If you have a dial-up connection to the Internet, one of your easiest options for getting and receiving e-mail is popmail. But to use popmail, you need a “popmail client”. XF-Mail is a convenient, easy-to-use, and reasonably powerful popmail client that is worth a closer look.
Configuring XF-Mail

XF-Mail was written by a couple of guys named Gennady B. Sorokopud and Ugen J. S. Antsilevich. In their own word:s

XF-Mail is an X-Windows application for receiving electronic mail. It was created using XForms library toolkit by T.C. Zhao and Mark Overmars.

It's partially compatible with MH style mailboxes but it does not require any mh tools to be installed on the system. You can read most of your MH folders and messages with XF-Mail.

XF-Mail has very friendly user interface and it's extremely easy in use. It implements most of the mail functionality in one program and it does not require any additional tools.

Guess that pretty much sums it up! It really does have a very friendly user interface and is quite easy to use. Additionally, while it can be set up to use sendmail, it can happily live without it.

One of the greatest things about XF-Mail is that all the user-configurable options are easily set using the GUI configuration menu. This is a huge plus, as the options in the Configuration Menu give you a great deal of power over how the program functions and appears.

To configure XF-Mail, you simply need to start it up. Fire up X, and in one of the xterms enter:

$ xfmail &

This will fire up the program. Now, depending on your hardware and software set up, this may take a few seconds.

Parenthetically, it's not a bad idea to use an xterm to start any program up that you've just installed. For example, you could install a program and simply add it to a button bar or menu and call it from there. The problem with this is that error messages are printed if the program can't run. If you try to start a program up from a menu or button bar, you won't necessarily see these messages and will then be left wondering why your program won't start. If you test drive your newly installed programs using the command line in an xterm, you should see what's happening.

There are, fortunately, only a couple things you'll need to know in order to get XF-Mail up and running. These are:

  • The DNS name or the IP address of the Mail Host from which you'll get your mail

  • The port number or service of your Mail Host—e.g., pop3 if your Mail Host uses POP3 protocol

  • Your username

  • Your password

  • The DNS or IP address of your SMTP gateway or host

That's pretty much it, as far as essential information goes. The Mail Host information is simply the host from which you get your mail. The SMTP gateway is simply the host to which you'll send your mail. These are usually the same host. For example, I get my mail from the Mail Host ctrvax.vanderbilt.edu (at Vanderbilt University). The mail server there uses POP3 protocol and I use the same address for outgoing mail using SMTP.

If you have any questions about this information, do yourself a huge favor and ask or call the folks who are responsible for your mail service. If you're at a university or large organization, there's often a help desk that can provide you with all the information you'll need. If you have mail service through a local ISP, they should be able to help you as well. Essentially, you'll just need the address (either the name or the numeric IP address) of the Mail Host and the SMTP gateway. Since the mail server at Vanderbilt uses the POP3 (Post Office Protocol) protocol, I use that for the “port number”.

To start configuration, go to the menu bar and select the Misc menu and choose Config. You will be presented with a Configuration Dialog box that lets you set a variety of things. Let's first get the essentials out of the way.

To get mail into and out of your box through the mail host and your SMTP gateway, you'll need to enter this information. From the Configuration menu, choose POP which presents you with the POP Configuration menu box. Here, enter the mail host (your POP server from which you'll get your mail) in the box entitled Host. To the right of this, in the space labelled Port, enter the port number or service. If your mail host uses the POP3 protocol, simply leave this as pop3. If it's something else, you should check with the postmaster at your mail service and make sure you know which service/port they use.

Below this, enter your username and your password. Also, check the option buttons if you wish to leave your mail on the mail server and if you want XF-Mail to store your password in the configuration file so that you won't be prompted for it each time you attempt to get mail.

A Couple Caveats:

This, and the section on setting up the SMTP gateway information, are the most critical aspects of configuring your mail client. If you enter an incorrect address for the mail host or the port number, you won't be able to get mail. Second, keep in mind that storing your password, while very convenient, is also very insecure, since the password is stored in your ~/.xfmailrc file un-encrypted. If you're the only one using your system, this is not a real problem, but if others have access to your system, be aware that your password is quite vulnerable. Finally, as a precaution, at least at first you probably should not delete your mail from the pop server. That way, if anything goes wrong, you'll at least have a copy of your mail on the mail server and should be able to retrieve it again later. If something goes wrong and your mail has been deleted from the server, it's gone.

Did I scare you? I hope not; just be prudent and use your common sense. Keep in mind that this program is still in beta testing, and while it has undergone a lot of testing and debugging so far, it is likely to have a few “undocumented features” left. Play it safe.

Lastly, let's set up the outgoing mail. Press the Done button after you've entered all the info for the POP Configuration, and then presss the Send button, which will allow you to set up the SMTP information. In the first box, entitled “SMTP Host”, enter the name or IP address of your SMTP gateway and then the SMTP port number in the box to the right of this. The default for the port is smtp, which is an Internet standard.

If you have installed the sendmail program, you can also fill in its location, but it's not necessary.

To have XF-Mail use the built-in SMTP support, click on the use SMTP button. A couple other suggestions and we're almost done. First, I recommend that you also check the “Save to sent mail” and the “Offline send” options. The first will save a copy of all your outgoing mail. Why would you want to do that? Good question.

Mail on the Internet can get lost. Machines crash, hard drives fail, mail delivery programs have bugs. If you save copies of outgoing mail, you can re-send mail if you find it never made it to its destination.

Setting the Offline send option allows you to compose mail and set it up to be sent out, even when you're not connected!

We're almost done. (Have I said that before?) Press the Done button and when you're back at the Configuration dialog box, press the Save button.

Now, there's just one more thing that you probably should do. Press the Misc button in the Configuration dialog box. This presents you with a list of various options. At the bottom, click on the Open log on startup option. This will log all messages to a “Log Window” which will allow you to see what's happening. Keep an eye on this, especially the first couple times you try to retrieve mail from the server and send mail to the SMTP gateway. Now, to save your changes, press Save once again and you're done.

You'll need to get your SLIP, CSLIP, or PPP connection up and running first. Once it's up, fire up XF-Mail and then go to the Misc menu and choose Retrieve mail. Keep an eye on the action that's going on in the Log Window. This should let you know if everything's set up correctly and XF-Mail was able to make connection with your mail host.

No mail? No problem. Send yourself some!

Up at the top of the screen, click on the pen icon on the toolbar. The astute user will notice that moving the cursor onto the icon causes a short description to be printed along the status line at the bottom of the window. Very handy. Now, click on that and you'll be presented with an edit window. Now, it's just a matter of filling in the blanks. At the top of the window you can enter the information for the From:, Subject:, and To: fields.

Now, type in a short test message and when you're done, press the letter icon on the top left. If you get an error message about needing to specify at least one recipient, don't forget to press the RETURN key after you've filled in the name of the recipient. If this was done correctly, you'll see the entry move to the box below. You could also use your shiny new Address Book. Press the Address button and the address book fires up. Enter the name on the entry line and press the Save button. Click on the To button and press RETURN. Done.

Almost. Remember that we've set up offline send. To get the message out, you'll need to choose the Send menu item, and then click on the Send all item. If you have an external modem, you should see the lights lighting up and the log window should let you know the progress of things. If all went well, you should now have new mail! Go back and retrieve it to see if things are working okay.

Now, let's do just a couple other things before finishing up here. First, there are several things that you'll want to set up. You don't have to, but it'll make using XF-Mail a lot easier and more fun.

The things you'll probably want to do at this point are:

  • Set up an external editor

  • Set up an external message viewer

  • Configure the From: field for outgoing messages

  • Decide whether you want to additionally retrieve mail from a local mail spool

  • Edit your .signature file if you haven't already

You'll want to set up an external editor and viewer because the built-in editor and viewer are quite limited and can handle messages only 30 lines or fewer long. That's not much. However, you can set up any X editor as your viewer/editor. Keep in mind, however, that you probably don't want to use something rather huge, like Xemacs. Granted, this is a great editor, but you'll be able to do three week's worth of wash and iron all your socks before it'll finish loading. I initially used xedit, which is admittedly a bit Spartan, but at least it loaded up fast. I'm currently using aXe, which loads up quite nicely but is a lot more functional.

So, to set these things up, call the Configuration menu up once again:

  • Use the View menu to set up the external viewer. Just enter the command necessary to fire up your editor/viewer—just as you would in an xterm. For example, I'm using the xedit program as my external viewer still. I simply enter /usr/X11R6/bin/xedit in the box and then set the number of lines to whatever I want, such as 75.

  • Use the Edit menu to set up the external editor. Once again, enter the command line necessary to load up your chosen editor. For example, to use the aXe editor, I've entered:

/usr/local/bin/axe -noserver -geometry 74x40+55+0
  • Use the Misc menu to set up the From: field. (You'll need to do this in order to correctly set this for outgoing mail.) Remember that most folks who want to write you back simply press the reply button and so your From: field is important in order to get the correct address. Enter your e-mail address on the From: field line.

  • Use the Receive menu to optionally retrieve mail from a local spool. Enter the directory where your mail spool exists. For example, since I spend most of my time as root, my mail spool directory is /var/spool/mail/root. I have this set up for both spool and POP retrieval because I often use the program popclient to retrieve my mail when I'm not running X or when I'm using a background shell program to periodically check my mail. I have popclient set up to deposit mail into my local mail spool directory and so XF-Mail will dutifully pick it up from there as well as from the POP server.

After making these changes, don't forget to press the Save button to save them.

To edit your .signature file, select the Misc menu once again and click on the Signature item. There's an easy-to-use signature editor that pops up and lets you create your .signature file and save it. I found that you cannot use the entire window for your .signature file. If you do, you'll get an error message about the signature being too large. You'll have to keep it to about 8 to 10 lines. Play with it and see for yourself. Internet etiquette has suggested a maximum of 4 lines for a long time, so you may wish to limit yourself to 4 to make the rest of the world happy.

Keep in mind that there are lots of nifty configuration options and features left to play with. Let me recommend to you that you skim through the online help system. Just choose Help from the menu bar and choose the Contents item. It will display a help window with all kinds of useful information describing what you can do with this great program. It's time to explore!

Want more? It's easy to join the XF-Mail mailing list: simply choose the Help menu item and click on the Subscribe to mailing list option. If you like this client, go ahead and drop the authors a note of thanks! Their addresses are Gennady B. Sorokopud gena@NetVision.net.il and Ugen J. S. Antsilevich ugen@NetVision.net.il.

John Fisk (XXXXXXXXXXXXXX) After three years as a General Surgery resident and Research Fellow at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, John decided to “hang up the stethoscope” and pursue a career in Medical Information Management. He's currently a full-time student at the Middle Tennessee State University and hopes to complete a graduate degree in Computer Science before entering a Medical Informatics Fellowship. In his dwindling free time, he and his wife Faith enjoy hiking and camping in Tennessee's beautiful Great Smoky Mountains. An avid Linux fan since his first Slackware 2.0.0 installation a year and a half ago.