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Mail Review

Mac OS X's commitment to the Internet is one of its most appealing features, from the Apache Web server under the hood to the inclusion of iDisks in the Finder. Most people use the Internet primarily to send e-mail, so Apple's Mail 1.0, included with OS X, is welcome, especially as one of the few native Mac OS X (or Cocoa) applications available in these early days. Unfortunately, the first version of Mail has many drawbacks and outright bugs, making it unsuitable for heavy use.

The program includes most of the features you would expect in a modern mail application. It supports multiple e-mail accounts, of which any can be POP, IMAP, or Unix. You'll also find a Rules feature, for filtering mail based on criteria you select; support for multiple signatures; and the ability to create and view messages with images and Rich Text formatting. Converting from other mail programs is easy; Apple has made a set of unsupported AppleScripts, available on its Web site, that let you import messages from Microsoft Entourage and Outlook Express, Qualcomm Eudora, Netscape Communicator, and Claris Emailer.

As part of the initial registration of Mac OS X, you're asked to enter or create an iTools account, which includes a e-mail address. (You can also choose to add other mail accounts during setup.) The installer conveniently sets up your account in Mail as part of this process, so you're ready to send and receive e-mail as soon as you're up and running with Mac OS X. If you skipped entering your iTools information during installation, Mail can still set up your account for you. Just open System Preferences, click on the iTools tab, and enter your iTools user name and password; then click on the Email tab and select the Use iTools Email Account option.

Making and Reading Mail Mail lets you compose e-mail messages in one of two formats: plain text and Rich Text. The first is text with no fancy formatting. Rich Text adds formatting tags to text, allowing you to add fonts, font styles, and inline images. Rich Text is similar to HTML; however, Mail cannot create e-mail in HTML format. Rich Text conforms to the Internet mail format for enriched text and can be read (with varying degrees of accuracy) by programs such as Eudora and Outlook Express. Some older e-mail programs can't handle Rich Text; those programs will show the formatting tags in the message body and turn embedded images into attachments. Mail's Rich Text is not the same as Rich Text Format (RTF), a document interchange format created by Microsoft (and also the native format of OS X's TextEdit).

Using Mail to compose messages is easy and enjoyable. Mail uses Apple's Address Book application for addressing; addresses automatically complete as you type them, or you can drag and drop addresses from Address Book into your new message form. One annoying drawback is that if a contact has more than one e-mail address listed in Address Book, Mail can access only the first address. You can work around this by making another address record for each e-mail address, but there's no way to define an e-mail address as the primary one for a person. Spelling mistakes are underlined as you type, and you can fix errors simply by clicking on a contextual menu item. And of course, as a Cocoa program, Mail takes full advantage of OS X's gorgeous text styling and rendering, with the full palette of antialiased fonts, styles, and text colors available.

Mail displays incoming e-mail that was created in plain text, Rich Text, or HTML formats. Unfortunately, the HTML mail display is buggy; sometimes inline images fail to display when you first view the e-mail message. If you switch to another message, then back to the first one, the images load properly. Deficient in the Details Good filtering is an essential feature for e-mail programs (especially to help keep the flood of spam out of your in-box), but here Mail falls short. The range of filtering criteria is too small, and you can filter only by one criterion per rule. Mail also lacks some useful features you can get in other programs, such as Outlook Express's Junk Mail Filter, or Eudora's text-formatting plug-ins.

You'll quickly run into some of Mail's limitations. For example, you can search only one mailbox at a time, and you can't redirect incoming mail. Overall performance wasn't especially snappy on a 400MHz Power Mac G4 with 256MB of RAM; like much of OS X, Mail just feels slow, especially when opening mailboxes with many messages or resizing windows. If you need assistance, you probably won't find it in Mail's abysmal help files. Far from comprising a good tutorial or reference, they supply only the smallest amount of information, and they fail to explain many of Mail's features altogether.

Given the importance of e-mail, you would expect Mail to be practically bulletproof, or at least immune to simple crashes. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The program unexpectedly quit many times during my testing, and I discovered a reliable way to crash it: simply double-clicking on a particular spot in the mailbox list.

Macworld's Buying Advice That it's free is one argument in favor of using Mail, but when you consider Mail's problems, this argument may not prove strong enough. You can readily get free versions of other, better mail programs, and no one likes a program that crashes. Until Apple fixes Mail's bugs and addresses at least some of its shortcomings, you're better off sticking with Qualcomm Eudora or Microsoft Outlook Express.

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