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.

For many people, it offers first-class search via Spotlight, which for some reason that just silently fails to work for me, so I have to run slow shell scripts to search message content.

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.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Tom Offermann (Dec 16 2006, at 11:51)

To address your "no delete" gripe about Gmail...have you considered using the Gmail Macros Greasemonkey script? (If you're using Firefox, that is.)

It adds a number of helpful keyboard shortcuts, including 'T' for "Trash Conversation".

http://persistent.info/archives/2006/11/08/greasemonkey-updates

[link]

From: Brandon Mitchell (Dec 16 2006, at 12:59)

You could also try the aformentioned script on Geekmonkey for the Camino users in the audience:

http://pimpmycamino.com/parts/geekmonkey

[link]

From: michael (Dec 16 2006, at 13:17)

Try GyazMail. 3-pained mail.app-esque interface, miniscule ram footprint, powerful search tools, and no proprietary database. Your messages are saved in plain text in ~/Library/Application Support/GyazMail along with plist files to organize them in the client.

http://www.gyazsquare.com/gyazmail/

[link]

From: michael mccafferty (Dec 16 2006, at 13:53)

My long-time gripe about Mail.app is its lack of support for subscribed folders in IMAP accounts. I suppose Apple made that feature decision based on the "home/consumer" target audience, who probably don't need that feature and might not appreciate the added complexity, but as someone who uses OS X professionally and who juggles multiple IMAP accounts I sorely miss this feature.

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From: Rijk (Dec 16 2006, at 14:07)

Another alternative mail client is Opera (the web browser). It comes with a complete mail client, and offers the 'unique' features that you like in GMail. Since Opera 7, mail is handled as a single database, with predefined 'views'. The first is the 'unread' view, but mail is also automatically sorted in mailing list views, views for each contact in your address book, views for messages with attachments, a spam view (with learning filter), label views, etc and custom views. But there is only one message stored. So for messages in the 'unread', you can add a label like 'todo' and then mark is as 'read' and it is gone from your unread view.

If you need HTML mail composition you'll have to wait for a later version. But it is quite a lot faster than Thunderbird, offers customizable keyboard shortcuts - and for the Mac settings, these Emacs style shortcuts are already enabled :)

Here's the official word: http://www.opera.com/products/desktop/m2/ and the quickstart guide: http://www.opera.com/support/tutorials/mail/quickstart/

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From: James Cunningham (Dec 16 2006, at 14:25)

I don't have Thunderbird 1.5 installed to check, but the recent Thunderbird 2.0 beta does support OS X's emacs keybindings.

And apparently you can compile Thunderbird with a patch to use Address Book - http://icecube.co.nz/2006/10/24/thunderbird-on-osx-the-woes-of-mail-app - but I haven't tried it.

Thunderbird *is* looking better. Apple Mail, on the other hand, looks sketchier and sketchier every day, though I haven't had any problems with it.

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From: John Evans (Dec 16 2006, at 15:25)

I would like to add that with the aid of SpamSieve I have been able to get a pretty decent 99.6% accuracy in detecting spam in Mail.app. Worth the money in my opinion

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From: James Cunningham (Dec 16 2006, at 16:39)

Re Michael, above: GyazMail doesn't support IMAP, unfortunately.

In fact, there really aren't that many choices for native, graphical IMAP clients on OS X. Is there a definitive list somewhere?

Apple Mail

Thunderbird

Opera

Entourage

Mulberry

Eudora

And only three of those are free and still available. Surely I'm missing something? Kiwi looks like it might be wonderful - http://www.theronge.com/kiwi/ - but it's still complete vapor at the moment.

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From: Ian Bicking (Dec 16 2006, at 16:51)

I've been using the keyconfig extension in Thunderbird (the only extension I'm using): http://kb.mozillazine.org/Keyconfig_extension:_Thunderbird -- it's non-trivial to use, because you define shortcuts in Javascript. But I've been able to create a few keys to do "label and advance" for the various labels I've been using. I really like that. I've created a label "archive" and I label and then periodically move messages based on that; kind of a crude gmail-like operation. Plus the Emacs keys you can turn on in both Thunderbird and Firefox.

I'm surprised about the speed; Mail.app seemed good to me, but not noticeably better than Thunderbird. Thunderbird has been considerably faster than the other open source mail readers I've tried (particularly over IMAP). Different clients seem to scale better in different ways.

I've been using http://www.tuffmail.com/ for hosting email (after realizing what a waste of time self-hosting is). Their spam protection has been better than gmail's or any of the mail clients'. I've been very happy with them so far. Also it's trivial to change IMAP services without any information loss (just a drag and drop operation in the mail client); gmail isn't nearly so seamless.

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From: Dave Thompson (Dec 16 2006, at 17:33)

I've been using Mail.app for about three years (since I switched from Winder$), with the exception of a short stint early on with MailSmith (Bare Bones). I haven't had the problems some other have, but recently decided I really hate HTML-formatted email and decided to reload MailSmith. I handle four email accounts (currently).

There are a few issues with MailSmith (notably a problem with attachments for those with Stuffit 11 installed), but it's really a pretty decent piece of software. Bare Bones needs to update it, at least to make it universal so it runs like is should on the Intel-based Macs.

I've found I like MailSmith pretty well. Once I fix my attachment problem (inbounds are not the problem; outbounds are), and once Bare Bones recompiles (at the least) with universal support, I think this will work for me.

I really like plain-text email.

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From: Tom Marble (Dec 16 2006, at 17:35)

Tim:

I'm a big fan of Thunderbird and the primary reasons

are the ability to add extensions and specifically

the enigmail extension (regrettably too few people

have certificates :-) ):

http://enigmail.mozdev.org/

And it's true that some of the keystrokes are hardcoded

(I'm on the interest list for a long standing bug about

the keys to "select a thread" clash with a Gnome

internationalization sequence). In looking for emacs

related keybinding I found Nostalgy today:

https://addons.mozilla.org/thunderbird/2487/

(I had been using the Quickfile extension).

This is awesome for immediately filing e-mails

(keeping the INBOX empty is my way of dealing with workflow).

And then from the upstream site:

http://www.eleves.ens.fr/home/frisch/soft_mozilla.html

I found a link to "Five Power Tips for Thunderbird":

http://www.summersault.com/community/weblog/2006/07/20/five-power-tips-for-thunderbird.html

Which I would generally agree with (filtering

is essential). One of the interesting recommendations

is "External Editor":

http://globs.org/articles.php?lng=en&pg=2

Which is great if you set it up with /usr/bin/gnuclient

as your editor...

http://www.tristan-carel.com/pub/emacs/gnuserve/

Now you can switch to your *running emacs* session

to edit the e-mail with Control-E!

Of course I don't use Mac OS X, but I can endorse Thunderbird.

--Tom

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From: bloodnok (Dec 16 2006, at 18:54)

thunderbird has a number of interesting quirks on osx, but it still beats the pants off mail.app, which is an utter piece of ... as a fellow sun thing, i use thunderbird as my default client. apparently by monkeying with the contents of toolkit.jar. it possible to improve the keymappings of thunderbird. i've yet to prove this but remain hopeful ...

mail.app just choked when i attempted to configure it to swan rules, by the way ...

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From: James (Dec 16 2006, at 21:23)

If you can stand not integrating with the Apple address book, Evolution is probably worth a look, although compiling it against the native Aqua GTK+ implementation might not work and you'll have to stick with the X version instead. I've heard its IMAP support is not as solid as Thunderbird's, particularly for search folders. It does have all the Outlook features such as a calendar, task lists etc., and its LDAP addressbook support is pretty solid.

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From: Adam Kalsey (Dec 16 2006, at 23:56)

I'll second the suggestion of KeyConfig for Thunderbird. I've been able to set up some fairly useful keybindings. But not, so far, to get the small Delete key to actually delete a message.

Spam filters in Thunderbird are better than anything else I've tried. And I've had the same email address for 10 years, published on public web sites for most of that time, so I get a LOT of spam.

Thunderbird 2.0 is looking good. On OSX at least, you can use both 1.5 and 2.0. Just rename one of the apps or put them in two different directories. They'll both use the same profile and don't seem to step on each other's toes. They can't both run concurrently, but you can swap back and forth.

Key shortcuts are more Mac-like in 2.0, but it's bugging me that they've changed shortcuts. Cmd-Shift-M no longer opens a new mail message. The shortcut changes are going to take some getting used to. I could change them with KeyConfig, but it's probably better to learn new habits that are more Mac-like.

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From: Horst Albermann (Dec 17 2006, at 02:53)

Two things to try if you have problems with Mail:

(1) Mailbox -> Rebuild

(2) Spotlight command line: mdimport. -d = debug! mdutil …

[link]

From: mr ghort (Dec 17 2006, at 03:33)

Have you thought about using mutt? Every year or so I try one of these new-fangled fancy-schmancy gui email clients but end up going back to mutt because it's just so much faster at dealing with large mail volume, and from the sound of it mine is nowhere close to yours.

* it still the best thread-viewer in known space, gui clients included

* somehow it loads a 1GB mbox file in 5 seconds

* full mouseless operation

I prefer the save-everything method, so I have procmail put every email I get in a separate file, so I am free to delete anything in my inbox and know I still have it if I need it later.

If you're one of those saving-to-different-mailboxes people, just type "s=boxname".

[link]

From: walter (Dec 17 2006, at 10:07)

@mr ghort: i use mutt at work on our unix machines. would like to try it on my os x box. can it handle multiple accounts? (ps my experience with Mail.app is pretty solid on over ten different accounts including two gmail accounts). But i must admit i love mutt... plain text mail is the only way to fly.

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From: Mike (Dec 17 2006, at 14:19)

For my part I'd sooner keep a copy of Mail's plist file around against the possibility the account information is wiped by a crash - something, fortunately, that hasn't happened to me yet - than put up with something that doesn't look or feel at home on the OS. But it looks like I'm in the minority. I have ~/Library/Preferences backed up anyway.

Back on 10.2 I found that Mail would balk at any attachment unless it was quite small. They used to get stuck in the Outbox. And these weren't large files - I don't email large files. It's just that they were not tiny. I don't know whether that was a general problem, but I was certainly troubled with it. So at that time I used Thunderbird instead. I think I must have played with almost every Thunderbird iteration on OS X, as well as Windows, since - out of curiosity really - but I find its look and feel and lack of integration too annoying. Two examples of bad look and feel:

1. Click the address-book icon when you're composing a mail and the addresses open in a pane to the left of the compose pane not a smal window as with most email clients on most platforms. What's that about? Worse, that sort-of works on Windows and on Linux. But on OS X I've found the scrollbar is misaligned and is under the pane to the right.

2. Switch the font for plaintext to a proportional font - which makes sense if you're using a client capable, like Thunderbird is, of handling format=flowed:

http://joeclark.org/ffaq.html

Now if, at the same time, you're using a fairly small reading and composing windows - say, about the same size as Mail.app's defaults - because that gives a comfortable reading width, you're treated to an intrusive horizontal scrollbar. IIRC, it's not there if you use a fixed width font and it's not there if you use a fairly large window. For some kooky reason Thunderbird doesn't seem to honor your font preferences for display of plaintext when composing either.

These are the kinds of things I mean by poor look and feel.

Thunderbird's lack of integration is too well-known and has already been too widely discussed to need further comment. But I have to say I do tend to think, "Why did Thunderbird come to the party if it didn't want to join in? It's as if it's sitting in the corner crouched over a bowl of peanuts not talking to anyone else." But, of course, I know the answer - it's not a counterpart to Camino; it's a counterpart to Firefox.

Cross-platform is what the app is all about. I suspect the guys coming over from Eudora will try to push the envelope in the platform-specific direction, as far as it practicable for a basically cross-platform application - at least Steve Dorner has said that. But then that will only mitigate to some extent what is an inherent drawback.

I think the promised Cocoa re-write of Eudora - page still cached by Google:

http://216.239.59.104/search?q=cache:UTd_GDfppekJ:www.eudora-mail.com/techsupport/kb/2654hq.html+cocoa+eudora&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=5&client=safari

... might have been interesting, but that will never see the light of day now.

[link]

From: Reuven M. Lerner (Dec 17 2006, at 14:33)

Hi, Tim. I've been using Thunderbird for the last three years or so, since I switched to the Mac, and I've been quite happy with it. Not only is it a good, solid program, but I feel that I'm not trapped on any particular platform. If I ever decide to switch back to Linux as my primary desktop, I'll be able to just copy the files over and keep running. Indeed, that's what I did when I moved from Linux to the Mac.

While you might not want to use beta software on a day-to-day basis, I encourage you to try the Thunderbird 2.0 beta, if only a little bit. I didn't think that the improvements would be that significant, but I've generally been quite pleased with what I've seen. In particular, the "recent folders" and "favorite folders" have saved me from long and deep hierarchies of mail folders.

That said, you've nailed the biggest problems with Thunderbird on the Mac, namely the lack of integration with Spotlight and the address book. So I tend to use the Thunderbird address book for everything, and try to be good about filing messages in appropriate folders. It's usually enough for me to remember the folder into which I've filed something, and the approximate date on which I received it, for me to find the message.

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From: Ray (Dec 17 2006, at 19:37)

Mike,

I can't reproduce the problems that you are having with format=flowed. Using a proportional font and changing the window size from full screen to the smallest window that I could imagine using, the text flows properly and the horizontal scroll bar does not appear. I only get the horizontal scroll bar when the width of the window is insufficient to accomodate the longest word. This is true for both Thunderbird 1.5 and 2.0.

Also, I get my preferred font in composing and for replying.

Maybe your settings are wonky?

I do get the problem with the contacts scroll bar being partially hidden if the width of the column is insufficient to contain the longest object in the window, but if you widen the column it goes away. I never use the contacts so I hadn't noticed.

[link]

From: John Cowan (Dec 17 2006, at 20:06)

mutt++

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From: Anthony B. Coates (Dec 18 2006, at 02:59)

I've also been using Opera as my e-mail client for quite a few years. I doubt it integrates with the Mac address book, and it doesn't compose HTML e-mail (as noted in an earlier comment), although it displays it. However, Opera took a "GMail-style" approach to e-mail before GMail even existed, so

* it has fast search. I have 20000+ e-mails archived, and the search always completes in a fraction of a second. The same fast search facility is also available for bookmarks and contacts;

* you don't have to file your incoming e-mail. You can always find it again later with fast search, or you can set up filters (which are just searches that auto-update) for common items. Removing that decision point and action of "which folder should I store this in" saves me a *lot* of time in reading e-mail.

Cheers, Tony.

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From: Dave Finlay (Dec 21 2006, at 00:47)

Hey Tim:

Minor thing (and you probably already do it) but in Thunderbird, don't forget to compact your folders to release the space that all the spam chews up. Otherwise, the speed slowly decelerates to a crawl.

http://kb.mozillazine.org/Thunderbird_:_Tips_:_Compacting_Folders

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From: Rob Sanheim (Dec 22 2006, at 10:36)

I find Gmail search _faster_ then Spotlight in Mail.app, which is kinda crazy but just shows how Google can beat anyone in search, even when they have that whole net latency thing to overcome.

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From: Damon Anderson (Dec 31 2006, at 03:02)

I am also a big fan of Opera, at least for IMAP. What I want to know is after all these years why there isn't one single email client out that meets these simple requirements:

1) Cross Platform (Apple, Windows, Linux/UNIX)

2) Ability to define storage location (e.g. change the drive/directory that the email will be stored in).

3) Store in the same format and structure on all OSes (see point # 1)

4) Store in a format that is resistant to corruption and file bloat (e.g. not in a single file) so that it is easy to recover from a crash and only minimal data (e.g. one email) can be corrupted at a time if there is hard failure.

Maybe the new Eudora will get there, in the mean time I'm forced to use IMAP for day to day use and Outlook for storage and I'm afraid I'll never ever be able to get my Outlook mail back out into a standard format.

Finally why aren't ALL the email programs using the vCard standard so that we can interchange our contacts quickly and easily?

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