Top 8 reasons Mail.app sucks (a plea to Apple engineers)

*UPDATE* Jul 04, 2007
I *love* the Internet! Two years later there’s still people who get here from tuaw, search engines and so on. Many of the comments over at tuaw make sense, please read them for suggestions. Since when I wrote this rant, the whole Mac platform (which I still use) has become *a lot* faster, and my habits in term of email handling have changed a little bit. But the new setup is material for another post…

Before you all jump at my neck asking why I’m not simply use Thunderbird and stop whining, I’d like you to think about this: if nobody ever expresses his discomfort with things, what will make them better? Why do I want to stick to Mail? It has more advantages to me (integration with the OS) than disadvantages (see above), but there’s… room to grow. :)

That said, here you are:

  1. it does not have a keyboard shortcut for going to the next unread message. I can understand that my mail setup with server-side filtering may not be typical, anyway any modern mail client MUST support this feature (Thunderbird and Mutt do, just to name two). This is by far the most usage-impairing lack

    Update 2006-07-18: thanks to this post on Daring Fireball I see now there is an applescript that you can use together with something like FastScripts to achieve this result. Anyway, beware: it selects the next unread message only in the same folder.

  2. being unable to switch from unread to unread, an average Joe user like me would expect at least a multi-state label to see only read/unread/flagged/younameit messages of a folder: sorry, you’re out of luck. You’re expected to skim over all the 1400 messages of your inbox to find the unread ones, if sorting by date/from/subject does not help (at a painfully low speed, I’d add)
  3. it does not support IMAP folder subscribing: yes, I’d like to keep all my old mail online for fast searching and archiving; no, I don’t want you to look inside the 10k messages buried inside that 1999 folder for new messages
  4. “Smart” folders would sometimes better referenced to as “Dumb” folders: if the software gives me the opportunity to create a folder with a rule that shows messages matching a condition, I’d expect it to update dynamically. For example, for a folder with all and only unread messages, I’d suppose that it gets updated whenever I read one of the messages inside another folder. Instead, it keeps listing it unread even if I changed to folder “foo” and read all the new messages inside
  5. sometimes (at least in my case, with dovecot as imapd) it just forgets I did already read a message, and as soon as I check mail again, it pops up as unread. It may be a specific imapd problem, but Thunderbird does not exhibit the same behavior
  6. it is poorly integrated with the Network Preferences: if switching locations enables me to switch over http(s)/ftp proxies, how can it be possible that some of the clever Apple engineers didn’t think that maybe I’d like to switch over SMTP servers too? It’s not 1995 anymore, people don’t relay happily messages from outside their network, and the average traveling user is f**ked waiting his messages not to go through to select another server, for each message waiting to be sent. I solved the problem relaying mail inside a tunnel to my mail server from everywhere, but I wouldn’t call this a solution (nor using tls/ssl authenticated smtp)
  7. it does not support “sane” indented threads. Yes, it makes its best to group messages by Reference, but it’s just half way between Outlook and a normal email client (again, Thunderbird and even Mutt can properly indent mail subjects inside a thread. Heck, even gmail came out with a clever method)
  8. it uses an incredible amount of CPU: on my small iBook G4/1.2GHz can easily suck 50/60% (not counting mds/mdsimport, i.e. Spotlight). I know, I should have bought a PowerBook, but a +30% price tag has its power.

Feature request:
it does not support PGP natively. Ok, this would really be a plus, and PGP/GPG can be get working right away with little effort — but it would be nice after all that PGP mail encryption/signing could be supported out-of-the-box, it looks to me they are stable and widespread enough, isn’t it?

*update*: I meant Thunderbird, not Firefox – almost obvious

43 thoughts on “Top 8 reasons Mail.app sucks (a plea to Apple engineers)

  1. I agree that Mail has many shortcomings and agree with many of your points, but surely you know that you can define a smart folder that would display only the read/unread/flagged/younameit messages of a mailbox!

    I do find that smart mailboxes update dynamically.

  2. As a solution to (6) I use gmail SMTP server which, once correctly configured, can also support different identities.

  3. Mark, in my experience/setup some folders do behave the way I expect: smart folders with flagged messages, for example, update as expected. Some others don’t.
    I have another smart folder which contains all unread messages that do not belong to certain mailboxes: I have just made a test to be sure, and it went this way:

    enter the smart folder, read some messages: counter decreases
    switch to the inbox
    switch to smart unread: it contains only the correct unread messages
    switch to the mailbox to which read messages belong: some are still marked unread

    I mean, I can live with it: but it bothers me. :)

  4. About #2 – I just checked and there IS an “unread” column that you click on to sort unread from read.

    It appears to be turned on by default, it does not show up in the right-click column menu. And this is the latest version of Mail.app that I am referring to. I don’t remember this column in the older versions.

  5. Could I add number 9? For some unknown reason, I get duplicate unread marks on all my IMAP folders (i.e.: there’s one unread message but Mail.app displays two). Further, it only displays unread marks for subfolders of INBOX? WTF is up w/ that? I *never* get an unread count on my INBOX any more.

    I’m using Postfix/Cyrus/Sieve w/ Maildir. I’m also totally open to suggestions on how to fix this.

  6. about: feature request – it does not support PGP natively.

    This is untrue, starting with PGP 9.0 any and all email clients including Mail.app are supported thanks to their mail proxy encryption

  7. I haven’t seen any of these bugs in practice, except number 7. Before I switched to Mac, I used the Mutt mail reader on Linux, which I still use at work. Mutt has great threading and I miss it.

    Better thread support would be nice but what’s really missing is Maildir support! Maildir is the perfect mail storage format. It’s atomic even over NFS and very resistant to corruption. Plus it fits in nicely with the everything-is-a-folder philosophy now common in OSX.

  8. harpoonflyby: Keyword in that complaint was “natively.” It’s not native support if you have to install a third-party proxy to make it work.

  9. I find that the greatest CPU hogging “feature” of mail.app is its PDF previews, and there’s no bloody way to turn it off! Unless you want to zip or sit or tar all your bloody pdfs (PDFs are a necessarily evil of my field of work) you’ve got to deal with the sometimes crippling effects of this idiotic feature.

  10. Re; PGP, yeah PGP 9 integrates automatically. Unfortunately, said integration inhales sharply through pursed lips. I had to turn it off because it kept borking one of my accounts.

    Regarding smart folders, one key trick is creating two smart folders and combining them as a third. I have an “Active” folder (all my inboxes, plus a couple of important filtered mail boxes. Them I make an “unread” + “active” and get unread active messages. It ain’t quick though.

    Also, e-rage has its flaws as well and the one that spooks me is the monolithic mail storage, so if the database gets seriously messed up, you can easily lose all your mail.

  11. My biggest complaint is the stupid search engine. If I put in one word I get all the mail containing that word, but if I put in TWO words, I get all mail with either of the words in it? Huh? Why not make it return fewer results when you enter more words, the way Google does it?

  12. #2: there is a way. Click on the status column to sort by status.

    #4: I cannot duplicate this issue. Mine update dynamically.

    #6: This is a REAL PAIN. I agree, they should be able to set this as part of a network location. My servers change 3 times a day based on where I am and what they allow through their firewall. There is no excuse for this in this day and age of internet enabled everything. This is my #1 problem with Mail.app

    #8: Mail.app never uses a lot of my CPU. Although it does crash occasionally with some attachments. I have Mail.app (under Tiger) running on a 500Mhz G3, and 800Mhz, 1.0Ghz, and 1.5Ghz G4 machines. No problems with processor usage… (yet) I have thousands of emails each in more than 5 different mailboxes, all from three different accounts.

    So it seems like your #1 beef is with poor IMAP support. I cannot speak to that as I do not use IMAP.

  13. #7 you have backwards, Have you tried to view a thread with 100+ emails in those indenting thread clients.. I have, it’s insane, the most indented message dissappears off the screen because it’s indent has created whitespace the width of the window, I love how mail.app does this.

    #5 I have seen Thunderbird do it, but I have found this is more of a distance thing and has more to do with connection timeouts than the server or client. Mail.app does have a bad habit of not properly noticing when a connection has closed (which is in fact what you are seeing).

    #2 was there in older version… why did they remove it?

    #3 bugs me too, as I have folders on our server (I’m the mail admin) I should have access too, but don’t because of this detail (if I wasn’t the mail admin, I would probably be using Thunderbird).

  14. Richard, I think the problem with very long threads can be circumvented using some “aestethical” tricks, i.e. one could choose not to display the subject of the emails inside a thread as long as it is identical to the starting one.
    If for some reason subject changes inside a thread, it could be shown once (on the inner thread starting message) and again hidden from that point on.
    This is just an example, but I’m sure the keen UI designers can come out with better ones. :)

  15. I love Mail.app — that said, there are bugs (like the non-dynamic, not-so-smart folders) and annoyances. I disagree about PGP – Mail.app already supports industry-standard encryption, and this happens to be S/MIME and not PGP. And I’m glad it does, because S/MIME is the standard for other mail clients (e.g. Outlook / Entourage) and people can receive my signed mail without extra plugins.

  16. I’m working on an open source IMAP client for Mac OS X right now. I’d be interested in your guy’s feedback on what features would be essential for a beta release? Also, what features would you like to see in an e-mail client?

  17. PGP 9 is evil. I hate the proxies, hate the product, and resent the cost of the “upgrade” from PGP 8.

    Moving to GPG was one of the best things I’ve done for my Mac in 2005.

  18. “Apple engineers didn’t think that maybe I’d like to switch over SMTP servers too?”

    I know! I absolutely detest having to manually change smtp serves when I move between home, school and work. Its insane.

  19. I’d just be happy with the ability to archive my friggin exchange messages. I haven’t found a single way to archive on this god-forsaken application.

    Oh, and don’t mind Oli he/she is obviously a moron. It blows my mind when someone criticizes the way someone else writes, yet is unable to even use proper grammar and or capitalization to do so. Twit.

  20. Zen: There’s nothing wrong with your writing that makes it painful. Oli is just being a punk.

    You’ve got most bloggers beat with your articulation, which is even more impressive if English is not your first language.

    A very well written up list of complaints. I’ve never found an email client I’ve loved, but Mail has at least played well with enough of the other applications in OS X that I’m happy with so far. The developers will figure it out, eventually, I think.

  21. Hmmm. I can’t really agree or disagree with what you’ve listed, for the most part, ’cause I don’t know what the hell some of them are. Is your email really that complicated?

    I don’t think mail.app is meant for advanced users like yourself. It’s meant for users who want something simple and intuitive. I use it at work to check my mac.com account and use Entourage for my work email. My Mom uses it — Entourage would be confusing.

    Don’t mean to be negative, but I just think you’re too advanced for it. A writer wouldn’t write their book in Text Edit and complain about the formatting limitations. They’d use a better program, like Word or Final Draft.

  22. I’d like to thank you all for your comments, I’d never have thought that a small rant could attract so many insights from all over the world.
    So, thanks for your time and for sharing your opinions :)

  23. (Y)es to all!

    My Mail 2.0.5 experience began with the idiotically-changed-for-change’s-sake appearance and went downhill from there with big, ugly bugs and grossly reduced functionality. I can’t choose whether the mailboxes are to be on the left or the right; Apple has decided I didn’t really want them on the right, even though I foolishly thought I did. I can’t reliably selectively delete text by highlighting and hitting [delete]; Apple has decided that when I do that, I really mean to delete the entire line of text and not just the selected words. I can’t start with a narrow search (only in a particular box, only in a particular part of the message, for instance) and widen it as needed; Apple has decided I always want to start with the widest possible search and narrow from there. Very, very obnoxious: I’m smart enough to have a good enough job to be able to afford several recent-model Macs, but Apple feels the need to treat me like a six-year-old and not trust me with the ability to make my own decisions about how my own machine should work. I cannot find a single, solitary thing that’s better or easier about Mail 2.0.5 than in Mail 1.3.1.

    And worst of all, I can’t run Mail 1.3.1 under Tiger.

  24. After waiting for 10.4 to upgrade from 9.2-native, I shelled out for a powerbook g4 and expected to be amazed…. what a disappointment that Mail, iCal and Spotlight fall so short of their potential (not to mention Safari). So I still enjoy Entourage 2001 (Address Book couldn’t import my 2000 contacts with their categories and links intact, so what am I supposed to do?) but besides the archiving problem (which isn’t so hard to fix) it’s the best communications tool available for Mac that I’ve found, and I think I’ve tried them all. Really a shame that Apple couldn’t at least duplicate the features that Entourage has been giving us for years.

    I dunno, Zen, I don’t think you and I are too advanced for the Mac. But between you and me, I’d be willing to pay extra for a communications bundle that works for “advanced” users! To your list I’d like to add the following, just in case anyone from Apple is listening:

    Problems with Address Book
    Does not allow me to import Entourage contacts with all data (therefore, I continue to use Entourage because I need that data, including “links”?

    • Should allow me to do a search limited to specific fields, for instance city or zip – let’s say I want to phone all the people who live in New York but have some people who have “New York”? in the name of their business or in the notes; therefore, the spotlight search is inadequate
    • Should allow me to sort by date of entry
    • Should allow me to flag for follow-up
    • Should show me option to list correspondence with that person and date of last msg sent and rcvd

    Problems with spotlight:

    Does not find everything! Even after things are indexed. I have tested this. As long ago as Windows-95, you could search the entire hard-drive for any data string; why not in OSX? This is a strange shortcoming. FIX: CREATE A FIND-STRING FUNCTION THAT DOES NOT RELY ON INDEXING
    Usually what I want is one of the first results to appear – but it is so busy finding secondary results that when I click on the one I want it doesn’t open because before I can finish clicking, it has been pushed down the list and out of sight, and very often I find that I’ve accidentally opened a document that I do not want. FIX: Create a ctrl- or other optional search that limits results window to the top 3 or 5.
    Starts searching too fast – FIX: let me finish typing and hit enter before the search begins. Why? because this feature actually slows it down. For instance, if I want to find “apple”, and start typing, it starts looking for every document with the letter “a” in it, until I type the “p” etc. – this slows it down. Isn’t this obvious?

    Problems with OSX (10.4):

    Dock is unfriendly. I don’t want it permanent, nor to appear when the mouse comes close; I want it to behave like the old taskbar of System 7-9, that would appear only when I type a hot-key. FIX: Create an option to make dock appear/disappear with hot-key
    My old but sturdy HP laserjet printer uses Appletalk. My brand new Powerbook G4 will not let me be on the internet (DSL/ethernet port) and print at the same time! This is an almost unbelievable downgrade in performance from my old imac running 9.2 – according to Apple support this is a software issue, inherent in OSX. Right now, in order to print, I need to change my location to “printer”, which immediately disconnects my dsl connection.

  25. I’d say 90% of your points are usability based. In other words, what you find annoying is what you have gotten used to in other applications and you expect Mail to behave in the same way. I use Mail for all my email and have found its older versions slow. But since its current version introduced with Mac OS 10.4 I found that the sluggishness was gone. The thread feature and Smart Folders, combined with clever rules, do all the sorting I want. By the sound assigned to each mailbox folder I can hear who sent me an email.

    I read your list carefully and found answers to all points. It may be that you tried out the solutions I propose here already and for some reason they did not suit your needs. But perhaps it’s possible you have looked in the wrong places to solve a problem, like I did when I first started working with Mail, switching from Entourage a couple of years ago. Gladly I never had to go back.

    1) Press arrow down key
    2) Click on the unread/read column and unread emails will be sorted atop
    (Arrow down key works excellent after this step)
    3) I don’t use IMAP. Who still does?
    4) Press the get mail button
    5) Adjust the preferences for your IMAP account to remove messages after you have received them (you don’t need to do this with POP email)
    6) Network preferences regulate Mac OS server settings, not external server settings
    7) Check out the threads feature, which works similar like Gmails Webmail
    8) Delete (or export first) old emails, it will free up the Mail memory

    There are also a number of Apple- and Automator Scripts available to sort out email and to export or backup them.

  26. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could choose an integrated interface containing Mail, iCal and Address Book (and a note pad while we’re at it)? In other words, like Entourage? I hate having to switch between apps to do the simplest things. These bits of functinality should all work together in one intuitive interface, not as three disperate apps.

    OY!

    Geetz

  27. My problem with Mail.app is that it only knows 1 error when sending mail. All it says is that it can’t send the message. It does not say why. If you sent mail to a local user but make a typo in the address it gives the impression that the mail server is having problems. Why not give the SMTP-error message that the user is unknown???

  28. I agree with most, though not all your points, the most annoying of which being that you cannot (un)subscribe to IMAP folders (#3) which is a real pain if your IMAP server contains hundreds of public folders with 10’000s of messages that you are bound to check frequently. The solution I am using is a local IMAP filter. It works quite well, but is surely not a real solution to the problem.

    One additional thing I personally hate is that it is not possible to construct a smart mailbox using criteria such as “Message is encrypted” or “Message is signed”. Funny enough, you can make a rule using these criteria, but rules always have a message changing behaviour (i.e. you can only move/delete/color/bounce/… a message) and I want the encrypted messages to stay unchanged in their original folder and just aggregated in a smart mailbox. I do not want my encrypted messages to be indexed, so searching for their content does not work (which is just fine or, indeed, the whole point of not indexing it) and I want to have a smart mailbox that includes only encrypted messages so I can sort of manually find the message I need (possibly using a normal search using the subject of the message which is never encrypted). And of course, for some reason unknown to me, you cannot make use of the fact that signed/encrypted messages contain attachments with name smime.p7m — constructing a rule to filter messages on such an attachment name simply doesn’t return any results, probably because Mail.app is too `smart’ too consider these not true attachments. Heck, you can’t even create a smart mailbox using arbitrary message headers such as Content-Type which would help in this case. I’ve submitted this as a bug report to Apple about 9 months ago (along with the IMAP subscription and several other things), but still no change in the most recent version…

  29. #4 annoys me and #5 drove me nearly crazy. I wondered if it was my IMAP server. Someone suggested dovecot. I’ll give up on that as you have the problem with dovecot. Clearly a Mail.app problem. So, after I check my Inbox, delete some items (to Trash), and refolder others, I *try to remember* to “Go offline” and then “Go online” again immediately after. This seems to stop redownloading as “new” and downloading things I already refoldered or deleted. Still, I forget enough times that my Trash has many duplicates.

    Wish Apple would fix it.

  30. There’s a solution to #6:
    In the account settings click the dropdown “Outgoing Mail Server” and select “Add server”.

    When a send using the default server fails, a dialog comes up asking what other server you’d like to use.

    I agree that hooking it up with network locations is even better, most of the time this setting works for me

  31. Pingback: mail.app « /home/kOoLiNuS

  32. Not being able to hit a key and move to the next unread message, no matter which mailbox and/or folder it is in is the deal killer for me. I have been happily using Thunderbird mostly because I have to work with several computers and I prefer to use the same applications on all – TB works on my Windows machine, my Macs, and my linux box.

    A few days ago I noticed I could get iCal to email me reminders about birthdays and such. I activated it, and found out it only supports Mail application. Oh well, I configured it, found out it was almost like thunderbird, and decided to give it a go.

    I work with 5 mailboxes, all IMAP, and I have 30 filters to move 95% of the incoming emails to the folders they belong to (one for each customer, mailing list and whatever else). The list of those rules and folders live constantly because customers come and go. You can imagine the pain I’m currently going through because I can’t simply hit the ‘n’ button to go to the next unread message like I’m used to.

    There are several other problems, but that alone was enough to make me want to forget all about the software. It’s easy to do, so I don’t see a reason why Apple couldn’t steal that feature from Thunderbird, they’ve already taken so many others. Now I’m just forced to quit Mail 2-3 times a day when it pops up to send the reminders and then decided to stay there, eating up CPU and memory – for nothing :P

    @core – I _have_ to comment on a few of your points. I doubt you’ll ever read them, but maybe someone else does. First, is having to click the unread column, read the messages and then click again to sort by date or whatever you prefer to sort by many, many times a day something you like doing when the option would be just to hit a button to immediately jump to the next available unread message? How about multiplying that by the amount of mailboxes and folders you have? Sure, if you read emails only once a day every second day you can do that standing on your head, but if you work in this century and preferably somewhere else than as a cashier at McDonalds you probably spend a lot more time with your emails. For me wasting a few hours of my time sorting the view every 5 minutes is not an option. Using smart folders is a slightly better idea, but even that falls so far behind the Thunderbird approach that I wouldn’t even consider it seriously.

    What comes to using IMAP, do you really, REALLY see a good alternative around? I’ve got MB Air, Macbook, a windows laptop, 3 windows desktops, a Nokia N810, my mobile phone, an USB stick with PortableThunderbird and my webmail I use whenever I don’t have any of the devices mentioned before with me. Being able to access exactly the same mailbox regardless of the place or the device required is something I wouldn’t dream of living without. Downloading the same messages to every single one of those machines would be a huge waste of bandwidth. Maybe POP3 is a valid option for normal home users in the U.S. where you get charged sick amounts of money for tiny mailboxes. For us in the real world it feels something out of the 1980′s. Yes, I know I’ve got a few more devices I use constantly than many normal people, but that comes with my work. It still doesn’t make a licking difference if you have 2 or 20 devices – when you use more than one, only a fool would prefer different views to the same information if you could easily get the same thing, always, everywhere. Not to mention what’d happen when your computer decided to die one day. I just fire up the next one and don’t miss a single email.

  33. I totally agree that apple mail sucks! Nothing does make sense. Why not let user send mail to all the addresses at once to particular folder. Why let us create folder and not be able to send mail to it. fuck you apple!

  34. Could not agree more. So much important time i lost on waiting for the stupid app to switch smtp locations, charching sometimes or just ideling for half an hour I should send an invoice to apple for all my lost time on their account!

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