computer.
What do you use for email? Thunderbird, Gmail, something else?