Waiting for Plugins: The Nylas N1 Email Client

Nylas N1 screenshot

I’m an email client guy.

Web interfaces are convenient, but they just don’t feel like a client. An email client is like riding in a Crown Victoria. Web clients, even good ones, feel like a rented subcompact. They’re fine and they’ll get you where you need to go, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

One of the things I disliked about Gmail was that the IMAP implementation was so weird. It didn’t work well with a client. You wound up with all kinds of weird labels.

But now that I’ve been using Outlook.com for a while, I’ve also been using Thunderbird to handle my email.

Thunderbird is great in that I don’t have to think about it. It handles my mail. The search is decent. The sorting is fine. There are lots of add-ons, if there’s functionality I want that it doesn’t have. Thunderbird is one of those pieces of software that works well because it’s not exciting or interesting. It just quietly does its job.

However, the interface is old. I read about Nylas N1, which is supposed to be an exciting new email client that’s also customizable—sort of like the email version of the Atom text editor. I decided to take Nylas N1 for a spin.

It does look snazzy. The look is a modern web client but with the responsiveness of a desktop one.

Nylas N1 is also easy to set up. There are pre-configured settings to get accounts going for most hosted email services (Gmail, Outlook.com, iCloud, and Yahoo; there are also Exchange and IMAP options).

Unfortunately, the look is the only thing about Nylas N1 that worked for me. Everything else felt too limiting. For instance, you only have two views: single panel, a la Gmail, and dual-panel. But you can’t control how the panels display. So if you want a horizontal preview, rather than a vertical, you’re out of luck.

You also can’t change the sort of your email. It’s always going to put the newest at the top, which is how I like my email 90% of the time. But sometimes, like when I’m looking for something, I want to sort by sender or subject.

There are some other features that were issues for me:

  • You can’t open email in a new window, which can be frustrating if you’re trying to work with multiple messages
  • There’s no way to get it to force-check email, which I sometimes do when I see a message come in on my phone (and I know it’s ridiculous I can’t wait a minute or two for a message).

For me, the great irony of Nylas N1 is that while it’s billed as being extensible, you need to be a developer to change it. So for a user like myself, it’s actually a pretty limited tool. I’m sure that will change as more people develop plugins for it, but I’ve been looking at it on-and-off for a few months and I haven’t seen a plugin ecosystem coalesce. As of this writing, there are less than 15 built-in plugins.

Nylas N1 is also moving to a paid model. I appreciate anyone showing that free and open source software is a viable business model, but the proposed $7/month is steep when you consider that you have to bring your own email service to the table. Fastmail, a very well-regarded email service, is only $50/year.

I wish the Nylas N1 team the best. I love that they took the time to build a Linux client. I love the idea of a hackable email client. But Nylas N1, as it stands now, is very limited. If you happen to like the defaults, you’re in for a treat. But if you’re looking for an email client that bends to your will and that you can easily customize as a non-developer, you’re probably better off with Thunderbird (especially now that people are thinking about its future). Thunderbird isn’t pretty—certainly not as pretty as Nylas N1—but it lets you build it into whatever email client you want it to be.

What works: Modern interface.
What doesn’t work: Not customizable enough yet.
Who should work with it: Anyone not particular about their email client.