Mac e-mail showdown: Which program delivers?

Our reviewer weighs the pros and cons of Mail, Entourage and Thunderbird to see which one gets his stamp of approval

Searching for messages winner: Mail.

Searching is greatly simplified in Mail and performs the way most of us want. That is, you type a search string, and Mail automatically searches all parts of every message in all accounts. Unfortunately, unlike Thunderbird and Entourage, Mail does not allow you to save searches so they can easily be repeated unless you turn the search into a Smart Mailbox.

Message handling and management

The manual and automatic procedures provided for managing your messages can make using any e-mail client a pleasure or a pain. In other words, can you route, mark, organize and back up your e-mail, and how much effort does it take?

When you add an e-mail account to any of the programs, an account identifier appears in the left-hand pane. At a minimum, each program also provides separate folders within each account in which to store incoming and outgoing messages.

Folders, filters and rules

All programs let you create additional folders or mailboxes for storing messages -- for instance, one for mail related to a particular project, or one for all work-related e-mail. By specifying criteria in a Message Rule (Entourage), a Message Filter (Thunderbird), or a Smart Mailbox or Rule (Mail), you can automatically route particular messages or copies of them to the folder you created.

You can also use rules and filters to perform other actions, such as categorize messages (Entourage), mark them as read (any program), set them as junk or not junk (Thunderbird or Entourage) or send an automatic reply (any program). Note that Entourage supports twice as many action types as the other programs.

IMAP options

Messages from IMAP accounts are generally read directly from the mail server on which they're stored. As such, you normally need an active Internet or network connection to read them. As a convenience, Mail and Thunderbird allow you to store copies of IMAP messages on your computer (providing the same convenience as a POP3 account), enabling you to view messages when you're offline.

Message classification

As the table shows, each program provides several ways for you to classify messages. For instance, you can assign customizable, color-coded labels to Thunderbird and Entourage messages (such as Budget Project, Family or American History Assignments), mark messages for follow-up in Mail and Entourage, or assign a star to messages in Thunderbird to mark them as important.

You can manually apply these tags to appropriate messages, or you can create rule or filter criteria to apply them automatically. Once your messages are labeled or marked, you can sort, group or filter them by those characteristics. The labels in Entourage and Thunderbird are particularly useful. To get similar functionality in Mail, you need to buy the US$30 MailTags.

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