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Apple Mail.app replacement – Postbox 3

My regular readers (all two of you) will know that I frequently thrash about looking for an Apple Mail.app replacement. I am a regular and long-term Gmail user. Its search is amazing, the filters powerful (although lacking a filter-power-user feature to help manage the dozens of filters I have actively running) and I quite like the approach with message labels rather than “folders”. In the past I used for quite some time the program Mailplane which is essentially a thin wrapper about the Gmail interface (which my work uses as well me personally). I used to love the Gmail interface, but recently I’ve found it starting to feel cluttered with functions and not suitable for long time use. Also, on upgrading to OSX 10.7 Lion I wanted to take advantage of iCloud calendar and contacts functionality to get “live sync” of this data to my iPhone and iPad. I switched back to Apple’s Mail.app.

I was, and remain, an email power user (I know that this actually shows my age nowadays). In fact, for many years, I used to use elm, and then mutt in the Unix shell — it was only really once I got the invite to the Gmail beta that made me finally switch from mutt! I was never a pine user although I know a lot of people used to use that, and I never really super-loved any of the Mozilla clients like Thunderbird — its calendar integration is shit. Obviously Outlook, Entourage, and other Microsoft email software is purely for defectively-thinking droolers who hate the internet, send pictures to their friends pasted into Word or Powerpoint attachments, and have an Exchange server stuck up their bum so that doesn’t even enter into the equation. So, I love the keyboard with my mail program, I love seeing a threaded view of email conversations. I mostly love plain text email too (although this is not such a hard-core requirement for me nowadays). And I need it to work with Apple’s iCal and Address Book because I like those programs and I want to get this information onto my iOS devices over the wireless.

However, while Mail.app is probably a reasonable proposition for the average consumer-grade user and does many of these things pretty well, I never really loved it. I suffered with it these past few months. Its search (i.e. spotlight) is OK for email but no patch on Gmail. It doesn’t really play nice with Gmail’s labels and takes a “folder” approach. It has a thread view now but I don’t think it’s spectacular. It sometimes seems to forget that I’ve got a message selected and it should make it as “read”. However, I could live with it, I thought.

But, last night, I found Postbox 3 via a MacUpdate bundle. I decided to give it a burl. It’s actually quite awesome, despite the lead engineer being an ex-Mozilla guy (bearing in my mind my comments about Thunderbird above)! It plays nice with my Mac, and iCal and Address Book. Its integration with Gmail’s labels is also pretty smooth and I haven’t found and issues with it. It even supports Gmail’s keyboard shortcuts which is heaven for me. You can even configure it to connect to Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter in such a way that if you don’t have a picture in your address book for an email contact, but have a connection to them in any of those services, it will use the picture from the service. That’s a very nice feature. It has a way to get at all the various configuration parameters and fiddle with them (haven’t really explored that too much other than to look at it).

It’s not without rough edges though. For example, choosing an alert sound for new email; you can choose either to use the “System Alert” sound, or pick and choose any relevant sound file on your hard disk. What you can’t do is select from a drop down list of the available Mac System Sounds. You have to locate the relevant AIFF file in the System Library. And if you do choose “System Alert” you get get a horrible !plink! sound and not the actual System Alert sound from the Sound system prefs. And the ‘whoosh’ sound it uses for sent mail is not configurable other than on or off. It needs to know how to open a message in a new window, not just a new tab. You also cannot select a message’s colour (background or foreground), either manually or through filters (in Mail.app, I used this to highlight in a background colour the messages from people in my Address Book where I was an explicit recipient). It also needs a Unix “biff” style plugin for the menu-bar. It does integrate well with Growl but I don’t really like that for email notification. But that’s all pretty minor stuff. The major stuff, like Gmail integration, it does really well.

But, a really nice feature and a pleasant surprise is that when you reply to a long-running thread, it has a really nice way to summarise the emails from the various participants (see crappy screenshot below).

Overall I rate this program 8/10. Definitely sticking with it. Recommended.

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