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 handling and management

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The manual and automatic procedures provided for managing your messages can make using any e-mail client a pleasure or a pain. In other words, can you route, mark, organize and back up your e-mail, and how much effort does it take?

When you add an e-mail account to any of the programs, an account identifier appears in the left-hand pane. At a minimum, each program also provides separate folders within each account in which to store incoming and outgoing messages.

Folders, filters and rules

All programs let you create additional folders or mailboxes for storing messages -- for instance, one for mail related to a particular project, or one for all work-related e-mail. By specifying criteria in a Message Rule (Entourage), a Message Filter (Thunderbird), or a Smart Mailbox or Rule (Mail), you can automatically route particular messages or copies of them to the folder you created.

You can also use rules and filters to perform other actions, such as categorize messages (Entourage), mark them as read (any program), set them as junk or not junk (Thunderbird or Entourage) or send an automatic reply (any program). Note that Entourage supports twice as many action types as the other programs.

IMAP options

Messages from IMAP accounts are generally read directly from the mail server on which they're stored. As such, you normally need an active Internet or network connection to read them. As a convenience, Mail and Thunderbird allow you to store copies of IMAP messages on your computer (providing the same convenience as a POP3 account), enabling you to view messages when you're offline.

Message classification

As the table shows, each program provides several ways for you to classify messages. For instance, you can assign customizable, color-coded labels to Thunderbird and Entourage messages (such as Budget Project, Family or American History Assignments), mark messages for follow-up in Mail and Entourage, or assign a star to messages in Thunderbird to mark them as important.

Entourage lets you apply customizable, color-coded labels to your messages.
Entourage lets you apply customizable, color-coded labels to your messages. (Click image to see larger view.)
 

You can manually apply these tags to appropriate messages, or you can create rule or filter criteria to apply them automatically. Once your messages are labeled or marked, you can sort, group or filter them by those characteristics. The labels in Entourage and Thunderbird are particularly useful. To get similar functionality in Mail, you need to buy the $30 MailTags.

Junk mail handling

Every program has a junk mail filter that's applied to incoming mail. Suspected junk is either moved to a special folder or is simply marked as "junk." Thunderbird and Mail can improve their screening abilities through training; as you manually classify messages as junk or correct erroneous junk classifications, each program gets progressively better at the task. Thunderbird can also help protect you from phishing by alerting you to messages that appear to be scams.

Mail includes a special antijunk feature that I've always wished for: Rather than just deleting junk mail, you can opt to send a response from your mail server indicating that the e-mail account doesn't exist! In theory, this tactic should result in your e-mail address being removed from the spammer's mailing list. Unfortunately, spammers generally don't supply real return addresses, so while bouncing these messages may make you momentarily feel good, they won't have any real impact.

Message handling and management

 

Mail

Entourage

Thunderbird

Account-specific folders

User-defined folders

Store IMAP messages offline

×

Manually mark as read/unread

Assign categories

×

Flag for follow-up

×

Mark with star

×

×

Automated mail handling

     

Junk/spam filter

Bounce messages

×

×

Message rules/filters

Scripting support

AppleScript

AppleScript

×

Save individual messages

Message folder backup

×

×

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