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With many people rarely picking up the phone anymore, it’s easy to find yourself overwhelmed by a deluge of e-mail. Mail 2.0 (included with OS X 10.4) can help. Its new Smart Mailbox feature lets you see a dynamic view of messages matching criteria you specify.

Use smart mailboxes to show high-priority messages received today, to highlight all the correspondence between you and a friend, or to identify space-hogging attachments. And with a little know-how, you can combine multiple smart mailboxes to do even more.

Think outside the inbox

If you’ve ever set up a smart playlist in iTunes, a smart folder in the Finder, or a rule in Mail, you’ll find smart mailboxes familiar. To create a basic smart mailbox, choose Mailbox: New Smart Mailbox. In the sheet that appears, give your new mailbox a name and specify one or more conditions, such as the sender’s e-mail address or a word in the subject line. To organize smart mailboxes within your Mailbox list, choose Mailbox: New Smart Mailbox Folder. You can nest one smart mailbox folder within another, but you can’t move these folders up in your Mailbox list—for instance, above the Inbox.

Mail uses its Spotlight index to find all messages matching your smart mailbox’s conditions. It doesn’t move the messages into the mailbox, but rather displays messages that are stored elsewhere. Nevertheless, you can open, delete, or reply to messages in a smart mailbox just as you could if you were viewing them in any other mailbox.

You can add more criteria to a smart mailbox definition by clicking on the plus-sign button (+). But be mindful of the Any or All pop-up menu, which frustrates many Mail users. Think of All as AND (a message must meet every condition to appear in the mailbox) and Any as OR (a message must meet just one condition). If a smart mailbox doesn’t display the messages you think it should, check the Any or All setting.

Put smart folders to work

Although setting up smart mailboxes is easy, coming up with good ways to use them can be more challenging. Here are some ideas.

Track Unread Messages If you already use rules to sort your mail (for example, to send bank statements to a Finance mailbox and discount-airfare notices to a Travel mailbox), you may want an easy way to see all your unread messages, regardless of where they’re stored. To do this, create a smart mailbox with just one condition: Message Is Unread. Similarly, you can set up a smart mailbox to display only flagged messages, using the condition Message Is Flagged; only messages received today (Date Received Is Today); or only messages that meet multiple conditions (such as unread, flagged messages received today).

Highlight Important People If you receive a lot of e-mail, you may want a quick way to find unread messages from your A-list contacts. A smart mailbox can help. First, open Address Book and create a new group (File: New Group) containing just the contacts you want to highlight. Then, in Mail, create a new smart mailbox with two conditions: Sender Is Member Of Group (with your new group selected) and Message Is Unread. Now you can see new messages from the boss or a big client with just one click.

Keep Up with the Conversation To easily follow the thread of a long exchange, create a smart mailbox with Any selected, and add two conditions: From Contains followed by your correspondent’s e-mail address, and Any Recipient Contains followed by your own e-mail address. (If you or the other person used multiple addresses, add those as conditions, too.) Select the Include Messages From Sent option and click on OK. Then choose View: Organize By Thread. All the messages you’ve exchanged with that person will appear, nicely threaded, in the new smart mailbox.

Ax Unneeded Attachments If you save old messages, their attachments will quickly eat up disk space. If you’ve copied the attachments to other folders (or no longer need them), you can shrink your mailboxes considerably by removing attachments from old messages. Find them by creating a smart mailbox with the condition Contains Attachments. (To find just attachments of a particular type, such as PDF or Microsoft Word files, add the condition Any Attachment Name Ends With followed by the file type’s extension.)

To include attachments you’ve sent, also select the Include Messages From Sent option. You can then quickly scan this mailbox for unneeded files, select the messages, and choose Message: Remove Attachments.

Take it to the next level

If you start using smart mailboxes regularly, you’ll soon begin to wish that they could do even more. For example, unlike a rule, a smart mailbox can’t search hidden headers (such as X-List or Message-Id), even if you choose Entire Message as the place to search. (Searching these headers comes in handy, say, when you want to identify mailing-list messages that have no fixed sender, recipient, or subject.)

You can work around some limitations by making use of the fact that smart mailboxes can search other smart mailboxes when you add the condition Message Is In Mailbox. This capability makes possible some interesting search criteria that one smart mailbox can’t offer alone.

For example, a smart mailbox can look for any or all of its conditions being met, but it can’t look for a message that meets condition A AND either condition B OR condition C. In other words, you can’t make one that looks for messages that are high priority and from your mother or your sister or your brother.

To work around this shortcoming, use two smart mailboxes. Start by creating a single smart mailbox (Mailbox: New Smart Mailbox). In this example, you might name it Family. Choose Any from the pop-up menu, and add conditions (such as From Contains) for each family member. This mailbox now displays all messages (of any priority) from any of your family members. Then create a second smart mailbox, perhaps called High-Priority Family. Choose All from the pop-up menu, and add two conditions: Message Is In Mailbox Family and Priority Is High. Now you’ve narrowed down your search to just high-priority messages from your family.

Get smart

With a little planning, you can use smart mailboxes to save yourself a lot of effort. Together with Spotlight searches and rules, they make Mail 2.0 a very powerful tool.

[ Joe Kissell is the author of the Take Control of Email with Apple Mail, Take Control of Mac OS X Backups, and Take Control of Upgrading to Tiger e-books (TidBits Electronic Publishing, 2005). ]

A smart mailbox can quickly locate messages that meet one or more conditions you specify. When All is selected in the first pop-up menu, a message must match every condition to appear in the mailbox.Use two smart mailboxes to find messages that would elude either alone. Here, the first smart mailbox (Family) displays messages from any family member, and the second one (High-Priority Family Messages) displays only high-priority messages from the first mailbox.
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