An in-depth look at Mail 5 in OS X Lion

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Managing email on OS X has always been about finding the lesser of many evils. I have too many email addresses to use webmail efficiently, but I’ve never been happy with any email program on the Mac.¬†Frankly, I end up bypassing it altogether and answering emails on my iPad. Luckily, the updated version of Mail that ships with Lion brings a lot of that iPad goodness to the desktop.

A full-screen world

While it may seem a largely cosmetic feature, in Lion, full-screen apps are assigned their own space and get pinned to the top of the screen when you access Mission Control. You can access Mission Control to see all your spaces by swiping up with three fingers. You can also swipe from space to space by swiping to the left or right with three or four fingers. Depending on how you’ve assigned your spaces in Mission Control, it may be quicker to access other apps than cmd-tabbing. One downside, though, is that multiple apps running in full screen can’t occupy the same space. The biggest downside to full screen is losing the ability to drag a file from the Finder to a mail message as an attachment. Naturally, if I kick it out of full screen I can drag attachments in just fine, so it isn’t a huge problem.

Conversations

If you’ve grown to like Gmail or Outlook’s message-threading features, you’ll also like how it works in Mail. If there’s a conversation, you’ll see the latest mail message in your Inbox and a counter in the lower-right corner of the preview telling you how many messages are in this conversation.

Each conversation looks like the above screenshot. While you can’t make the page graphic (message boxes with a raised, shadowed appearance) go away — setting “show classic view” in Preferences only changes how the Inbox list looks, not the conversation messages — I quite like the look.

Better searches

Apple advertises searches as being better: Simply type in anything you can remember and you should stand a better chance of finding what you’re looking for. Using a slew of search phrases I had great results. The only time it got stymied is when I searched “word attachment.” It can search for messages that have attachments, just not apparently the app attached to it. I couldn’t find an easy way to search all of my mailboxes at once; the best I could do is all of the Inboxes, which doesn’t do me any good if the mail message is my All Mail Gmail folder. For that, I found creating a Smart Mailbox was the best way to search everything thoroughly.

Cosmetic touch-ups

There are a few cosmetic items that are welcome additions. One is the ability to hide frequently quoted text, so you don’t get long email messages that also contain the previous 10 emails in the chain. You can also see the first two lines of the email in the message list, too. There’s a new Favorites bar that lets you pin frequently used folders to the top of the screen and displays the unread-messages count. Heavy folders and rules users should appreciate this.

Final thoughts

Mail in OS X Lion gets a much-needed upgrade. Mail was one of the Lion changes I was looking forward to, and it hasn’t disappointed me. I haven’t run into any of the problems I’ve encountered with previous versions (endlessly updating Inboxes, messages that refuse to be marked as read, messages that refuse to be sent, SMTP servers that refuse to be remembered). If, like me, you’re a heavy user of OS X Mail, I think you’ll like this new version.

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