July 9, 2007

Mail Notification helps unclutter the desktop

Author: Bruce Byfield

As its name implies, Mail Notification is a utility for keeping track of incoming mail and reading it in a popup window without activating your mail reader or moving other open applications. Simple to configure and easy to use, it is especially useful for watching multiple mailboxes.

Mail Notification is designed for integration into GNOME, and its Web site makes a point of mentioning that it follows the GNOME Human Interface guidelines. However, the utility also works with KDE and Xfce. Even more importantly, it also works with a variety of mail programs: local, remote, or virtual; POP3 or IMAP; and Evolution, Gmail, Mozilla-based readers, Sylpheed, and any other program that uses mbox, MH, or Maildir formats for email. In other words, in most cases, you should have no trouble setting up Mail Notification with your mail client, especially since it is available in many distributions' package repositories.

Starting the program for the first time from the menu or the command line opens an icon in the notification area of the desktop panel. To configure Mail Notification, click the new icon and select Properties to open the configuration window.

If you receive the regular stream of email messages with which most people cope today, you probably won't want to set Mail Notification to open each time you log in -- if you do, you will have to cope with multiple popup notices each time you log in after an absence of more than a couple of hours. Unfortunately, there is no workaround for this dilemma; either you have to remember to turn on Mail Notification each time you need it or else endure a deluge of initial popup.

However, you may want to go beyond Mail Notification's automatic detection, which is aware of any supported mail readers open on the local machine, to set up multiple mailboxes. The program can add your system mailbox without any input from you, but, for an ISP account or for webmail, you need the type of mail server, as well as the username and password, all of which is available in the mail reader settings or Web page for the account. If you filter mail into multiple folders, you also have to treat each folder as a mailbox and add it individually -- a major drawback if you make heavy use of filters. Whatever the case, Mail Notification encrypts the passwords, and does not display them in clear.

The program lets you set a command to run each time a message arrives or when all mail has been read. This option could be used to add a script that plays a sound clip to add to the notification, or perhaps forwards the notification to a phone.

You can enable popups and the frequency with which they are updated, then choose whether to display them attached to the notification icon or in a loose stack on the desktop. I find attaching the popups to the icon makes them easier to find while keeping them out of the way of other windows, which is, after all, one of the main points of the program.

You can also choose whether popups remain on the desktop or disappear after a specified time. Unless you are sure that you will respond regularly, keeping them on the desktop is probably the most useful action.

After popups close, you can click the icon in the notification tray to see a summary of all the ones that have opened since Mail Notification was turned on, but you cannot actually open them from the program. Unfortunately, with even a moderate amount of mail, the summary grows longer than the height of your monitor, and the display does not include any scroll bars.

Once Mail Notification is configured, popups appear within milliseconds of a message arriving in your open mail reader or local system mailbox; remote mailboxes like Gmail may take up to two or three seconds longer, depending on the traffic on your Internet connection. One popup appears for each message, listing the mailbox it is in, the sender, and the topic.

In earlier versions of the program, you could do three things with a message listed in a popup: Open it (and reply) if you chose, mark it as read, or mark it as spam. These choices were convenient, but failed to consider the common case of a mailing list that you are interested in reading, but whose contents you only scan by title unless something catches your eye. To accommodate this scenario, the recently released version 4.1 now includes a Delete button to remove a message from your inbox, giving you all the choices you are likely to need to scan incoming mail without opening your reader.

Bottom line

Popup panel applets like Mail Notification can help unclutter today's increasingly crowded desktops. Unlike dual monitors, they don't require setup expertise or more physical space. Unlike multiple workspaces, they extract a minimal performance hit.

Mail Notification performs a limited service. However, within its intended range of functionality, it is an efficient applet with a well-designed interface, but also a couple of design flaws, including a lack of several obvious options. Still, even with a small inconvenience or two, it is still a welcome addition on a cluttered desktop.


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