Get the best Twitter app for Linux
If you thought microblogging using Twitter and Identica was as simple as tapping out 140 characters once a day describing what kind of food you just ate, you'd be wrong. In fact, there's a huge amount of functionality to help you follow and be followed online, and if you're a Linux user you're spoiled for choice.
So, we spent some time wading through the collection of available apps, put them all through their paces, and wrote up our results below - read on!
Who would have thought microblogging would be so popular? 2009 was probably the 'crossover' year for microblogging and Twitter in particular, as high-profile people started to massage their egos with some online idolatry, and some actual important stuff happened too - who can forget the picture of the plane in the Hudson or the neat circumvention of English libel law in the row over that company the lawyers said we couldn't mention?
As well as becoming more popular, Twitter has become more complex. You might only have 140 characters, but there's a lot you can pack into those bytes if you try - URL shortening has found another niche market, as well as plenty of web services offering picture hosting. So, for what seems a simple premise, there is a lot of additional functionality you may want from a microblogging tool.
We only had room for eight candidates in our test, so we had to draw up some guidelines. We ignored the command-line clients (bti is probably the best if you want this), web browsers and their add-ons, and other software that can interface with Twitter but whose main purpose is not microblogging.
There are also plenty of cross-platform tools, many written in Adobe Air, which we simply didn't have space for. In this case we chose the most popular ones, as defined by Twitstats. What we are left with are dedicated microblogging tools for normal desktop use. Let the twittering begin!
How we tested
All the apps were tested on a Core Duo-powered PC with 4GB RAM running a standard Fedora 12 distribution. There were no special tests required for this Roundup - these client apps are not very processor-intensive, so the features were explored in normal use over a period of several weeks.
The table at the end gives a good idea of relative capabilities. Figures such as RAM usage are averages taken over a set period while running all clients concurrently, but our figures are for comparison only.
Half of the clients tested rely on the Adobe Air platform. For these tests we ran both the latest stable version and the latest beta release, as some software worked better under one or the other.
Some of the apps support the Free Software-friendly Identica service as well as Twitter - see below for more information.
Given that they are both powered by Adobe Air, you might be tempted to align Spaz more with TweetDeck than with some of the Linux-only clients included in this Roundup. However, it probably has more in common with something like Gwibber than TweetDeck. Admittedly, installing Spaz isn't as straightforward and trouble-free as a standard Linux package, but that is more a problem of the Air platform than anything wrong with the software. Spaz is almost open source (released under a BSD-like licence) and if you don't mind downloading the Air SDK, you can therefore make your own builds.
A simple single-column interface packs in all the things you're likely to need for ordinary tweeting. A row of icons across the top give quick access to features like searching, global feed and your friends list with a menu for other options such as changing the settings or uploading an image. The messages themselves are accompanied by avatars and a mouse over will reveal the user's profile. Context-driven icons follow the message, allowing retweets, replies and messaging, though by default these just follow the test rather than being arranged in a consistent place.
Nice in-line images and profile summary, but the default font really sucks.
Spaz supports an impressive range of URL shortening services depending on your preference and the three most popular image uploading sites too. It does lack any means of filtering tweets into groups, and there's nothing for the Recent Lists feature either, though the software is pretty regularly updated.
Our verdict: A promising understudy to the main players in the tweeting arena. 5/10.
It's easy to see why DestroyTwitter is popular. It has features by the bucketload, and looks stylish into the bargain. In terms of design it seems to have been heavily inspired by TweetDeck, with the same dark backgrounds and vaguely Apple-like interface touches.
It would be easy to put DestroyTwitter's occasional problems all down to Air itself, but there's probably more to it than that, because these issues don't seem to trouble all the Air-powered clients. All the transition and smooth scrolling effects seem to work fine, but moving the window itself can cause problems.
As for features, this is certainly a middleweight. All the usual things you might expect are here, and most are well implemented - it has the neatest slide-up conversation viewer of all the apps, even if the button to activate it is almost sub-pixel small. Multiple shorteners and picture services are supported (though not TwitPic for some reason), and practically everything you might want to click on is clickable, though in most cases this just enables you to send links to a browser.
DestroyTwitter works in single or multi-column modes.
The most annoying thing about configuring this app is that most of the changes require you to restart, which makes the initial experimentation phase of using it rather annoying. Unlike TweetDeck, the multi-column view is not configurable - you get a standard view of timlines, replies and messages or groups.searches and saved (starred) messages.
Lacking some of TweetDeck's features DestroyTwitter is marginally easier to understand and not half as commercially oriented.
Our verdict: Neat, configurable and with plenty of well executed features. 8/10.
Twitux has been around since before Stephen Fry knew what Twitter was, but for all that development time it hasn't changed a great deal. The original purpose of the software was to create a small, lightweight and simple Twitter client for the desktop, and that's exactly what it does. Built on the GTK libraries for Gnome, the user interface is sensible and easy to understand, but that's mostly due to it not doing that much. There are no bells and whistles here. Well, actually, audio notification is one of the features it does manage, but there are no metaphorical bells and whistles.
Never mind lists, groups, photo uploads, multiple accounts, URL shortening, translations, conversation tracking or any of that, Twitux doesn't even stretch to retweets. You can reply to your friends, you can follow new ones if you happen to know their username and want to type it in manually. There's no searching, no filtering - in fact, whatever life-savingly useful feature you can think of, it isn't here, OK? You do get a pleasant and readable Twitter feed. You can read and send direct messages. That's pretty much about it though.
What you see is what you get: not much. But Twitux is ideal for mobile devices.
Are new features being added? In short, no. Development continues on this app, but really only in the area of bugfixes and a few tweaks. There have only been a few minor releases in the last year, so if you're expecting lists and such to be coming soon, forget it.
The big upside to all this is that Twitux is very light on resources. If you're running Linux on some kind of mobile device, an old laptop or similarly resource-constrained environment, this is one client you can afford to keep running in the background - it pretty much runs on nothing, takes up no space and very nearly isn't there at all.
Our verdict: Small, lightweight and simple, but not for power users. 4/10.
Another client written in a mixture of Python and GTK, Gwibber is a project of long standing that has long aimed to straddle the world of microblogging in all its forms.
The main feature of Gwibber - the fact that it copes with a Babel's Tower of protocols and messaging services, is also in some ways its downfall. Homogenising all that information into one stream of messages means that, inevitably, some of the particulars get lost. Consequently, although it is possible to easily retweet, reply or like/save a message, any advanced functionality is lost. There's no inline image viewing, and you can forget groups and lists.
It isn't all doom and gloom though. Clicking on an avatar will quickly open a new tab with a list of that user's posts. Perhaps because the interface is simpler and more direct than the Air-based clients, things do seem to happen almost instantaneously (assuming a good network connection). Tabbed displays can show the results of searches or individual timelines for users (just click on the username).
A fast, responsive and tweakable interface makes it easy to stay informed.
Although you'll have to use a tiny, feature-free textline to make your posts, Gwibber does at least give you the option to auto-shorten URLs using several different services. Gwibber is simple to set up and configure, and if you merely want to keep up to date with a wide range of information sources, it's pretty much ideal. Attach all the accounts you can think of and watch the world go scrolling by - though if you have a lot of accounts, you might want to turn the notification off, or your screen will be constantly full of little black windows.
Our verdict: Functional and fast, Gwibber is suitable for keeping tabs on things. 6/10.
You might balk at trying to pronounce the name, but Choqok is the rising star of microblogging clients in the Linux space. Making good use of the KDE toolkit, this tabbed-view multi-account micro marvel looks straightforward and simple but also packs a lot of useful features into its uncluttered design. Some of them almost slip by unnoticed, like the automatic deciphering of all those URL-shortened gobbets of text - Just hover the mouse over them and a tooltip will appear with the full pathname of the site.
Choqok also gets points simply for being a native Linux application. Its menus, fonts, buttons and general behaviour are all familiar (well, if you run any KDE apps anyway), which in many ways makes it easier to use, and certainly makes it fit well into a Linux desktop. Being published under a proper open source licence helps immensely too - although it doesn't affect the functionality, it is reassuringly transparent and open when it comes to the handling of your own personal data.
A familiar look and feel to Choqok's interface helps usability.
But Choqok doesn't need sympathy points. It has a well-rounded feature set, it's stable, performs well and gets the job done. The tabbed arrangement saves space and is faster than a multi-column view. It also supports Identica, which few of the non-Linux specific clients bother to do.
It's not all roses though. Although managing different accounts is easy with tabs, it doesn't support other services, such as Facebook, so if you're looking for a more general client, you'll have to consider something like Gwibber or TweetDeck. Although a lot of functionality is available, it is sometimes not so easy to use - uploading an image by clicking on a button and using the file requester may seem OK, but why doesn't it implement drag and drop?
There's still plenty of room for improvement, but Choqok is already a great all-rounder.
Our verdict: Neat, configurable and with plenty of well executed features. 9/10.
TweetDeck is second only to the standard web browser as the most popular way to update your status on the web, which means that it must have something going for it. It appears on the Linux platform courtesy of the Adobe Air platform, which may take some of the gloss of it, both figuratively and literally for Linux users.
The popularity, we can easily deduce, is down to the sheer number of features and ease of use. TweetDeck not only posts images for you, for example, but it includes a drag-and-drop interface to do so. It will auto-shorten URLs with your service of choice, and automatically shrink your tweets as you enter them. Switch between multi-column or single-column view and add custom columns to deal with searches, groups or other accounts like Facebook.
For all that, there are things it doesn't do. There is no theming to speak of, both styles of the update notification are large and obtrusive, the icons are often just a little on the small side, and if you use Identica or Laconica, there's no way to add these servers.
The one to rule them all? It certainly wants all the room on your desktop...
There are other annoyances. One is that TweetDeck requires you to create an account on its website to enable the saved groups feature. This seems like a thinly veiled attempt to garner user data. There seems to be no indication of what data transfer occurs between the client or the website, and no EULA for the software either - the terms all refer to the website. Maybe this isn't a major consideration to most users.
All in all though, it has the best featureset of the clients on test here, by some margin. If you use Twitter a great deal, this is probably the best choice.
Our verdict: The most popular desktop client for good reason. 9/10.
This is another client that's flying the flag for lightweight and easy to use apps, and as such bears no small resemblance to Twitux. Also using GTK, though this time through the medium of Python, it's a multi-platform app (as long as you install a proper version of Python on OS X or Windows) which possibly accounts for some of its increased popularity.
Mitter currently eschews the more complex features demanded by the frequent-posting twitterati, but isn't quite as pared to the bone as other clients. While you don't get a choice in the service it uses, it does support URL shortening, for instance. There is no transparent decoding of short URLs, nor are they directly clickable, but right-clicking on a tweet does give the option to follow any links, which will open in your default browser.
Mitter is pretty basic - good for following what is going on, but not really a participator.
As for customisation, well, there isn't any. The settings menu allows you to enter your Twitter account details, and that's it - no changing the font, no theming, no nothing. All this makes it a little less understandable that it requires so much memory to run, though this is mostly from the libraries it loads.
Disappointingly, and for whatever reason, it also appeared to be the most likely, among those tested, to go into random freezes, failed uploads and general misbehaviour. The version on test is, as always unless otherwise stated, the last stable release version, though there are test versions that address some of these issues.
Mitter doesn't have quite the same lightweight credentials as Twitux. After all, you'll still need to have Python and various libraries installed to use it. It does a similar job though, and at least has the prospect of features being added as time goes by.
Our verdict: Mitter could do with trying just a little harder. 4/10.
For some reason (chance? Magic? Good programming?) Mixero seems to suffer less from the Adobe Air effect. It seems at least to be more responsive and less prone to graphical glitches than the other Air apps on test. And it achieves all this without actually even claiming to support Linux at all!
A side-by-side view with controls in the middle is certainly a little quirky for Twitter clients, and yet after a few hours of use it seems quite natural. The left-hand side shows the timeline, while the right is for user management and groups. Mixero implements lists well, in a sort of directory tree structure inside the tabbed view, and it's really easy to amend them. These groups or lists can be managed separately by the application, or synchronised with your Twitter account. Twitter currently only allows 15 lists per user, so if you need more groups than that, you won't be able to sync them.
Although it doesn't explicitly support Identica, you can change the server address and therefore support any Twitter-compatible server. It's also possible to add multiple Twitter and Facebook accounts, although it becomes a little difficult to manage them effectively.
Quirky but very usable when you get to know it. Mixero likes any colour as long as it's green...
One neat solution to the growing amount of timeline noise is the ability to detach a new timeline window. As windows can be filtered, this means you can set up Mixero to scan for particular tags or whatever while still enjoying the normal timeline view. Like Choqok, you'll get a decoded URL address if you hover over any shortened URL in the timeline, and it also sports some nifty translation features.
The interface might be a little fussy for some, and there isn't much available in the way of customisation, but it becomes deceptively easy to use after a short while. Definitely one to try before you make a final decision.
Our verdict: The Twitter client for those who march to their own funky drum. 8/10.
Our choice: Choqok
Not everybody uses Twitter in the same way. Some people seem to bleat on about every mundane aspect of their existence. Others like to post links and snippets of info they think will be useful to others. Some people seem content with reading and following others, and some people just like to exchange banter with their mates. Some users are apparently 'social media gurus', and therefore should probably be avoided. Whatever the reason you decide to use Twitter, a great piece of client software should be able to cope with all these usage scenarios.
TweetDeck is the software with the greatest number of features crammed into it. It's been designed well enough to offer all this functionality without being too difficult to use, but it is a bit of a screen hog - to get the best out of it you'll need to dedicate a desktop to it, which might be a bit much for any but the most dedicated Tweeters. We also have a funny taste in our mouth over having to register to get some of the functionality, as well as the general un-Linuxyness of it all.
Choqok may not be the most feature-laden, but it is Linux-friendly and more than competent for general microblogging.
For that reason we have to give the overall thumbs-up to Choqok. It isn't perfect, and could do with extending its abilities, particularly in some of the areas of general helpfulness, but it's deeply wonderful and scores just as highly as TweetDeck.
Spaz also deserves a mention. Since it's driven by CSS styles it is themable, so if none of the other clients suit you, a few hours' work could bring forth the client of your dreams. Mixero has most of the features of TweetDeck, but is a lot more compact and seemingly more responsive too. As all the clients are free to use though, you can test drive the ones you like the sound of - don't run them all at once though - that way leads to madness!
First published in Linux Format magazine