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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Importing into Mail

Mail can import address data in Lightweight Directory Interchange Format or text format, handily enabling it to read Thunderbird and Entourage exports. Field matching is relatively easy, and you can specify how any duplicate records are handled: ignore the new record, replace the original with the new record, keep both records, or update the original record with the new information. E-mail is easily imported from Entourage, Thunderbird and many other e-mail clients by simply choosing the mailboxes you want to import. (Tip: To import mail from Thunderbird, choose Netscape/Mozilla.)

Importing into Entourage

Entourage reads exported Thunderbird contact data, and it's easy to match Thunderbird address fields to those in Entourage. Although Entourage can't directly import contacts from Address Book, you can import Thunderbird's exported vCard file by dragging the file icon into Entourage's Address Book pane.

Importing Mail's e-mail couldn't be simpler: You specify Apple Mail as the program from which to import, and its e-mail folders are copied into Entourage. To import Thunderbird messages, you can use the ImportExportTools add-on to export a Thunderbird message folder and then drag it into Entourage's folder list. (Tip: Entourage won't recognize the exported mbox file until you manually add a .mbox extension to its filename.)

Summing up

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Mail comes free with every Mac, and Entourage has been a component of Microsoft Office since Office 2001. Both programs are easy to learn, well documented, full featured and pleasant to use. That last is an especially important criterion because most of us spend more time using our e-mail client than almost any other program.

Since you already own at least one of these e-mail clients, why consider Thunderbird? The primary reasons are that it's free, open source, extensible via add-ons and supported by a community of independent developers. Furthermore, it offers some unique features, such as RSS support, return receipts and delayed sending. However, learning to use Thunderbird and its add-ons is severely hampered by the lack of a Help file or coherent documentation.

When you choose Mozilla Thunderbird Help from the Help menu, your browser launches and takes you to the Mozilla Web site, where you're invited to read FAQs or perform a Google search for the information you need. In short, finding answers is considerably more time-consuming than just popping open an indexed Help file. Thunderbird also has the dubious distinction of being one of the few programs I've managed to crash since installing OS X many years ago.

For those reasons, I recommend either Entourage or Mail. Given Mail's capabilities and ease of use, I wouldn't suggest buying Office just so you can use Entourage unless -- like me -- you need a good newsreader, lust after its other components or have many types of e-mail accounts. For example, I use Entourage to manage two ISP POP accounts, a .Mac IMAP account, two Hotmail accounts and a Google Gmail account. On the other hand, if you already own Office, you'll find that Entourage is so central to the suite and so tightly integrated with the other applications that you should definitely give it a try. You may find that you prefer it to Mail.

Steve Schwartz has been a computer-industry writer since the days of Apple II. In addition to hundreds of articles and reviews, he is the author of almost 60 books on a variety of computer topics.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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