First Look: Mail in Mac OS X Lion

More than any other built-in program, Mac OS X’s email client, Mail, generates ample amounts of love and hate—often from the same person. After all, it does many things exceptionally well, and it integrates (mostly) flawlessly with other OS X apps and technologies. At the same time, it’s long been missing both basic and advanced features—there’s a thriving market of Mail add-ons that aim to fill those holes and otherwise enhance the program.

So it’s welcome news that the newly released Mac OS X Lion gives Mail perhaps its most significant update yet. Here’s a look at what’s changed and how it works.

Note that if you upgrade to Lion from Snow Leopard, or if you’ve got a fresh installation of Lion and you import data from an older version of Mail, the first time you launch the new version, you’ll be prompted to update your existing email data. This is because Lion’s version of Mail uses a different format for its message database than older versions—you’ll have to allow the upgrade to occur before you can use Mail. Luckily, the process should take no more than a few minutes, even if you’ve got tens of thousands of messages.

Open wide

Prior to Lion, Letterbox and WideMail were among the most popular Mail add-ons. Each plug-in moved Mail’s message-preview pane to the right of the message list—a head-slappingly obvious layout when using Mail on today’s widescreen displays. In Lion, Mail finally has such an option built-in; in fact, it’s the default layout. (You can revert to the older view, with the preview pane below the message list, by checking the Use Classic Layout box in the Viewing screen of Mail’s preferences window.)

When using this new layout, the message list adapts to its much-narrower width by giving each message a multi-line preview, very similar to the one you’d see in the message list of the iOS version of Mail. In fact, if you hide OS X Mail’s mailbox sidebar, the window is very similar in appearance to iOS Mail on a landscape-orientation iPad. For each message, you see the sender (or, when viewing Sent mailboxes, the recipient), the subject, and a preview of the message’s contents. In Mail’s preferences, you can choose the size of the preview (zero to five lines), whether or not to show a To/CC label (which indicates whether you are the primary or a CC’d recipient), and whether or not to show the sender’s (or recipient’s) Address Book image (which reduces the amount of preview text).

While welcome, Mail’s built-in widescreen layout doesn’t quite match the options provided by third-party plug-ins. For example, Letterbox lets you maintain single-line message lists and allows you to choose which columns appear in the list, letting you view more messages at once and see more information about each message without having to view it in the preview pane. (I also like that you can enable alternating row colors for the message list.) And Letterbox lets you quickly toggle the location of the preview pane—between the bottom and the right—without a trip to the preferences window. More than a few Mail users will hope that the developers of these plug-ins will update them to work with Lion’s Mail.

Mail now features a widescreen layout, as well as a new-and-improved conversation view that includes messages across mailboxes.

Better conversations

Apart from the new window layout, the biggest—and likely the most popular—change to Mail is the new conversation view. While Snow Leopard Mail offered a rudimentary Organize By Thread option, that feature simply grouped all the messages in the current mailbox or message view that had the same subject. Lion’s Mail still includes this feature, but adds a new option, Show Related Messages. Click this button in the toolbar and Mail displays, in the message window or pane, all messages in the thread—including sent and deleted messages—regardless of whether those messages reside in the same mailbox or spread across multiple mailboxes, locally or on the email server. (A checkbox in Mail’s Viewing preferences makes Show Related Messages the default behavior for all conversations, so you never have to actually click the button.) In other words, you see the entire message thread, including your own replies, in a nice, easy-to-read list. Gmail users who access their email on the Gmail website are probably thinking, “So what?” but for Mail users, this change is simply huge.

There are some nice touches with the conversation view, as well. When viewing an entire conversation, each message that isn’t in the currently viewed mailbox displays its parent folder right in the header area. Mail also numbers each message in a thread, and displays that number in the message’s header area, so you know where you are in the thread while browsing it. Unfortunately, these numbers appear only on messages in the currently viewed mailbox, which makes them much less useful than if every message got a number. Finally, to make it easier to read discussions that include lots of quoting, Mail automatically hides quoted text that’s already been displayed (although you can easily view the hidden text by clicking the See More link at the bottom of each message).

New interface elements

Speaking of interface changes, Mail also gains a more-Lion-like appearance, complete with new toolbar buttons, minimalist scroll bars, and, sadly, monochrome sidebar icons like those in iTunes 10.5 and Lion’s Finder. (Apple may think this minimalist sidebar appearance looks “less busy,” but color is an important visual cue when you’ve got lots of mailboxes, folders, and other items in a list.)

Lion Mail's new inline message-action buttons (top) and formatting bar (bottom)

But there are also practical changes, as well, such as inline buttons—which appear just below a message’s header area when the mouse cursor moves over it—for deleting, replying to, or forwarding that message. (Though, as with the monochrome sidebar, these automatically hidden buttons are a nod to aesthetics over usability—most users will discover them on accident.) The header area itself has also gotten a keep-it-simple makeover, showing just the message’s sender (recipient for sent mail), subject, and date; clicking Details gives you the traditional header view.

When composing a message, the message window now offers a formatting bar (accessed by clicking the Format button in the toolbar) that lets you quickly choose the font; font size, color, and style; alignment; list format; and indentation for the message or currently selected text. You’ll also find a new Favorites bar just below the toolbar. Speaking of which…

Favorites Bar

Perhaps inspired by a similar feature in Microsoft’s Outlook, Lion Mail sports a new Favorites Bar just below the traditional toolbar. Initially stocked with buttons for Inbox, Sent, Notes, Drafts, and Flagged, you can customize the Favorites Bar to contain pretty much any item—mailbox, folder, smart folder, and so on—that appears in Mail’s left-hand sidebar. (Just drag one of these items to the Favorites Bar to add it as a new button; drag the item off the bar to remove it.) Click any button to switch to that mailbox or view; if the item has sub-folders or -mailboxes, clicking the button’s downward-pointing arrow displays a pop-up menu listing those contents—choose one to view it. Each item in the Favorites Bar also displays the number of unread items it contains.

Mail's new Favorites Bar gives you quick mouse and keyboard access to frequently used folders.

Although the Favorites Bar might initially seem redundant, given that you’ve already got quick access to the same items via Mail’s sidebar, after using Lion Mail, I’ve found a few advantages to the Favorites Bar. The first is that if you’ve got a small screen—hello, 11-inch MacBook Air owners—the Favorites Bar lets you hide Mail’s sidebar to give the message list and preview panes more room. The second advantage is that if, like me, you’ve got dozens (or hundreds) of mailboxes, folders, and smart folders, the Favorites Bar works well as, well, a bar of favorites.

But for keyboard jockeys like myself, the Favorite Bar’s biggest advantage is that it enables some brand-new keyboard-shortcut features. In Snow Leopard Mail, the keyboard shortcuts Command-1 through Command-8 were reserved for Inbox, Outbox, Drafts, Sent, Trash, Junk, Notes, and To Do, respectively. In Lion Mail, though, Command-1 through Command-9 are automatically assigned to the first nine items, from left to right, in the Favorites Bar. Press Command+1, for example, to view the first item on the left (Inbox by default).

The even bigger deal here is that by adding the Control key to those shortcuts—for example, Control-Command-1 for the first item on the left, Control-Command-2 for the second item from the left, and so on—you can move selected messages to that folder or mailbox. (You can also access these same actions from the View menu, or you can drag a message from the message list to a Favorites Bar item.) In other words, OS X Mail finally lets you quickly file messages using the keyboard. While this feature won’t replace MsgFiler or Mail Act-On, for those who file messages to many different folders, it’s a welcome improvement.

Better searching

Mail uses OS X’s Spotlight search feature, including Spotlight’s live-updated content index, to help you find particular messages. But in Lion, Mail takes better advantage of Spotlight’s index to make message searching smarter. For starters, whenever you begin to type a search string in Mail’s Search field, Mail displays suggestions based on the contents, subjects, recipients, and senders of existing messages in Mail. So if I type Joe, for example, the top suggestion is Message contains, but just below that is a list of people, with Macworld contributor Joe Kissell at the top.

Mail offers many new options for searching your messages.

If I choose a suggested search term, it changes, in the Search field, from a string of text into what Apple calls a search token—a blue “bubble” that contains the search term. For “Joe Kissell,” the token also contains a pop-up menu for choosing whether I want to search From or To fields or the entire message. You can also search for a string of text in the subject field or the entire message; for particular flags (see “Miscellaneous changes and improvements,” below); and for the name of attachments—or even whether or not a message has an attachment. Apple claims you can also search the contents of attachments, but in my testing so far, I haven’t been able to do so.

You can even combine multiple tokens, making it easier to find, say, a message from Joe Kissell that contains the phrase “Mac maintenance.” As with previous versions of Mail, you can choose to search the current mailbox or all mailboxes, but now you can also use the Favorites Bar to quickly focus the search on any of your favorite folders or items.

Full-screen mode

As with Safari and many other stock Lion apps, Mail also gains a full-screen mode. Click the full-screen button in the upper-right corner of the Mail window (or press Control-Command-F), and the menu bar disappears, the Mail window stretches to fill the entire screen, and the window’s title bar fades away, giving you as much viewable Mail-window area as possible. (This full-screen Mail window actually resides in a new workspace, so you can switch between it and other apps using Lion’s three-finger sideways-swipe gesture.) Move the mouse cursor to the top of the screen and the menu bar slides into view.

For Mail, the main benefit of full-screen mode is that it gets rid of a bit of onscreen clutter (the menu bar and Mail-window title bar) while you work with your email. Mail does go a step further than, say, Safari, however: When opening a message in its own window, or when composing a new message, background Mail windows are dimmed to let you better focus on the message window.

Still, for many people, email is something we deal with in chunks throughout the day—and frequently while switching between Mail and other programs and the Finder. So frequently transitioning to full-screen mode and back again can be more distracting than it’s worth. (Not to mention that for those of us with multiple displays, full-screen mode simply empties all but one display.)

One-stop account management

In Snow Leopard, you set up email accounts within Mail, contacts-server accounts within Address Book, calendar accounts within iCal, chat accounts within iChat, and so on. In Lion, a new Mail, Contacts & Calendar accounts pane of System Preferences—clearly inspired by the identically named screen in the iOS Settings app—lets you set up and configure Exchange, MobileMe, Gmail, Yahoo, and AOL accounts, as well as generic email, chat, CalDAV, CardDAV, LDAP, and Mac OS X Server accounts. This new preference pane uses a setup wizard similar to the one in iOS, and once you’ve set up an account, you can select it in the accounts list to view its details or to quickly enable or disable it or any of its component services (email, calendars, chat, and so on). (This information is also still available in the Accounts view of Mail’s own preferences window.)

Lion lets you set up accounts for multiple services in one convenient location.

At a Glance
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