Mac e-mail showdown: Which program delivers?

Our reviewer weighs the pros and cons of Mail, Entourage and Thunderbird to see which one gets his stamp of approval

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Message backup

You can save individual messages from any of the programs as ordinary text files. In Entourage, the Export command enables you to back up entire accounts, message folders and other items, such as notes, tasks and calendar events. You can also back up any Entourage or Mail folder by just dragging it onto the Desktop to create a mailbox file. To back up a Thunderbird mail folder, you either need to locate it in the Finder and make a copy or install the ImportExportTools add-on.

Message handling and management winner: Entourage

This category was almost too close to call. All three programs offer excellent tools for automatically handling incoming messages and reducing the influx of junk mail. However, only Entourage provides tools and techniques for easily backing up individual messages, complete message folders and data from its other components, such as appointments and tasks. In an e-mail client, backup is too critical to be relegated to manually tracking down files and copying them in the Finder, as Mail and Thunderbird require.

Making the switch

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After digesting all this info, you may decide it's time to try out a new program. When you update your existing program, old messages and contact records are usually imported as part of the process, but switching programs, on the other hand, is not as simple and straightforward. Depending on the programs you're switching between, you may discover that importing your existing data is easy, requires a little or a lot of work, or is downright impossible.

Importing into Thunderbird

Thunderbird can't directly read contact data from OS X's Address Book (used by Mail) or from Entourage. Although Address Book data can be exported in vCard format, Thunderbird can't read those files either. Entourage can export its contacts to a compatible, tab-delimited text file that Thunderbird can import; however, the process of matching the address fields in the exported data to Thunderbird's fields is painful, complex and time consuming. You may find it simpler to first open Entourage's exported address data in Excel, rearrange it and then import it into Thunderbird.

Messages can only be imported into Thunderbird from Eudora or Netscape Communicator. However, you can install an ImportExportTools add-on that enables Thunderbird to read message files in mbox format. While Mail and Entourage can both generate an mbox file by dragging a message folder onto the Desktop, Thunderbird can only read the ones created by Entourage. (Mail creates a folder-based mbox variant that other programs aren't designed to read.)

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Other Contenders

As you're probably aware, the three mail clients described in this article aren't the only ones available for OS X. The past few years have seen several programs cease development, be abandoned by their creators, or fall into disuse. But there are some active alternatives still around:

  • Eudora 6.2.4. Formerly a commercial product from Qualcomm, Eudora was handed over to the open-source community in October 2006. Until a new version is available (supposedly sometime during 2007), you can try out Version 6.2.4, which includes ScamWatch (warns about suspected phishing), MoodWatch (checks for inflammatory language), the ability to display animated GIFs in messages and e-mail usage statistics. It does not support Exchange Server accounts, and certain features, such as junk mail filtering, are disabled in Sponsored Mode.
  • GyazMail 1.5.5. With a feature set and interface reminiscent of Entourage, GyazMail (GyazSquare, $40) is an attractive mail client for POP3 and IMAP accounts. An especially nice touch is that you can apply filters to messages while they're still on the server. For instance, you could check for certain words in the Subject (such as Viagra, mortgage or investment) and automatically delete such messages without ever downloading them. How cool is that? GyazMail's only obvious shortcoming is that you can't use it to create HTML-formatted messages, although it can display incoming HTML messages.
  • Mailsmith 2.1.5. Mailsmith (Bare Bones Software, $75) is a POP-only e-mail client with SpamSieve integration, support for PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) for encryption and extensive message-filtering capabilities -- you can even set up a message filter that triggers an Applescript. To avoid the security risks associated with reading formatted e-mail, all messages are displayed as plain text. However, you can optionally view HTML-formatted messages in your browser.
  • PowerMail 5.5.3. PowerMail (CTM Development, $59) sports a professional-looking, tripane interface similar to that of Mail. Features include the ability to search for messages in Spotlight, a message database that purportedly can produce search results seven times faster than Mail, spam filtering and integration with SpamSieve and Intego Personal Antispam, multiple undos, the ability to send all attachments as .zip archives and a PowerMail Scripts menu that contains 20 starter scripts.
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