Email Marketing & Email Marketing Automation

Desktop Email: Still The Productivity King

These days, it seems like everybody is using a web-based email clients. The numbers behind this trend are staggering. Back when Microsoft looked into buying Hotmail it already had 8.5 million subscribers—and that was in 1997. Today, the various Microsoft email services are up to 250 million users, with Gmail clocking in at 150 million users. Web-based email continues to be one of the most popular trends and one of the biggest uses of web technology.

The only problem is that web-based email is terribly inefficient. If you want to be more productive than the half billion people who use web-based email, simply switch to a desktop email client. Here’s why:


Many of us now have to process hundreds of messages in the course of a day. Every time you deal with a message on a web-based email program, you have to wait for some distant remote web server to handle your request. It might seem like Hotmail is pretty snappy at deleting messages, but it’s not nearly as fast as doing so in Outlook or Thunderbird or Mail.App. A an extra half-second-per-click might not seem like much, but if you’re dealing with thousands of clicks you’re wasting dozens of minutes. Furthermore, the overall speed of your web-based email client doesn’t depend on your computer but your Internet connection. Head for a crowded wifi hotspot and even Gmail slows to a crawl.


The primary difference between web-based email and desktop-based email is the sequence of access steps. If you attach a file to a message in Yahoo! Mail, you have to wait until the upload process is complete before you actually can send the message. This is simply the nature of web-based email. The application runs on the web, so you can’t do anything with a draft until all of your content is actually transferred over the Internet.

Attach a file to a message in your desktop email program, however, and the process is instant. It doesn’t matter if this file is 1k or 10MB. It doesn’t matter if you’re on a snappy connection or one that is painfully slow. In fact, you don’t even have to be online to write emails, add attachments, and queue them for sending! Your desktop email works exactly like traditional postal mail. You can process messages whenever you like and wherever you like, no matter your proximity to the mail carrier.


It really seems like web-based email should win on the feature front. After all, you can add new code to the application without requiring users to download anything. And indeed, web-based email providers are constantly announcing new innovations. The Google Blog recently announced that if you’re using the Google Chrome browser you can now drag-and-drop attachments to your desktop!

Wait: drag and drop attachments? Let’s see, that’s been available on desktop email clients since at least 1997. And speaking of Google, they appear to be the only web-based email client that has officially offered “offline use” for nearly a full year.. That’s a feature which has been part of every desktop-based mail client since approximately 1979. Sorry, web-based email fans. You’re not winning the features race.


Call me paranoid, but I just don’t like the idea of trusting all my email to live in the cloud through some free provider. Once in a while disaster strikes. With a desktop-email client, you automatically get to have at least two copies of all of your messages. One copy is stored online, and another is synchronized to your desktop client. If you have multiple computers (and I imagine most of the Martech Zone readers do) you automatically have several copies.

Only One Drawback (but not really)

There really is only one area where a web-based mail client is better than desktop mail client: using a borrowed computer. If you just have access to another machine and want to check your email, it’s tremendously helpful to be able to jump on a browser and take a quick peek.

However, this isn’t really an issue if you configure your desktop email client properly. You can always route message through a free web-based provider to ensure that if you absolutely have to have web access, you can get it.

If Desktop Email Is So Great…

…why doesn’t everybody use it? My theory is that it takes a little bit of effort. Even though both Zimbra and Thunderbird and Windows Live Mail are totally free, they take a few minutes to set up. If you’re already accustomed to a familiar web-based client, you’re less likely to change.

But please, I implore you, consider switching to a desktop email client. You’ll see a dramatic increase in email productivity. Use the tools that make it easiest to get things done.

Robby Slaughter

Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. His focus is helping organizations and individuals to become more efficient, more effective and more satisfied at work. Robby is a regular contributor in several regional magazines and has been interviewed by national publications such as the Wall Street Journal. His latest book is The Unbeatable Recipe for Networking Events.. Robby runs a business improvement consulting company.

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  1. I’ll disagree on one point, @robbyslaughter, and argue another. It typically takes less time for a web client to go grab email than it does for a desktop client. Most users aren’t sitting on a high bandwidth infrastructure, but web clients do!

    The web client for Google Apps is much, much faster at searching for email than the desktop client because of the way the data is indexed and the power of the server that it’s sitting on. If I search with my desktop, it can take several seconds to get a result, but Google Apps is instantaneous.

    I do agree on paranoia, though. I like being able to access my email without an Internet connection.

  2. Interestingly, it’s true that the web client can retrieve an email faster than a desktop client, because as you said it’s on high-bandwidth infrastructure. But it’s still got to send that email down a slow pipe to your browser, so I’d argue it’s not really any faster! (If anything, it should be slower because of all of the extra web overhead.)

    You’re right that GMail search is faster than, say, Windows Search for Outlook. This is due to faster hardware, but also due to better algorithms. I’d argue that if you connect Google Desktop search to your local email client, it’s even faster than Gmail.

    Plus, you still have the problem that once a message is found by GMail’s infrastructure it has to be shown to you over a relatively slow connection.

    Anyway, you can still get the best of both worlds. If you want to leverage the cloud’s speed to confirm an email has been received, jump on your web-client. If you want to leverage the computing power of the cloud to perform lighting fast searches, your desktop client ought to be able to use it.

    Desktop email wins, hands down!

  3. Similar to Doug I have to agree and disagree.

    First I’d just like to say the getting anywhere I don’t really look at as applying in the argument either way because you can still use the webmail when away, desktop doesn’t cancel that.

    Pro desktop – I have 3 accounts I actively monitor and many more that I occasionally check. I only use a desktop client for 1 of them and that is my work’s groupwise account but that’s only because its quite flaky with IMAP. But if it wasn’t it would be nice to have all 3 in one place. I’ve used Thunderbird mainly in the past and it worked alright but just never felt right.

    If you deal with a lot of offline time/situations then it’s good to have the email but for myself I’m rarely without a connection of some sort AND when I am the last thing I want to be doing is going through my email. For heavy travelers (pre wifi in the sky) this would be a must, just like having anything else installed locally so I can continue working.

    Pro web – Search is blazing fast in Gmail, BUT other ones aren’t that great. Groupwise webmail sucks hard in regards to this and many times i’ll just tell someone I’ll wait till I get to work the next day to find them some old email. But with gmail it’s the fastest I’ve ever seen with searching email for anything. I also enjoy that my chats now who up in those searches as well but that’s not really 100% relevant.

    Also I think a lot of the overhead you are talking about isn’t really valid most of the time. If you are referring to the loading of the JS/HTML and such that run the site, that shouldn’t be needed most the time as your computer will read it from cache and if you are on someone else’s computer it’s going to be much worse to grab a desktop client 🙂 But using thing the webcafe example, your laptop would still have the webmail stuff in cache so that shouldn’t be a big issue. When it comes to actually getting the email, gmail will be sending you a trimmed version (probably json) over the bulkier full email with headers and such.

    Also the desktop client (maybe you can stop it from doing this, but never played enough with settings) will download attachments automatically, so you might be locked up waiting on the 10 Meg image laden forward from your family while the gmail person wasn’t forced to grab that as once they opened and saw what it was they could ignore the attachment.

    As I said, I currently only use the GW desktop client and for my 2 other accounts use web only. I’d really love a hybrid world where I can get the benefits of both built into one simple to use client but doubt that will be coming anytime soon. So for me Web is usually the bigger winner and seems to always be smoother for me. But varies per user.

  4. I think the argument is not so much between which particular products are better (GMail vs Thunderbird) but which platform has superior technical capacity and usability.

    For example, the fastest way to search your email is with a really exceptional local index. No matter how fast the search services are up the cloud, you still have to wait for your browser to download and render the search results, and then wait for it to download and render the individual email. The browser/Internet connection is slower than the one between your memory and your hard drive, so desktop email will always be superior.

    In terms of usability, there’s far more you can do with a desktop application that something running inside the sandbox of a web browser. Sure, web browsers are getting more advanced every day. With HTML5, it’s now possible to do things in the browser that you could only do on the desktop in—oh, I don’t know, 1993 or so. Sure, it’s great that this works on *any* computer that runs your browser, but it’s not as if we really have all that much diversity.

    At the end of the day, a desktop email client is like having your own personal library in your house, whereas a web-mail client is like having only one book at a time which is delivered postal mail. Of course it’s more efficient in every regard to have a desktop email client. You might want to “fall back” to the web-client if you need to because your desktop client software isn’t handy, so you can still get the best of the world.

  5. @robbyslaughter , I was talking about the platform as well, I only gave reference to the apps I have been using to make it clearer if maybe I had missed some end all be all desktop email client that solved some of these issues. I also don’t consider my own use case as the only and that others use things differently and others will have different issues then me.

    First on search, It’s not always going to be faster on a local machine, even though the data is local. If you have gigs of data (especially poorly managed data that isn’t properly optimized) be it mail or anything, just because it is local doesn’t mean that your computer will be able to search it better then a properly run managed set of data with the power of many behind it. The “slow” internet connection (that is only then receiving a slimmed down amount of data with only the things you need at that point) will easily be able to get you what you need, as Doug also said with his results. Now once you have the search results, yes bringing up that one email is fine, but when I had that email open 10 seconds ago form the web client cause the desktop was still searching then it doesn’t really matter that much.

    When the big email attachments come in, you can handle it much easier on the web as you never have to download it if you don’t really need it where your local desktop client will be chewing on it for a while and the rest of your messages won’t be coming in because of it. Not having to download every stupid attachment someone sends me is the biggest blessing I have in regards to webmail.

    Thin clients in general can have a ton of huge benefits over their thick client counter parts, especially when tons of data is involved, that make up and surpass the disadvantages to make them more advantageous. I’m not saying in every use case this is true, but I believe this is definitely one of them. As I said I’d still love to see a full hybrid method (HTML5 will really only be a partial one) done that allows the end user more control and the ability to take advantage of both but those are a lot of work for not a huge amount of gain and the people who we would look at to implement them would more likely not waste their time when they feel their client is good enough as is.

  6. Search should ALWAYS be faster on a local machine than a remote machine. It’s true that the remote machine could theoretically be faster (since it could be a cluster of machines), but the limiting factor is the bandwidth, not the processing power.

    As a comparison, it takes Google my Desktop about 0.19 seconds to search 262,000 items. I can’t get GMail to report the search time, but every Google public search takes at least 0.27 seconds. That might be billions of entries, but it’s thousands of computers. But let’s assume that my results are atypical, and normally you can get, say 10x the speed out of remote search. So we’d be looking at a comparison of 0.19 seconds to a speedy 0.019 seconds.

    Remote transfer of data requires time. For me to move data between a remote search provider and my machine, there are latency and bandwidth requirements. I fired up the Timeline panel in the Developer Tools of Google Chrome, and from clicking the “Search Mail” button to getting a response is still 0.50 seconds.

    In total:

    Remote Search: 0.50 s (latency) + 0.019 s + Rendering time = 0.519 seconds
    Local Search: 0.19 s + Rendering time = 0.19 seconds

    You’ll notice that in my example it doesn’t matter how fast search happens. It could be 100x or 1000x or or instant, and it would still take longer to transfer than to search locally.

    I know it seems like we’re splitting hairs. What’s the difference between a half second and a tenth of a second?

    The answer is: a lot.

    Finally, the real argument is not about thick versus thin clients, but desktop versus web clients. A desktop client isn’t really a thick client. For example, the IMAP protocol is impressively lightweight. The synchronization technology used by Exchange/Outlook ensures that you have a complete copy of your mailbox as an “offline file” but lets you manage changes remotely. And a web-client isn’t really a thin client either. As you point, browsers store an awful lot of data and can run scripts, so it’s not as if the thin client is all that thin. Gmail has 443,000 lines of JavaScript code. Is that really all that thin?

  7. I thought we weren’t talking about specific platforms? Google desktop is not a mail client last time I looked at it, and while it is an example of how fast some things could be, it doesn’t change that in practice desktop mail clients don’t perform that well, as stated by both mine and Doug’s experience with them, and I haven’t heard of anyone doing it better. Theoretical performances don’t make something the hands down winner when no one has come close to achieving them.

    And this is definitely a thick verse thin argument. Not sure when lines of code became a defining factor for whether something was thin or thick as it’s more where the heavy lifting is done. While web clients are becoming thicker with HTML5 it doesn’t change that they are still thin with the majority of the work still planned to be done by the remote system but now with a little help locally when possible.

    Of interesting note, while my gmail response times are similar to yours, my Google Apps for your Domain are around 125-150ms.

    As I have said there are pros and cons to both but to say “Desktop email wins, hands down!” is just way off when it comes to actual usage and use cases.

  8. Google desktop can be used to search local mail archives. I use it (and used it in my measurement above) to search my mail store and it was extremely fast.

    In my personal experience, desktop clients are much faster, more reliable, more flexible and have better features in almost every regard. The only exception is that you can get to a web client from a different computer, which is a good reason to maintain access to your mail from one of these clients and to keep it synchronized in both places.

    I think that for clients that don’t make much use of AJAX, you can argue that the client is pretty thin. After all, the browser in that case is just rendering static pages, and the remote server is deciding what to show. But if you are shipping half a million lines of code to the client computer for it to execute, it seems like the line is at least starting to blur. This isn’t the old days of X Windows, where your terminal could be pretty much a “dumb terminal.” Certainly, much of the heavy lifting is being done by the browser. This is shown by the fact that you can’t run Gmail in an old browser without switching to a “plain HTML view.”

    The only significant downside I can see to desktop mail clients (both practically and theoretically) is access to your mail when you don’t have your computer. And since there’s no reason not to have web mail available just in case, I think this is not much of a disadvantage.

    The point of my post was to show that millions of people use web-based email exclusively, even though there are tremendous benefits to using a desktop client as your primary mail platform. I think I’ve made it clear that these advantages far outweigh the only advantage of web-based email: accessibility from a borrowed computer. Other perceived advantages, such as faster search and retrieval, are merely perceived.

    So I stand by my statement: “desktop email clients win hands down!” 🙂

  9. I agree with Doug, searchability is lacking in Outlook (not sure of the others). Google does seem to have indexing and searching down pat, whereas, everytime I enable indexing on my own desktop in the hopes of speeding the search process up, my overall performance tanks. Seems like Google might have a little faster processor speed than me, go figure. 🙂

  10. Here we are in 2011, and all but your paranoia argument have faded:
    Speed: Gmail is faster than Outlook in loading, as fast in mail handling
    Timing: Gmail offers all the capabilities you say are missing
    Features: Gmail with ActiveInbox browser plug-in can
    User can hit send and move on before the attachment upload is complete
    Can organize with drag and drop
    Can flag for follow-up
    Can set rules
    Can add notes
    Can see conversation threads or individual messages

    Are these better than desktop email features? no. Are they equivalent and fast enough to forego the hassle of using up local disk space, etc.? Yes.

    I don’t know why anyone who has a persistent Internet connection would do anything EXCEPT use a robust browser email system, like Gmail+ActiveInbox

    1. I completely agree with your review of Gmail. My desktop client seems a bit dinosaur-like in comparison to Gmail, especially on features. However, I still prefer it.

    2. There’s a difference between features and limitations.

      For example, Gmail doesn’t have a sort-by-date feature. To me, that’s absolutely stupid. But there’s no technical reason why Gmail can’t do this. There’s not much point debating these kinds of features, since they are really just preferences.

      However, there are things you just can’t do well on web-based email clients. One example is data portability. A desktop client actually stores your email locally, which ensures that some cloud provider can’t accidentally delete it.  This isn’t a “feature” of desktop email as much as it is a limitation of web-based email.

  11. I also prefer desktop email clients although I completely disagree that Gmail does not beat desktop clients on features (there are many more than mentioned in this article, like integration with Google Docs for example).

    I think the most attractive feature of desktop clients is that they allow to consolidate email inboxes from different domains (like, professional email addresses) into one homogen, user friendly interface where emails can be dragged between the inboxes and organised into the same folders e.t.c. Plus that the emails are stores offline, as mentioned.

    I have a simple question in regard to desktop clients which no one seems able to answer, so I’ll try here

    – Is it possible to set up 2 desktop email clients with one email address?


    Let’s say we have an e-store and we both want to receive the customer support emails on our desktop email clients, and obviously we have only one support email address which is already established, can we set it up with both desktop client?

    I don’t believe we are the only business partners in the world who want to do that, so why can’t anyone answer?

    Our desktop clients are MacMail and Outlook 2007, if that makes a difference. It shouldn’t, I suppose, since the email address is set up inside the desktop clients and not in the e-store admin panel. That is also why I think it should be OK to do that?

    I have asked my e-store’s ‘personal customer service consultant’ repeatedly about this. He came with a few vague irrelevant replies and now said that I ‘will need to consult Apple, or Microsoft for advanced features’… Rubbish.

    I also posted the question here (on Quora) and on Twitter several times, no replies so far.

    I could of course just try and see if it works. However, my business partner is not tech savvy and I am expected to help him setting the email up on his Outlook when he comes back. So I would like to know in advance whether it is possible to share the email address like we want to, so otherwise I can come up with another idea in advance rather than just looking sheepishly at him when it doesn’t work.

      1. Douglas, I am not sure I am with you. Is that a yes, if we use IMAP instead of POP? Can we use IMAP on MacMail and Outlook?

        I can use whatever app. However, I prefer to stay with MacMail because that is what I am used to and because of above mentioned advantages:-)

        My business partner however, can only use Outlook. Changing app. is not an option. He is a very skilled, experienced and well connected trader, but he only touches computers when he has to. He doesn’t want to spend time working out how to use an unfamiliar system. So I’ll set up our support email on Outlook for him and the interface has to be 100% business as usual for him.

          1. So your reply is: YES, it is possible to have both of our desktop email clients set up with the same email address in the same time, if we use IMAP instead of POP?

            Is that what you are saying?

        1. Ps. and I need to receive the support emails as well on my desktop client (has already set that up and it works perfect) as mentioned, alongside my other email accounts in my MacMail interface. That’s the basis for my question.

          I could of course maybe fw support emails to my gmail account and then to my desktop client but I wouldn’t be able to reply to customer enquiries from my desktop client if it is not properly set up. The question is however not how to set it up (that’s easy) but whether it is possible to have our 2 desktop email clients set up with the one support email address.

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