Spam fighters

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Configuration and interface

Of the seven utilities, the easiest to install and configure are Personal Antispam X4, Spamfire, and SpamSweep. Personal Antispam X4 asks whether you’d like to use it with Apple Mail or Entourage or both (it doesn’t support other e-mail clients). The program works within your e-mail client, adding a menu item that you use to invoke the commands for labeling messages as good or spam. It supports POP and IMAP accounts.

Spamfire 2.3 is a separate program that filters your e-mail, lets you make corrections, deletes junk mail from the server, and sends good messages to your e-mail client via proxy. When you first launch the program, a setup assistant lets you choose your e-mail client (Eudora, Bare Bones Software’s Mailsmith, Entourage, Mozilla, Apple Mail, CTM Development’s PowerMail, or Other) and import addresses from a text file if you like (Spamfire automatically adds contacts in Address Book to its whitelist). Then it presents you with a list of e-mail accounts to choose from (it checks Mail’s and Entourage’s preferences for these accounts). It can automatically import your POP and IMAP e-mail settings from these programs. Spamfire can separate your likely spam messages into Definite, Probable, and Borderline folders, making it easier to locate both spam and misidentified good messages.

SpamSweep also has a setup assistant that lets you choose your e-mail client (Apple Mail, Eudora, GyazSquare’s GyazMail, Mailsmith, Entourage, PowerMail, or Mozilla’s Thunderbird) and provides an area for entering your e-mail account information. SpamSweep downloads the first 100K of every e-mail message, filters it, provides options for making corrections, and deletes messages that you’ve labeled as spam from the server. You download the good messages that remain on the server when you connect to your e-mail client. Unlike Spamfire, it offers no proxy setting for directly transferring your e-mail between programs. It currently supports only POP accounts.

SpamSieve, which works within a variety of e-mail clients (including Apple Mail, Entourage, Eudora, Gyaz-Mail, Mailsmith, and PowerMail), requires a bit more configuration. Although the SpamSieve menu includes commands for installing Mail, Entourage, and Eudora plug-ins, you must also configure your e-mail client’s rules so that they can access the AppleScripts that help SpamSieve do its job. SpamSieve’s manual includes easy-to-follow instructions for doing this. Once SpamSieve is installed, its training commands appear either in an AppleScript menu (Entourage) or in a program menu (Mail). It, too, can manage both POP and IMAP accounts. By default, SpamSieve will color-code messages in Mail to indicate their level of spamminess, thus making it easier to identify borderline messages.

MailWasher Pro installs easily enough, and it offers a basic setup assistant for entering account information. But once you leave that assistant, you’re left to traverse Spam Tools and Options windows (most of which include numerous tabs) on your own to get things set up. Adding to the complexity is the fact that MailWasher Pro won’t pull account configurations from your e-mail client and instead requires manual configura-tion. Like the other self-contained programs, MailWasher Pro downloads only a portion of each e-mail message—you can adjust how much. Also like these other tools, it will delete identified spam from your server, allowing your e-mail client to download only good messages.

EmailCRX is another self-contained utility that’s a challenge to set up without instruction. It offers scads of options, and you must configure your POP account manually (the program doesn’t support IMAP accounts), as well as choose from a variety of filter settings. Because EmailCRX sends your good messages to you via a proxy server, you must also configure your e-mail client to download its mail from EmailCRX, rather than from your ISP’s POP server. The developer understands that configuration can be tricky and provides a detailed and easy-to-follow installation guide.

While having a degree in computer science isn’t absolutely necessary to use SpamX, it certainly wouldn’t hurt. You configure this Java-based program through a single SpamX Configuration window that includes eight menus (and looks much like Windows software). The program’s Help menu isn’t very helpful—invoking it takes you to the SpamX Web site, which offers the barest of instruction on how to set up the program. SpamX doesn’t support IMAP accounts.

Use and performance

Once they’re trained, most of these utilities do a decent job of effectively removing spam from your inbox. The combination of populated blacklists, whitelists, and trained filters should make anyone’s spam problem manageable. For most people, the perfect spam fighter balances ease of use, configurability, safety, and effectiveness.

By those standards, SpamSieve is the top choice. Because it’s largely built into your e-mail client, you rarely need to muck with a separate program and risk losing e-mail in transit between spam catcher and e-mail utility. SpamSieve is easy to train with good and bad messages, and if you want to go beyond the basics and configure your own filters or edit your blacklists and whitelists, you can do so without a lot of bother. After a couple of days, it’s nearly transparent and very effective.

Personal Antispam X4 provides similar ease of use and safety, thanks to its built-in nature, but it’s not as extensively configurable as SpamSieve. While the utility’s suspect-URL database is a great feature, it’s regrettable that you have to pay an annual subscription fee to keep the database up-to-date.

SpamSweep is a reasonable choice if you prefer an effective filter that doesn’t require much in the way of setup or maintenance. It’s not a good choice, however, if you want to configure your spam utility’s lists and filters.

Spamfire’s ability to filter mail into subcategories, separating the borderline messages from the definitely good or bad ones, is a nice touch. But the program seems a little unstable. More than a couple of times, it did nothing while supposedly retrieving mail.

MailWasher Pro is complicated and looks like something ported from Windows software. There are a dizzying variety of options, and if you don’t know how to set them up (or worse, can’t find them), you’re not getting your money’s worth out of the program. There’s no option for adding contacts from your address book—you must add contacts one at a time or they are automatically added as you mark a message as good. The user database is a nice resource to draw from, but it’s not terribly helpful if you’ve received the first wave of a new variety of spam before it has been reported and added to the database.

While more Mac-like than MailWasher Pro, EmailCRX likewise has the smell of a Windows port. For example, when the message-viewing window is open, menu items are grayed out. The windows behave like dialog boxes. You have to close them before you can do anything else with the program. Given that EmailCRX doesn’t use statistical learning filters—relying instead on spotting legitimate information in message headers—it’s a little surprising that the utility isn’t more accurate out of the box. Its Countries filter does quickly identify a fair amount of spam, and once we’d identified a few hundred messages (and thus beefed up its blacklists and whitelists), it caught much of our test spam.

While the developer’s desire to pull the plug on spammers via the program’s reporting features is admirable, SpamX is far more difficult to use than any spam utility should be. A good manual and a decent interface would go a long way toward making SpamX an acceptable option for Mac users.

Macworld’s buying advice

The name SpamSieve should be on the lips of any Mac user serious about ridding his or her computer of junk mail. It’s affordable, effective, easy to use, and configurable. While other spam utilities may filter your mail nearly as well, none performs the job as transparently as C-Command’s SpamSieve 2.6.1.

Why It’s Spam: Spamfire’s Filter Results tab can tell you how it reached its conclusions.
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