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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Searching for messages

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In addition to creating, reading and responding to mail, it's surprising how often we need to locate an old message. Scrolling through the Inbox or Sent Items is fine when looking for a recent message, but it's woefully inefficient when a message might be in one of many accounts or if you can't recall its approximate date.

Although you can perform a simple search in any of the programs by entering text in a search box on the tool bar, Mail is by far the easiest to use. As when you search with Spotlight, the results show up as you type and display all matches anywhere within each message (including the address section, message text and attachment names) in all of your e-mail accounts and folders. You can also limit the results to matches in the currently selected mailbox as well as to matches in From, To or Subject.

Just type in the tool bar to conduct a basic search in Mail.
Just type in the tool bar to conduct a basic search in Mail. (Click image to see larger view.)

When performing a tool bar search in Thunderbird or Entourage, you first must select an account to search and specify a search object (such as Subject) before typing the search text. Entourage is even more restrictive in that you can't elect to search the entire message, although -- as with Mail -- matches are shown as you type.

To perform a complex search in Entourage or Thunderbird, you specify search criteria in a dialog box. If the search is one you find useful, you can save it as an Entourage Custom View or as a Thunderbird Search Folder. The only way to make a complex search in Mail is to define a Smart Mailbox with multiple criteria. (A Smart Mailbox is a message folder whose contents are dynamically assembled according to the criteria you specify; the messages actually stay in their existing folders.) The result is saved and continually updated until you delete the Smart Mailbox.

In Thunderbird, as in Entourage, you can combine criteria for a complex search.
In Thunderbird, as in Entourage, you can combine criteria for a complex search. (Click image to see larger view.)

Mail and Entourage messages and contact data are indexed for Spotlight, enabling you to search for e-mail and address book information even when your mail client isn't running. However, the specific material indexed differs between the two programs. For instance, Mail indexes the names of attachments, while Entourage does not. You can click any found message or contact record to launch the appropriate e-mail or address book program.

Searching for messages winner: Mail

Searching is greatly simplified in Mail and performs the way most of us want. That is, you type a search string, and Mail automatically searches all parts of every message in all accounts. Unfortunately, unlike Thunderbird and Entourage, Mail does not allow you to save searches so they can easily be repeated unless you turn the search into a Smart Mailbox.

Searching for messages

 

Mail

Entourage

Thunderbird

Simple searches

Complex searches

Search for messages in Spotlight

×

Save searches for reuse

Search for address book contacts

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