Meet the iPhone

The iPhone explored: The Internet on your phone

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As with Safari, Apple has taken OS X’s Mail application and slimmed it down for the iPhone. Although Mail on the iPhone pales in comparison to the version on your Mac, it’s quite impressive when compared to the e-mail clients on most phones—both visually and in terms of its ease of use. On the other hand, it’s missing some basic features and other features require more steps than they could.

Setup and browsing messages When you first set up your iPhone, you’ll be asked, by iTunes, if you want to transfer your existing Mail accounts over to the iPhone. If you opt not to go this route, when you first open Mail—or if you ever tap the Add Account button in Mail settings, via the iPhone’s Settings icon—you’ll see a screen with large buttons for Yahoo Mail, Gmail, .Mac, AOL, and Other.

Tap one of the first four buttons, and Mail displays a few basic fields for you to fill in: name (your actual name), e-mail address (this is your account name), password, and description (how the account will appear in Mail’s account list). Tap Save and Mail automatically fills in all the other necessary settings and the account is ready to go. I haven't seen a phone-based email client that makes setting up these types of accounts as easy.

When you add an e-mail account in Mail on the iPhone, you can choose between Yahoo, Gmail, .Mac, AOL, and Other…

To set up a new standard e-mail account, tap Other. Because you have to enter all the necessary settings, this process isn't as simple, but, again, the iPhone's interface makes it more straightforward than with many e-mail clients.

First, choose the type of account—IMAP, POP, or Exchange—and then enter the appropriate information in the various fields: your name, e-mail address, and account description; the incoming and outgoing server addresses; and your username and password.

Two things of note here. First, check with your e-mail provider to see if you need to enter your username and password for the outgoing (SMTP) server; not all SMTP servers require this. Second, the Exchange option doesn’t provide true Exchange Server support; it simply configures Mail to use IMAP to access an Exchange e-mail server. In order to use the iPhone’s Mail application with the Exchange e-mail servers used in many businesses, the server administrator will need to enable IMAP on the server itself. Hopefully, Apple will add true Exchange support in a future software update.

Whatever method you use to set up your e-mail, be sure not to give the same name to two accounts—Mail will get confused and copy the settings from one account to the other. And you can’t fix the situation by simply renaming one account; instead, you’ll need to delete one of the accounts and then recreate it. It’s also worth noting that although you can set up Mail to work with a Gmail account—presuming you’ve enabled POP access for that account on the Gmail site—we experienced numerous glitches.

…and if you choose Other, you need to fill in various fields.

To read and send e-mail, tap the Mail button on the iPhone’s Home screen. If you have multiple accounts, you’ll see a list of them on the Accounts screen; tap an account to see its list of folders (for example, Inbox, Drafts, Sent, Trash). Tap Inbox to view messages in the Inbox of that account. As with most iPhone programs, Mail returns you to the screen you were viewing when you last used it. Throughout Mail, tapping the left-arrow button at the top of the screen takes you “up” a level; repeatedly tapping this button will eventually get you to the main Accounts screen.

Viewing the Inbox for an account also checks the account for new e-mail. In fact, if you have an Account set to check for mail manually, as opposed to on a schedule (via the Mail section of the Settings screen), this is one way to perform such a manual check; the other is to click the circular-arrow button at the bottom of the screen in an account. However you have Mail set to check, the Mail button on the iPhone’s Home screen displays the number of unread messages.

Note that larger messages—Apple doesn’t say how big—aren’t downloaded completely; instead, when viewing such messages, you’ll see a button to download the entire message. This works well, although there’s one scenario in which it can be confusing. If you download the initial part of a POP message on your iPhone, then download and delete the entire message using your Mac’s e-mail client you’ll still see the partially downloaded message on the iPhone, along with a generic message that the entire e-mail hasn’t been downloaded. However, there will be no way to download the rest, since the message was deleted from the server by your desktop client.

Mail’s Inbox—note the Load 25 More Messages command at the bottom of the screen.

Once in your Inbox, you’ll see a preview of each message: sender, time sent, subject, and one to five lines of text (how many depends on your Mail settings); unread messages display a blue dot to the left. Tap a message to view it, which will mark it as unread. Although it’s not readily apparent, there is a way to reset previously-read messages as unread: Just tap Details while viewing the message and select the Mark as Unread option.

If you have more than 25 messages in your Inbox, you’ll see a “Load 25 More Messages” command with a summary of your Inbox’s contents just below it; tap this item to load additional messages. (You can increase the number of messages displayed at once by adjusting Mail’s settings.) Unfortunately, iPhone’s Mail doesn't offer message threading; all messages are listed in a flat list.

You can delete a message from the message list—which moves it to the Trash folder—in one of two ways. The quickest way is to simply swipe your fingertip across the message, from left to right; then tap the Delete confirmation button that appears. The second way is to tap the Edit button at the top of the screen, tap the delete (-) button next to the message, and then tap the Delete confirmation button.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to mark all (or multiple) messages as read or to delete all the messages in the Inbox or in a folder; you must view each message individually, and you must delete each message individually. And you can’t manually empty the Trash folder for an account; you have to either re -delete individual messages inside the Trash folder, or you have to wait for them to be deleted automatically via Mail’s auto-delete feature—hidden in the Advanced screen of the Mail section of Settings—which permanently erases messages in the Trash after a day, week, or month.

Another puzzling omission is that, unlike the version of Mail on your Mac, the iPhone’s Mail program has no global inbox—not even as an option—to let you view the incoming mail from all of your accounts in one window. Each time you want to view the Inbox of a different account, you must tap the left-arrow button two or three times, then tap the desired account, then tap Inbox. Rinse, repeat. This leads to an interface that is, as Rob Griffiths pointed out, tap-happy. For those of us with multiple e-mail accounts, it can at times be maddening.

The iPhone only displays the From, subject, and date/time information along with the message to preserve screen space.

Viewing and working with messages Viewing messages in iPhone Mail looks very much like it does on Mac Mail, although to conserve onscreen space, a number of headers are hidden by default; only the From, subject, and date/time information is visible. (Tap Details to see To and CC fields; Tap Hide to hide them again.) You scroll through messages just as you do content any other iPhone program, by flicking your finger across the screen, and you can reverse-pinch to zoom in and pinch to zoom out. As with most applications on the iPhone, clicking on a Web link in a Mail message switches to Safari and opens that URL. (As in Safari, holding your finger over a link shows you the underlying URL.) Clicking on an e-mail link opens a new e-mail message.

While viewing a message, you can quickly switch to the next or previous message in your Inbox, without having to return to your Inbox, using the up and down arrows at the top of the screen. Using the buttons at the bottom of the screen, you can also delete the message (via the trash icon) or move it to a folder (via the folder icon).

If a message includes an image as an attachment, you can view it right on the screen. Word, Excel, text and PDF attachments can be viewed—though not edited—in a window that appears when you tap on the attachment. In either case, you can enlarge the attachment view by using the same reverse-pinch technique used on Web pages and in the Photos program, scrolling around as necessary.

You can view PDFs—and other Mail attachments—on the iPhone (provided the files have the proper extension).

One thing we’ve discovered about viewing attachments: The files need to have the proper extension, or the iPhone won’t be able to open them. Word documents must have a .doc extension, text files a .txt, and so on.

Sending e-mail You can send an e-mail in one of several ways. The easiest is to simply reply to an existing message by tapping the Reply button that appears at the bottom of the screen while viewing a message; this brings up a dialog asking if you want to Reply, Reply All, Forward, or Cancel. Yes, that’s right: to forward a message, you click Reply. If the message has attachments, you’ll be asked if you want to include those attachments with the forwarded version.

If you want to send a new message to the sender of an existing message, tap on the person’s name in the From field and then tap Email in the resulting screen.; you can also add the sender to your contacts. Finally, while viewing a message list or any message, you can tap the New Message button (which looks like a box with a pencil).

Whichever method you choose, you can manually enter recipient addresses, or tap the Add Recipient (+) button to add recipients from your contacts list; if a contact has multiple e-mail addresses, you're asked to choose one. You can also CC recipients, although there is no BCC option. Type your subject and message, and then tap Send. If you have multiple accounts, your message will be sent from the account in which is was created; if a message was created outside of Mail—for example, by clicking an e-mail link on a Web page or in the Maps program—the message will be sent via the default account you choose in Mail settings.

Miscellaneous settings I’ve mentioned several Mail settings; these and more are accessed via Settings, found on the iPhone’s Home screen. Among the other Mail-specific settings you’ll find are the preferences for each account. You can choose the interval at which Mail checks for new e-mail messages, and you can turn off an account temporarily, which means it won’t be checked for new mail and it won’t appear in the Accounts list—instead, it will be hidden until you turn it on again. You can also change your e-mail signature from the stock “Sent from my iPhone” version (or delete it entirely to omit a signature). In an account’s Advanced screen, you can, among other things, enable SSL for incoming and outgoing mail, and set an IMAP path prefix if your e-mail provider requires it.

Other settings include how often Mail checks for new e-mail, how many messages it displays, the minimum message-viewing size, and more. A couple of settings—the audible alerts for when new e-mail is received and when an email message is successfully sent—are located elsewhere in Settings: in the Sounds section.

Final thoughts on Mail

Despite missing some basic features, such as a unified inbox and the capability to delete multiple messages, and other features requiring more steps than they could (and should), the iPhone’s Mail application is a compelling mobile e-mail client. More than one Macworld editor regularly checks e-mail while mobile, something few of us ever did with our previous smartphones. If Apple fixes some of the iPhone’s shortcomings via a software update, Mail could battle Safari and Maps for the crown of “iPhone’s best application.”

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