First Look: Mail in Mac OS X Lion

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A nice related feature is that the first time you log in to a Gmail, Yahoo Mail, or AOL email account from within Lion Safari, you’ll see a helpful dialog offering to automatically set up that account in Mail, iCal, and iChat. Click Add Account, and the account is created using the login information you already entered.

Speaking of accounts, Mail, iCal, and Address Book also now support Exchange 2010 accounts, and you can now set your Exchange vacation message from within within the Info window for your Exchange account (right-click or Control-click on your Exchange-account Inbox and then choose Get Account Info).

Miscellaneous changes and improvements

Besides the big changes mentioned above, Lion Mail includes a number of simpler changes that nevertheless offer improvements in productivity compared to its predecessor. For starters, Quick Look support has been expanded: In addition to being able to quickly preview attachments, you can now preview the websites of many URLs in incoming email messages by clicking the tiny downward-pointing arrow icon that appears at the end of the URL; if the URL seems phishy, OS X will refuse to preview it, instead displaying a warning. (Not all URLs get this preview button, although the logic behind which do and which don’t isn’t entirely clear.)

Mail in Lion gives you seven different message flags to choose from.

Another nifty feature is that you can now flag messages using any of seven colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, or gray), and those flags will be synced between Mail on all your Macs running Lion and, once iOS 5 arrives this fall, all your iOS devices, too. You can customize the names of these flag colors, and once you start using flag colors other than the standard red, the Flagged item in Mail’s sidebar automatically adds sub-lists for each color.

You can also now archive selected messages by clicking the new Archive toolbar button (or choosing Message -> Archive, or right-clicking [Control-clicking] one of the messages and choosing Archive from the resulting contextual menu). This feature is more or less Mail's version of Gmail's "keep these messages around but out of sight" feature. But instead of using special labels or views, Mail simply creates a mailbox called Archive for each of your accounts and then moves messages to these mailboxes (keeping each message in the account in which it was received). The main appeal of the archive feature is that it lets you perform this housecleaning with a simple click.

Add-ons need updating

As with every major new version of Mail, if you’ve got any third-party Mail add-ons installed, you’ll likely find that they stop working when you upgrade to Lion. Under previous versions of Mail, this was because Mail plug-ins are specifically coded in a way that lets new versions of Mail disable them automatically, even if they would likely work fine—the theory being that it’s better to have Mail disable plug-ins with every new version than to risk losing data if one of them turns out to be disastrously incompatible. Prior to Lion, when you launched Mail after an upgrade, you’d see a message indicating which add-ons were incompatible; those would be automatically moved from ~/Library/Mail/Bundles to ~/Library/Mail/Bundles (Disabled).

But Lion goes a step further by moving the entire Bundles folder from ~/Library/Mail to ~/Library/Mail/Mail Lost+Found, effectively disabling any add-ons inside that folder.

Of course, you may find that some plug-ins and add-ons you used in Snow Leopard aren’t as necessary in Lion, thanks to Mail’s new features. But if you’ve got must-have Mail plug-ins that have been disabled in Lion, you have three options for getting them working again. The first, and safest, is to simply wait until the developer of each plug-in updates it for Lion Mail. This ensures that the plug-in has been vetted for Lion compatibility.

The second, which should be safe, but isn’t guaranteed to be, is to quit Mail and move the Bundles folder from ~/Library/Mail Lost+Found back to ~/Library/Mail. The next time you launch Mail, Mail will perform the traditional compatibility check, and you’ll see a dialog noting which plug-ins are specifically incompatible—those will then be moved to ~/Library/Mail/Bundles (Disabled).

If one of your must-have add-ons is deemed incompatible here, the final option, which isn’t guaranteed to work, is to update each plug-in yourself. Read our article on updating Mail bundles for the detailed instructions, but the gist of the process is that you need edit a preference file inside each plug-in so that it lists the current version of Mail as compatible, and then move the plug-in back to ~/Library/Mail/Bundles and relaunch Mail. I performed this procedure myself with a number of Mail plug-ins; it worked for some but not all.

My take on Mail

We’ll have more to say on Lion's version of Mail in our full review. Until then, my take is that while Mail still can’t match the sheer number of features of Microsoft’s Outlook 2011, it’s slowly but steadily evolving into a full-featured program. The latest incarnation of Mail still has its shortcomings, but it’s easily the best version yet, making it a solid built-in solution for those new to the Mac, as well as a compelling option for those who’ve been mulling a migration from another email client.

[Dan Frakes is a senior editor for Macworld.]

Updated 7/25/2011, 1:40pm, to clarify how to set your Exchange vacation message.

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