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 threads

Mail and Thunderbird can arrange messages in threads (groups of messages in a folder that have the same Subject). This concept originated with newsgroups, but it's not as useful for tracking e-mail as it is for newsgroup posts, because an e-mail conversation occurs in two places, such as Inbox and Sent Items.

Although Entourage doesn't provide a message thread view, you can achieve a similar result by grouping messages by Subject (something you can do in the other programs as well). In all three, you can also sort messages on several other message attributes, such as who they're to, who they're from, when they were received or when they were sent.

Image handling

Depending on your correspondent's e-mail client, you may receive images as attachments, inserted directly into the message body, or both. (In Mail, for example, when you attach a supported image type, it's automatically inserted into the message body, while Entourage users must specifically choose to insert an image or to attach it.)

When you receive a message with a supported image type in Mail (regardless of whether it's inserted or attached), it's automatically displayed in the message body. Entourage and Thunderbird, on the other hand, take their cue from the sender by default: If the image was inserted into the body, it's displayed; if the image was attached, only its file icon is shown. Both programs offer the option of displaying attached images inline if you prefer, though.

In Mail, you can view received images as a slide show.
In Mail, you can view received images as a slide show. (Click image to see larger view.)

If you occasionally receive batches of photos from friends, you'll love Mail's Slideshow option -- when a message contains supported image types, you can launch them in a full-screen slide show. You can advance the slide show automatically or manually, show images at actual size or fit them to the screen, and display clickable image thumbnails on an index page. You can also elect to add any image directly to your iPhoto library.

Checking for incoming mail

Each program allows you to check for new mail manually or automatically (via a schedule). When checking manually, you can simultaneously retrieve new e-mail from all accounts or check only a particular account. Most users, however, will rely on one or more schedules to automatically check their mail. Entourage and Thunderbird schedules are account-specific; that is, you can set a different checking interval for each account. Mail, however, only allows you to define one schedule that will be used to check all accounts.

When it comes to scheduling, Entourage is the master. First, you can specify which accounts are checked when an automatic or manual Send/Receive All is performed. Second, you can define account groups that are checked together. I have separate schedules for my two ISP accounts (every minute), my two Hotmail accounts (every 30 minutes) and my two Gmail accounts (every hour), for example. You can also define timed schedules that retrieve mail at specific times (such as Tuesdays and Fridays at 9 a.m. and 4:15 p.m.) or recurring schedules that check daily, weekly, monthly or yearly.

Receiving and reading messages winner: Mail

Mail provides several helpful and unique features that make reading your mail more pleasant, such as displaying messages in threads, speaking messages, storing images in iPhoto and displaying image attachments as a slide show. Mail's only significant shortcoming in this category is that it allows only one receiving schedule.

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Coming soon!

In the coming months, new versions of Mail and Entourage will be available. Mail will ship with Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5) and is slated for an October 2007 release, and Microsoft Office 2008 is scheduled for a January 2008 launch. The new version of Mail will purportedly include built-in stationery, sticky notes, RSS support, and integration with iCal for appointments and to-do.

Although little has been officially announced, Entourage 2008 will feature additional Exchange Server support, including the ability to send server-based "out of office" automatic replies. A stand-alone application called My Day will allow you to view and work with scheduled appointments and tasks without having to launch Entourage.

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