November 26, 2008

Gmail notifiers let you know "you've got mail"

Author: Federico Kereki

If you are into email like Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan were in the movie You've Got Mail, you probably want to be warned as soon as any message enters your mailbox. If you use Gmail, you can try one of several Gmail-specific applications that let you know when new messages arrive.

KCheckGmail

I tried KCheckGmail first, a KDE-oriented application that's available in repositories for Ubuntu, Mandriva, and openSUSE, among others. If your favorite distro does not include it, check the download page or get the source code and follow the installation instructions. For non-English speakers, it's available for most European languages (including Walloon and Catalan) and some Asian languages as well, and you can help produce more translations is you are up to it.

To begin, enter your Gmail username and password in the Login tab. You can use the KDE Wallet to store them securely. On the Network tab you can set the checking interval; don't set it for less than 60 seconds, because you could overload your machine. Here you can also set KCheckGmail to use HTTPS connections for extra security. In the Behavior tab you can decide how KCheckGmail will respond to a click on the system tray icon (default: open a browser to Gmail) and which browser it will use (default: the KDE current browser; but you should go for Firefox instead). Finally, the Advanced tab lets you decide what messages should be considered new (default: "in:inbox in:unread," meaning all unread messages in your inbox; the syntax is the usual Gmail one) and whether to use the standard (simple) or advanced views. This tab also offers optional audible notifications for events such as getting a message or not finding any unread ones.

When KCheckGmail is working, the system tray icon shows the number of unread messages, but if the number is greater than 100, it will be truncated and difficult to read. If you right-click on the icon and select the Threads option in the menu, you will get a popup showing the latest mail threads with unread messages. (A quirk here: the latest unread message isn't at the top of the list, but rather at the bottom; the list is sorted in descending order.) As you mouse over the threads, a popup shows the beginning of each message, plus a note whether there are attached files. Clicking on a thread invokes a Web browser with that message already opened. Another option, which is also available from the system tray icon's context menu, allows you to compose a message -- but if you haven't set your browser to remember you in Gmail, you will have to log in before reading or writing a message.

All in all, KCheckGmail is well integrated with KDE. It's not flashy or particularly elegant, but it does its job well.

CheckGmail

CheckGmail is a small, fast, GTK-based checker that is oriented to GNOME users. It's available in several languages, and if you want to add a new translation, it's just a matter of editing a XML file and sending it to the program's author. CheckGmail uses an Atom feed to get data from the Google server, so it works quickly. You can also set it up to do fancy notifications, including sounds or lighting up the LEDs on your laptop, but that can quickly get tiresome.

Only Ubuntu includes CheckGmail in its repositories, but installation is simple, since the program is a Perl script. Download the latest version and then in a console window run:

tar jxf checkgmail-1.13.tar.bz2
cd checkgmail-1.13
./checkgmail

If any packages are missing, CheckGmail will show a warning, and you'll have to find and install them on your own. For example, in my Mandriva installation, I was warned that Gtk2::TrayIcon and XML::Simple were not found, and I had to install perl-Gtk2-trayicon and perl-XML-simple; after that, everything ran perfectly. The names of the missing packages as reported by CheckGmail do not necessarily match the package names for your distribution. (An alternative is installing from CPAN, and in that case the names will match.) A second attempt at installation told me I should get some cryptography and data compression packages, which I also installed, but this was an optional step.

When you run CheckGmail the first time, it asks for your Gmail username and password. It lets you set up which command to use when you click on the tray icon (Firefox is the suggested one), which commands to run on getting mail or finding there is no mail, how often to check for mail, how long the "new mail" popup will show up, and some details as to which icons to use or what background to show for them. If you have problems connecting and get a "401:unauthorized" message, open a console, run ./checkgmail -update, and follow onscreen instructions to get the latest patch. For me, the error message kept popping up, and I had to run the -update option every time. Future runs will ask for just your username and password.

If you move the cursor over the application's system tray icon, you'll get a short description of all your new messages, including the subject, sender, and first lines, along with clickable links that allow you to open, mark as read, archive, report as spam, or directly delete the mail. There's also an option to mark all new mails as read. Right-clicking on the icon give you the ability to undo the last action, compose a mail, or change your preferences.

While CheckGmail works well with GNOME, it is not so well integrated with KDE. For example, you cannot get a transparent background for the system tray icon, and you need a special, extra package in order to use the KDE Wallet. Nevertheless, it offers more options than KCheckGmail. Being able to process messages directly without opening a browser is a nice feature, though it is unhappily balanced by the 401 problem mentioned above.

Gmail Notifier

Google provides its own Gmail Notifier program, but that's only available for Windows. However, an independent GTK-based Python script called gmail-notify does the job for Linux systems.

Installation is easy, since there's no need for compilation or special procedures: it's just a matter of downloading the latest version and then running:

tar zxf gmail-notify-1.6.1.1.tar.gz
cd gmail-notify
./notifier.py

The first time you invoke the script, you will be asked for your username and password, which browser to use, how often to check for mail (in milliseconds), and a few parameters related to the position of the popup itself. These settings will be stored in a file named .notifier.conf in your home directory. Whenever a new message comes in, a popup will appear showing you the details of the message. There are just a few extra functions: clicking on the system tray icon provides Check now, Go to inbox, Configure, and Exit options.

Gmail-notify is the simplest of these Gmail checkers, providing just the basic "you've got mail" warning; unless this is enough for you, the other programs are more attractive.

Mail Notification

Mail Notification is a more general option for checking Gmail, in that it is also capable of checking non-Gmail accounts. Though it is oriented to GNOME, it can also work with KDE or Xfce. Installation is not as easy as for the other projects: you need to download the source package, then:

tar jxf mail-notification-5.4.tar.bz2
cd mail-notification-5.4
.jb configure
./jb build
sudo ./jb install

Be prepared to install plenty of development libraries; in my case, getting the configure process to work required five attempts, installing several packages each time. Also, Mail Notification will be severely limited -- unable to access POP3 servers, for example -- unless you include optional libraries and packages such as GMime, GetLive, FetchYahoo, OpenSSL, and more; check the included README file for details. If you install the software without those packages, you will just be able to connect to Gmail accounts. If you decide later to install the extra packages, you must run the configure/build/install cycle again.

After the build and install processes end, run mail-notification to start the program. As with the other programs, on the first run you must specify your email accounts, notification options, and the like. Click on Add to add a new mailbox; specify its type as Gmail, and enter your username and password. In the Details tab of the window you can set how often checks will be done; the default is five minutes.

When mail-notification is running, you get a system tray icon showing the number of new messages. If you mouse over it, you can see the new messages, including the mailbox (remember, you can monitor several different accounts), sender, subject, and time. Right-clicking on the icon offers more options: opening Gmail (though that didn't work in my case -- maybe another missing package?), reading the latest mail (which does open Gmail), mark new mail as read, update, and change your preferences.

Mail Notification is more general than the other packages, in that it can access more kinds of email accounts, but it offers few extra features. Also, the relatively complicated installation procedure may turn off many users.

In conclusion

If you want the most features, CheckGmail is the way to go. KCheckGmail is well integrated into KDE, but offers fewer options than CheckGmail. The other two programs have even less functionality; Mail Notification redeems itself by allowing access to several different kinds of accounts, but suffers from a harder than needed installation procedure.

Categories:

  • Reviews
  • Tools & Utilities
  • Mail & Messaging