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Alpine vs. Mutt

Introduction and Overview

this article will briefly compare the two most popular command line email programs available for Linux. they have both been around for years, and are both based on earlier software offerings, elm for mutt and pine for alpine. Both programs are well documented, very accessible using speakup, fairly intuitive to very intuitive to use for most people, and generally quite stable. they are both found on a lot of modern UNIX-like systems including all Linux distros. I suggest you try both for a couple of weeks each, and then make up your mind which is best for you. While having menus that one can scroll through to select configurations and some actions may make alpine seem easier for the new user, the relatively short list of intuitive keystrokes that control most basic mutt functions may actually make it faster in the beginning for many. I like both programs a lot and went back and forth on which was my favourite a few times before finally settling on Mutt as my primary email client.. Both programs can be set up to work with local, network or web-based servers. They both naively work with pop and imap. They both are easily configured to work with gmail and similar services, e.g. yahoo, and configuration files to do this out of the box are readily available. I have made a configuration and basic usage how-to for mutt on this wiki, and have uploaded a working mutt configuration file that only needs the addition of your personal details to work well with a gmail account. Another Vinux-user has written a comprehensive how-to for new alpine users.


Here are a few points of interest to help you understand a bit about how these programs compare.

  • Alpine can save time by removing deleted messages in the background, mutt saves the screen reader user time by not reading messages marked for deletion while arr owing through MSG list.
  • Alpine lets you directly open urls from messages, and this is default behaviour on Vinux.
  • Mutt requires you to open an urls list with urlview and chose a link list.

In many cases links are labelled in an unclear way, and one either has to count links in the message and then count again in the urlview screen and hopefully get to the correct link.

  • In mutt you are shown lists of mail folders and messages to flag, open or reply to, but actions and commands are all done with keyboard shortcuts.
  • alpine uses a mix of shortcut keys and menus both to navigate through mail folders and commands.
  • Alpine and mutt both let you copy addresses from message headers to add to address lists for later use. alpine gives you the choice of extracting addresses from any header field if configured to do so, but some people find interaction with speech a bit confusing when 'taking' address information.
  • Alpine is great when it is working well, but has been known to be somewhat unstable on some machines according to some very experienced sources, but I have found it to be reliable.
  • Mutt is rock solid pretty much everywhere.
  • Alpine has issues scrolling out of control when large mail folders are opened, i.e. when one has more than 1000 messages in an inbox.

This does not occur on all installations, and the threshold for this buggy behaviour may vary from system to system.

  • Mutt seems to handle even very large folders well for everyone.
  • Alpine has a configuration menu that allow one to customize behavior in great detail with out knowing in advance just what all is possible.

How to use this menu may not be %100 intuitive for a new user, but once learned it is solid and consistent.

  • All of mutt's configuration is done by editing a single text file called muttrc. other configuration files can be sourced from this file if one finds this approach more organized, or likes the modular approach.

Mutt's configuration is well documented, but one must study to see what all is possible.

  • Alpine has very good contextual help, similar to that in GUI programs.
  • Mutt has an excellent manual, but nothing is shown beyond a list of available keystrokes in a contextual sense. one can configure mutt to open the manual in a browser from with in the program so that it is easier to navigate to the topic of interest.
  • Mutt has a very easy to use and accessible conversation view, and deleted conversations are not announced by speakup when arrowing through the message list.
  • Alpine lets you use the delete key in addition to the letter d to delete messages making transition from GUI email clients like thunderbird even easier. this can be configured in mutt, but is not default behavior.
  • Alpine can store passwords in a special encrypted file with no special configuration.
  • Mutt keeps passwords in its main configuration file, .muttrc, and in _plain text by default, but with a bit of configuration you can get mutt to use encrypted passwords also.
  • Alpine can delete marked messages either at predetermined intervals, or you can choose to always do this manually. This can be done in the background avoiding delays with proper configuration.
  • Mutt sometimes hangs when syncing when connection is intermittent, i.e. interrupted for an instant and nothing is deleted/markings are lost. it's better to use the $ keystroke frequently to avoid having to remark messages. markings are also lost when a connection is times out and a mailbox is closed.
  • Alpine seems to take longer to send mail than Mutt, so sending messages in the background is worth considering.
For a lot more information check out our how-to articles for alpine and mutt.
alpine_mutt.txt · Last modified: 2014/06/08 17:13 by Burt Henry