Mac Mail or Thunderbird?

As I've mentioned before, I have a Mac and have generally been pleased with it. I use Firefox, Thunderbird, Adium, NeoOffice, and occasionally Safari, but haven't really used Mac Mail. Many of my colleagues also have Macs and talk highly of Mac Mail so I gave it a shot for a week or so and liked some things a lot, but disliked several things enough that I've gone back to Thunderbird.

First, what I liked:
  • The simplicity of the tool. There don't appear to be a lot of bells and whistles, it just does basic e-mail well, which makes it easy to use.
  • How it handles viewing threads. It sorts them by the time of the last message, and it shows the name/time of the last message when the thread is collapsed.
  • Offline mode works reasonably well. A few quirks where when offline it still tries to send a message but tells you it will send when online, but it works. I've had trouble with Thunderbird (see below)
  • You can easily choose to include a signature or not when composing a message.
  • The searching works nicely giving nice options for easily changing where you are searching, and it expands/shrinks the message list pane as you search or select messages. Slick.
And what I didn't like:
  • It can't compose HTML e-mail! I frequently use various formatting to create more visually appealing and easier to read messages ...
  • Messages are marked as read as soon as you view them. There is no way to have a delay on this. This means I constantly have to manually mark them as unread and have to use a keyboard shortcut or right click and choose an option to do it. Thunderbird allows you to mark messages as unread by just clicking where the indicator would be in the message list pane.
  • There isn't a way to receive RSS feeds. I use Thunderbird for that and having it all in a single tool is nice.
So, the list of good is longer than bad, so why did I switch back? Well, the two negatives are pretty serious for me, and I have found plug-ins for Thunderbird to handle the thread viewing and signatures.

The first is ThreadBubble which simply resorts threads by date when a new message arrives. So it does the key part of what is needed. It doesn't however provide a summary "message" in the message list for the thread showing what the latest sender and date is, you have to open the thread to see that.

The second is Signature Switch which lets you define several signatures and then select the one you want, but also to have it select the right one based on who the e-mail is being sent to. Very slick.

So, what other plugins should I be using? Or am I missing something with Mac Mail that would get me to switch back?


Mac Mail does support RSS feeds (assuming you're using Leopard)-- add them via the File menu, or drag the URLs straight into the sidebar.

Lack of HTML support is a plus in most peoples' eyes :) Of course you can compose RTF emails, which is good enough for many things, and you can use the Stationery feature instead for some things (again, on Leopard only).

Posted by Calum Benson on May 01, 2008 at 09:40 AM PDT #

As above, RSS is supported in Leopard (though I prefer NetNewsWire for this functionality).

I am not a fan of HTML in email.

I use for two reasons:
1. integration with the address book
2. smart mailboxes

The virtuality of smart mailboxes (and smart folders in Finder) is a very compelling feature.

I also note that HTML is not allowed in these comments :)

Posted by TerryG on May 01, 2008 at 10:00 AM PDT #

FWIW, Thunderbird also has smart mailboxes, and OSX Address Book integration is coming in 3.0. (There's a patched version of 2.0 available if you need it now...)

Posted by Calum Benson on May 01, 2008 at 10:08 AM PDT #

Personnally, I enjoy the way that Apple mail let's you click on a date or time or email address or phone number in your mail message and then add it to iCal or Address book. It even intelligently uses the subject as the iCal event name.

Posted by Jim Laurent on May 01, 2008 at 11:43 AM PDT #

Thanks for the comments.

Alas, I'm using Tiger so don't have the RSS feeds or stationery.

And on the address book, I have Thunderbird collecting addresses so it has automatically caught my common ones and I'm configured to use our corporate LDAP to look up e-mail addresses too.

And I'm not an iCal user, at least yet.

I'm curious why folks aren't fans of HTML e-mail?

Posted by Kevin on May 01, 2008 at 01:46 PM PDT #

Mac Mail has been the best mail client I have used, and I say this because I am so much in love with the search function. The downside is that I hardly invest time in cleaning up my mailboxes, as searching them goes so fast.

I only use Thunderbird if I have to send a HTML message, which is once a month at the moment.

Also, I would suggest upgrading to Leopard, does offer several benefits when using Mail.

Posted by Marc Dierens on May 01, 2008 at 04:14 PM PDT #

I use mac mail on my Macbook Pro and Thunderbird everywhere else.

Both have their pros and cons, like the comment above, it's neat the way dates and times can be highlighted and events automatically added to ical, which syncs with my phone through isync - nice!

However my biggest gripe with mac mail (and I'll happily eat humble pie if this turns out to be possible) is the lack of a button or command to jump to the next unread email. The consequence of this is you need to continually scan down all your folders to find new messages (I have a lot of procmail filters on multiple imap servers setup!).


Posted by Peter on May 01, 2008 at 09:24 PM PDT #

@Kevin: There are many reasons why HTML mail \*can\* be a bad thing... here's one such list:

Admittedly that's an old list and even the author says he's mellowed, but with more and more people now reading their email on phones and PDAs, some of those arguments are coming back around again. (Not forgetting the number of people in some environments-- e.g. Sun engineers-- who still manage \*all\* their email in text-only clients like Pine or Emacs, and will just discard your HTML emails as a matter of course.)

@Peter: Yes, the continuing lack of a "next unread mail" shortcut is a bummer. Can't understand why there isn't even a menu item for it that we could assign our own shortcut to in the usual way.

Posted by Calum Benson on May 01, 2008 at 09:38 PM PDT #

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