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Overhauling the inbox

Since Tiger was first unveiled last June, the Mail application built-in to OS X has received little notice. Mail improvements weren’t even covered during Steve Jobs’ preview of the operating system update at last June’s developer conference. And while Mail was included among the OS X 10.4 features highlighted by Jobs during his keynote at January’s Macworld Expo, those announced changes were quickly overshadowed by the other products trotted out by Apple that day.

But don’t confuse the lack of attention for a lack of new features in Mail. While the e-mail client has seen its share of changes since its 2001 release, nothing has been as significant as the enhancements to Mail in Tiger, which include better integration and a whole new look.

The Appearance

The first thing you will notice when opening Mail are the striking changes to the interface. Gone is the drawer or side panel that housed the mailboxes and folders for your email accounts—this has been replaced with a panel on the left-hand side of the application window. Replacing the drawer gives Mail a much more integrated look and feel, although the addition of a three-pane window increases the resemblance between Apple’s e-mail client and other mainstream mail applications such as Microsoft’s Entourage or Qualcomm’s Eudora.

The latest version of Mail has a polished look that was absent from previous editions. The familiar OS X color scheme has been modified slightly giving the toolbar background a solid grey look, while the background of the new side panel is a light blue.

Tiger Mail Appearance

The look of the buttons in Mail have completely changed. The standard OS X icons have been replaced with a glossy-looking toolbar that groups icons together based on their function—buttons to mark e-mail as Read or Unread are together while Reply, Reply All, and Forward are part of another group. These can also be added to the toolbar separately if you wish.

tiger mail toolbar

Spotlight

Perhaps the most significant change to Mail in Tiger is the way it integrates OS X 10.4’s Spotlight search technology. Using Spotlight, endless searches that rely on an ever-increasing number keywords to find e-mails are a thing of the past.

As it was with the Finder, Spotlight will begin to search for matching e-mails just as soon as you start typing in Mail’s search box. You have the option to search all mailboxes at once—in which case the results will show which mailbox a message is located—or you can search in the mail folder you are currently browsing. You can also search the “From,” “To,” or “Subject” fields, as well as the entire message.

A Spotlight search gives you a list of messages that were found based on the criteria you entered; clicking on a message reveals the entire text of the message for you to read. Spotlight also dynamically updates the search list as new mail arrives. So, if you do a search for “Jim Dalrymple” and I send you a new message, the results window will be updated on the fly.

Smart Mailboxes

Along with the advanced search technology, comes a way to save e-mail searches for future reference. Smart Mailboxes are akin to iTunes Smart Playlists—they update themselves dynamically based on criteria that you enter. Criteria can also be changed

For example, say you’re beginning a project this month and want to be able to find all e-mails from three particular people that will be sending PDF files as attachments. In Tiger, you can easily set up a Smart Mailbox to catch all of these e-mails. By setting your criteria to only include messages with PDF attachments from these specific people, you eliminate the chance of clogging your Smart Mailbox with lunch invitations and other superfluous communiques.

The next time you are looking for something to do with that project that happened 30 days ago, you simply go to that Smart Mailbox and everything will be there.

.Mac Sync and Other Items

Apple has also added the ability to synchronize several items in Mail with other computers using .Mac and Tiger sync. If you have a .Mac account, you can configure Mail to sync your Rules, Signatures, Smart Mailboxes and accounts.

Tiger Mail Preferences

In addition to .Mac sync, Apple added few other preferences to Mail. Add Invitations to iCal can be set to automatically add invitations to Apple’s calendar application. Mail also adds a downloads folder which can be set by the user; unedited downloads can be deleted or kept automatically.

While Mail’s Junk Mail Filter has improved dramatically since Panther, the only noticeable difference in the preferences is the addition of Perform Custom Action. This allows the user to configure Mail to actions beyond the defaults included in the application.

Tiger Mail Junk Preferences

If you have many accounts and like to use a different signature on each one, you’ll like the new signature preferences. The list now includes each account and a place to add signatures individually, giving you a much more organized view of your signatures.

The Last Word

Tiger introduces a dramatically improved Mail, chiefly in the way the built-in application integrates with the rest of OS X 10.4. Other improvements, such as the new look-and-feel, enhanced Junk Mail Filtering, and search capabilities, make it more enticing than ever to turn to Mail as your main e-mail client.

[ Jim Dalrymple is the editor of Macworld.com and MacCentral.com ]

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