Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

Much Ado About Mail

DSC05004-1We all get lots of email. Too many of it. Some of us actually spend a significant part of the day working with mail. Your mail client is possibly the most used application after your web browser, assuming you don’t use the web for your email. I use the default mail app on Mac OS X – Mail.app – and I’m quite surprised to realize I’ve not actually explored any alternatives.

I’ve been using Mail.app, I think, from the day I moved my client-side platform to the Mac. It seemed like a logical choice, since it came free with Mac OS X, and Apple was supposed to be good at making great applications. I just assumed that Mail.app was the mail client everyone on the Mac should use.

That’s despite me having several complaints about Mail.app. For example, the inability to do my email just purely with the keyboard. Yes, I meant, without the mouse. No, I don’t want to create all sorts of ridiculous infinite combination of keyboard shortcuts, or fancy AppleScripts.

After so many years of faithfully using Mail.app, I finally decided to check out alternatives. In particular, I was actually looking for something that will handle Gmail email well, and more specifically, Gmail’s handling of labels. If you use Gmail and an IMAP client, you’ll know there are some typical complications because Gmail uses IMAP folders to represent their concept of labels. It’s because IMAP doesn’t have a concept of labels. (Actually they do, it’s called Keywords, but Google somehow did not want to use IMAP Keywords.)

The first app I decided to check out was Sparrow. It was beautiful. It handles Gmail labels very nicely. Alas, it had been acquired by Google, and development of Sparrow has been ceased. Such a waste.

Next up, there is Airmail Beta. It handles Gmail labels very nicely too. Messages that are labeled multiple times are still represented in Airmail as a single message, and not with duplicate copies.

Then, there is Postbox. Postbox is a very solid app. It has apparently been around for some time, and has both Windows and Mac versions. It does just about everything you need an IMAP mail client to do. It also understands Gmail labels, and that a single message can have multiple labels. Unfortunately, Postbox duplicates the message for every label. Postbox supports IMAP Keywords, in case you’re interested, even though Gmail wouldn’t map that to labels.

Postbox is about as feature complete as I could ever want in an IMAP mail client. It does handle local folders too (i.e.mail on the local computer as opposed to a remote server), something that neither Sparrow nor Airmail Beta does.

All three mail clients has pretty much be used and controlled entirely by keyboard. Some, perhaps, to a better degree than others. Sparrow is pretty much a dead-end now since they have stopped development (although they will still supposedly put out bugfixes). Airmail Beta looks pretty and promising, but it still has some ways to go in terms of feature set.

I’m a techie, so I’m curious how the mail clients store mail internally. I looked at Airmail Beta and Postbox. Airmail uses a set of SQLite databases for each email account. Postbox, on the other hand, uses mbox format on a per-folder basis (i.e. each folder is a mbox file), supplemented by some index files. Basically, whenever a small little thing changes in one email, the entire mbox file or SQLite database changes.

What is the impact of that? Your Time Machine backups are always going to have tons of data to backup. For example, in the case of Airmail Beta, if an email account that currently has a 5 GB database receives one new email, that 5GB database changes, and Time Machine will have to backup 5 GB worth of files. This means, in a practical sense, you should probably exclude Airmail and Postbox data folders from Time Machine’s backup. (Technically, it is okay to not backup your IMAP data since your IMAP server already has a copy anyway.)

Currently, I’ve switched to Postbox for my primary email needs. It doesn’t handle Gmail labels as efficiently as Airmail Beta. But neither did Mail.app anyway. What is important is that Postbox lets my use my keyboard, adds a couple of new functionalities, and I don’t miss anything from Mail.app. Airmail Beta, currently, is unable to move email across accounts. It’s something I need, and I’ve submitted a feature request to the Airmail Beta team and I hope they’ll get this done soon.

Gmail’s concept of labels is neat. It’s a pity that implementation in external mail clients generally tend to be less than desirable. If the majority of your email is going to get labeled, it means you’ll have two copies at least – one under the label, and the other in “All Mail”. Some people have suggested that All Mail be removed from IMAP access, so your mail client doesn’t need to store the duplicate copy. However, I worry about emails that have accidentally been archived without getting any label. In such situation, the IMAP mail client may not see the email if the All Mail folder is removed from IMAP access.

On a slightly different note: Along the way, while deciding what email client will work for me, I also had to decide how I wanted to work my email. I’ll share some things I’ve learnt in another post. But suffice to say, after using email for so many years, I’ve just learnt that there are so many more things I’m learning and need to learn about managing email. After praising Gmail labels earlier, I’m beginning to learn that, perhaps, I should be using labels differently from what I had envisaged.

What is your choice of mail client on the Mac?

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