As I wrote recently, Mac Mail lost some of its memory in a crash and, when I restored things, stopped working. I was keeping it running so I could go search for things, and then one day I accidentally clicked “Get new mail” and it did, so I guess it’d worked through its issues, whatever they were. Now that all my non-IMAP mail is on GMail, I can switch clients back and forth a bit; so herewith, comparative remarks on GMail, Thunderbird, and Mail.app.
Thunderbird 1.5 · Get it here. It’s probably the least feature-ful of the three alternatives, but it feels solid, and given the number of heavy geeks who are now using it, I’m confident that it’ll go on being maintained and enhanced more or less forever.
It’s got one really nice feature that none of the others have; space-bar takes you through the message text and when you get to the end, offers to take you to the next unread message in whatever mailbox.
For a Mac user, it’s irritating that it doesn’t integrate with the system address-book and misses some other Mac niceties like the emacs keystrokes. In fact, I couldn’t find any way at all to customize the key-mappings. This is really irritating on a big keyboard, because the DEL key doesn’t delete a message; you have to use the Backspace key (the one that’s labeled “delete” on laptop keyboards).
Weirdly, it doesn’t let you keep a bunch of different signatures around and slap one one to a message.
But the biggest Thunderbird gripe is that it’s really kind of slow; fetching mail, sending mail, and just moving from message to message.
I suspect that in the long run, Thunderbird is where I’m most likely to end up, just because I don’t think any commercial vendor is going to be able to keep up with the Mozilla tribe in terms of fixing bugs and adding new stuff.
Also, there’s already an active community building add-ons and plug-ins; that’s a real plus. Given that, the announced feature list for Thunderbird 2.0 is fairly unexciting.
Mail.app · This is the mail program that comes with the Mac. It’s quite a bit snappier than Thunderbird and well-integrated with the rest of the system. It’s got the nice control-N/P/F/B/E/A keystrokes from Emacs, which are a real time-saver when you’re composing messages.
It’s a whole lot prettier to look at than Thunderbird, and in the long term, that matters.
And that’s the biggest problem; the whole thing feels a little shaky; it crashes a little too often, locks up a little too often, and as I found, is apt to lose your profile information in a system crash.
GMail · GMail is a bunch of different new and mostly good ideas thrown together in a package. Obviously, it provides better search than Thunderbird and is probably competitive with Spotlight.
The single best idea is Archive/Labeling. On most mail systems, when I’m done thinking about a message and want to file it away, I have to decide which mailbox to put it in. This is really conflating two unrelated things: getting it out of the inbox and deciding what it’s about. With GMail’s archive, I can just nuke it from the inbox but still have it available by search, without having to decide what it’s about. How many of us have email folders named “misc” or “odds-n-sods”? Also, you can apply more than one label (I haven’t done this yet, but that may just be years of file-folder conditioning).
I have one minor gripe: there’s no keyboard shortcut for Delete; I’ve already complained about this. An authority on the subject remarked off-line: “They don’t want you to do that.” And of course Google’s all about search. But trust me, there are a zillion emails come in over the threshold that I just don’t wanna see again ever.
My major gripe is GMail’s notion of “conversations”, which is a threaded view of email taken to an extreme. I find that it makes GMail completely unusable for high-volume discussion lists; I can’t stand having long threads squished into a single line. I decide whether a thread is interesting based in part on who’s posting to it, and GMail hides that. So I’m transferring all my mailing-list memberships back to my Sun IMAP account.
If that single issue were cleared up (maybe there’s a way to get GMail to un-thread its threads, but I can’t find it) I could see GMail (or Yahoo’s version or whatever) becoming a perfectly viable full-time mail-reader.
Spam · None of these are distinctly better than the others at spam. GMail’s a little better at stopping the penny-stock promotions, but shows me quite a few you-won-the-lottery notices, and even some of the classic Nigerian-bank-transfer offers.