Blog Post

Beginning Mac: Mail


Apple (s aapl) prides itself on creating products that are simple and easy to use. A prime example of this philosophy can be seen in Mail, the default email application included with Mac OS X. Mail is not an all-encompassing “collaboration” tool, and it is not “groupware;” it does email (and a little bit of note-taking and RSS feed-reading), and does it exceedingly well.

Getting Started

The first thing you’ll want to do is set up your account. If you use MobileMe, your account is probably already set up for you. If you use another popular email service like Gmail or Yahoo Premium, Mail can automatically set up your account. If not, you will need to know the name of your incoming mail server (something like, your outgoing mail server (something like, and your username/password combination. After setting up your account, Mail will download all of your email, and spotlight will index it for easy searching.



Apple includes several stationary templates that are highly touted, but rarely used. Most of the people I email could care less about how pretty my email is, and many would prefer not to receive HTML email at all, and that is what these stationary templates are. However, from time to time I like to send one out, because, well…because they’re there. My Mom is normally the lucky recipient, and as far as I can tell, she likes them just fine. When you begin typing a name or an address in the “To” field, Mail searches Address Book for matches, and makes suggestions based on what it finds. Select a name, or type in a new one, type in a subject, type your email, and click send. That’s all there is to it.


Smart Mailboxes

Once you’ve downloaded all of your email, it’s very likely that you will be tempted to organize it. Don’t worry, I used to do it, too. That was before the power of full text search and Smart Mailboxes became a reality. Now, what I do, and what I recommend for anything close to “organizing” email, is to create Smart Mailboxes for keeping things of importance in easy reach. For example, I have a Smart Mailbox set up for emails from family, which simply takes all of the contacts in the “Family” group in Address Book and creates a smart group from them. You can find lots of other examples of Smart Mailboxes with a quick Google search, but I recommend starting here.

There are two ways to create a Smart Mailbox. The first, and most effective, way is to simply enter your search criteria in the search box at the top of Mail. As you type, Mail will display the results of your search, and will also give you the option to save the search as a Smart Mailbox. This allows you to preview and refine your search as needed before creating the Smart Mailbox. When you click “Save” you’ll be offered the chance to add criteria to the Smart Mailbox, and save it as whatever name you choose. The second way is to select “Mailbox,” and then “New Smart Mailbox,” and then enter your search criteria in the drop-down sheet.



Mail has the ability to perform certain actions on email as it arrives, according to predefined rules. These are defined in the “Rules” section in the Mail preferences panel (Mail > Preferences…). There are many options available both as search functions and as actions to take that can further help organize your email.


Notes and To-Do Lists

Leopard Mail includes the ability to take notes and create to-do lists. Creating notes containing to-do lists is really easy, and very handy. Simply create a new note and at the top, create a context for the list — say, phone calls you want to make — and type the name of the note on the first line. I named mine in classic GTD contexts like @Next, @Phone, @Desk, etc.

Next, click the “To Do” button, and the current line will become highlighted and add a check box on the left of it. All to-do’s that you add to any of your notes will also be seen in the “To Do” group under Reminders in the left-hand pane. In your note, clicking on the red arrow icon to the left of each to-do will bring up a pane where you can add a due date, assign a priority, and integrate the task with iCal.



Finally, Mail can act as a decent RSS reader to keep current on new posts from your favorite sites. While not nearly as powerful as specialized RSS readers like NetNewsWire or Google Reader, it does a decent job of keeping track of a small number of feeds. It treats each incoming feed item the same as an email, allowing you to move them around to different folders. It will also let you create Smart Mailboxes that apply specifically to feeds, like one that groups all unread feeds together in one place. Depending on how many feeds you subscribe too, Mail’s RSS reader might be a great choice for you.


This article is a very brief introduction to a very powerful application. Apple Mail is almost deceptively simple in appearance, hiding a sophisticated information management application that integrates perfectly into the Mac. For more information, including how to sign and encrypt messages, adding additional criteria into spotlight searches, and a ton of other information, check out the included Mail Help, available in the menu bar.

54 Responses to “Beginning Mac: Mail”

  1. Does anyone know if Return Receipts are possible on Mail using Snow Leopard? Does it take a lot of configuration or is it rather easy? I have a client that needs to use this feature because she is out of the country for an extended period of time and isn’t confident her emails are going out to her customers since she is often using different servers.

  2. I have happily created hundreds of folders and subfolders to store my email messages, and I have moved them twice as I bought new computers.

    Most of the folders are functional folders, but some of them are blue and will not allow messages to be placed in them. These few are all “header” folders, which might have been empty in one of the moves – or maybe that has nothing to do with it.


  3. I fixed this problem by highlighting the empty mailbox or problem mailbox and then clicked rebuild in the mailbox drop down menu.

    I did this for all the files that had lost their contents and the emails miraculously reappeared!

  4. Pls. help a fellow Mac fan.
    My MacMail goes online and downloads my mail alright, but then it closes the connection and I can’t read my mail. I get this error.
    The message from _______ has not been downloaded from the server. You need to take this account online in order to download it.
    If I go to junk mail, I can read those just fine. This has been working all along, just not recently and I don’t know what changed my settings.
    Pls. help.

  5. Anybody help please. I finally switched to Mail after years of being a Eudora user. Minor frustration is that I can’t reply to a message and have the original message open while I reply, unless I go through the process of opening another viewer window. For business purposes I need to go through an inquiry message and respond point by point.

  6. martha

    i’m just starting to organize my mail using subfolders. when i moved certain already existing folders into, i think, some new enfolding folders i set up, they disappeared. i am able to find these emails by typing recipients’ names into search all mailboxes, they come up (but with no mailbox listed under “mailbox”, but when i attempt to open or move them, i get this message: “The message from Whoever concerning “RE: whatever” has not been downloaded from the server. You need to take this account online in order to download it.” yet the account i’m using IS online. help!

    what did i do that made these messages disappear to an undisclosed location?

    how can i get them out of the undisclosed location and into the new subfolders i’ve set up for them?


  7. There was a power outage today and when it came back on, I can’t find my Mail. When I click the icon in the dock, it wants me to create a new email account. I have a hundred folders and 27,000 saved messages and I can’t get to them. What do I do?

  8. Michael Logue

    Randy, you are the idiot. I know several people who use email applications that cannot display HTML. Obviously you are unaware of the fact that HTML mail poses a security risk to the recipient and a serious aid to the spammer. Most email lists remove HTML, especially if you subscribe to the digest version. A lot of us have HTML turned off. You obviously have limited real world experience, live in a bubble, work for the advertising industry, or the SPAM industry. You need to realize that there is a whole world out there that you obviously know nothing about. I, and a lot of others, view HTML mail as the spawn of the devil and hate it with a passion. Email should, by all rights, be plain text. I am offended that Apple mail turns my email into RTF formatted text if I want to include a clickable link. However, from past experience, I know I will be unable to convince you that HTML email should be avoided at all costs and I will be continually plagued with three sentence text followed by pages and pages of indecipherable gibberish, opps, I mean HTML/RTF tags.

  9. >> Most of the people I email could care less about how pretty my email is, and many would prefer not to receive HTML email at all, and that is what these stationary templates are.

    Are you serious? I don’t have any friends that prefer this option, but all mine are in the high-tech biz. Certainly, you want the font you specified to show up?

    The big problem (actually its a bug) with Mac Mail is that if you create a new message (without using Stationery), it does not get sent as HTML despite the setting in your Preferences dlog. In fact, here is what their help says for this setting:

    “Format all outgoing messages in either Rich Text or Plain Text. Plain text can be viewed by any recipient regardless of the email application used. Rich text (HTML) contains stylized formatting that some recipients might not be able to view. If a recipient’s email application can’t view HTML, a plain version of the message is displayed.”

    Of course, this is bogus and the idiots at Apple think this is actually a “feature”. Of course, they hire morons straight from college without any real world experience so that explains a lot.

    In order to force your new message to be sent as HTML, you need to make a change to some of the text (e.g., change font). Its a pain and everytime I forget, one of my friends asks what archaic email client I’m using.

    • Randy, et al.

      I am frustrated that I cannot seem to force Mac Mail to always send in RTF. The subsequent debate aside, *I* want my mail to always go RTF. You allude to a work-around for this. Can anyone elaborate on a sure-fire way to get RTF every time… and is there a way to send RTF such that it will not include a visible .html attachment?


  10. anonymous

    i wish for two things:

    1. html email. not “rich email”. html email.
    2. read receipts support.

    well, 3.

    3. exchange support (that’s coming with snow leopard though).

  11. Just so you know, the Leopard version of Mail will automatically set up your email account if you have a popular service like GMail, or if you have an ISP email like AOL, Comcast, and Yahoo’s AT&T or Verizon DSL.

    • Patrick

      First thing I noticed, that “stationery” was misspelled. If it were a typo it wouldn’t be repeated, surely. Not going to be corrected any time soon apparently.

  12. @nick. I tsaves by default to the cloud. BUT you can create An Archive on your local HD.

    You create a folder, say, called Archive2009, and have it Appear On My Mac ( left hand pane of Mail ). The MOVE mail to that folder that you wish to keep. mail then deleted from your inbox is also deleted from the cloud, but you have a local copy.

  13. One thing that is bugging me. My signature preferences for my MobilMe account never “sticks” … every time I restart Mail that account has NO signatures options in it.