Mailsmith 2.1, by Bare Bones
Posted: 31-May-2005

4 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Bare Bones Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Larry Grant Class: INTERNET

Overview
Mailsmith is an extraordinarily powerful text-based email client. At a basic level, it uses conventional commands for sending, retrieving, reading, and editing mail. Hence, it is relatively easy to use for any experienced computer user. However, it is really intended for power users whose lives center around their email. Mailsmith incorporates powerful filtering and search capabilities that can support almost any simple or complex mail processing task. It is a Bare Bones product, and if you use BBEdit as your live-in text editor, you will be right at home.

Requirements
Mac OS X 10.2 or later required; Mac OS X 10.2.8 or later strongly recommended
Fully compatible with Mac OS X 10.3 and later; Mac OS X 10.3.5 strongly recommended. Mailsmith supports the POP3 and SMTP (including SMTP AUTH) protocols only.

Setup
Installation is simply a matter of downloading the application, dragging the package into the folder you use for your applications, and typing in the registration key. Of course, since it is an email client, you need to set up your e-mail accounts, and if you've done it before with other clients, this presents no difficulty. It easily imports mail directly from other clients such as Apple's Mail, Eudora, and any client that can produce an "mbox" export. I only tested it with Apple's Mail.

NOTE: In the course of writing this review, I upgraded one of my Macs to Tiger to test compatibility. So far, I have seen no operational problems.

In Use
My email client has to handle multiple accounts, allow me to easily create and send mail messages, prioritize the incoming mail, and help me find mail that I have filed or sent. The only "out of the norm" requirement for me is that I need to be able to use the client on more than one computer - my office machine (15 inch Aluminum PowerBook), my home machine (Dual 2 GHz G5), and my travel machine (12 inch Aluminum PowerBook). I'm on the road an average of three days a week.

The basic view into the software is the Mail Browser window. It is made up of several sub-windows (or window panes): a list of "mailboxes," a list of messages within the selected mailbox, and a message preview window that displays the contents of the selected message as well a summary of the header and attachment information.


Mailsmith Mail Browser window


Of course, you can display or hide the complete header information with a keystroke, and there are two versions of the header summary, one of which has more details displayed about the recipients and the enclosures.

The "mailboxes" are file folders (directories) with user-defined names. The default mailboxes are drafts, errors, incoming mail, outgoing mail, spam, and trash. There is no practical limit to the number of mailboxes you can add or nest. Enclosures are separate documents that you can open with the application that created them, save them in files outside of Mailsmith, or remove them from the original message.

Mailsmith allows for multiple accounts. However, the only accounts formats supported at present are standard POP accounts. Therefore, it will not access IMAP servers. It will use any email account preferences in the Internet panel of Systems Preferences to configure the default account settings. You can change the default account at will. The accounts can be checked manually (individually, specific selections, or all at once), or automatically (at intervals selected for individual accounts). The mailbox list can show the total number of messages as well as the number of unread messages in any of the individual mailboxes.

There are two basic ways to "read" the mail messages. You can open an email in a separate window and use the mouse to page through the message, or you can use the message window in the Mail Browser which will allow you to keep your fingers on the keyboard for almost any action.

The way that Mailsmith handles enclosurs is unique. As described in the Mailsmith manual, "Many mail messages contain enclosures: pictures, applications, and documents that someone has sent to you. Mailsmith stores these enclosures in its mail database, along with the message."
Opening an attachment copies the file from the Mailsmith database to a user-defined location (the Desktop by default) before the application actually opens this copy of the file. This is different from typical POP clients, since you can edit the attachment file, but the original remains in tact within the mail database. The orginal is still "attached" to the mail message (i.e., it is in Mailsmith's file system), unchanged. This can be useful if you are editing a document (as long as you remember where it's located), because the orginal is still available and easy to find (aka, "attached" to the orginal message). On the other hand, if you are not working with the file, once you open the attachment you have two copies of the file - one in the mail database and one in the default folder "outside" the mail application. This takes up space unnecessarily, unless your approach to attachments is to save them in a location outside your mail application (and delete the message).

NOTE: In addition to the attachment stored in the mail database, and the one downloaded to an external file, you may also have a copy that resides on your POP mail server if you choose to leave mail on the server.

As I mentioned, Mailsmith is a text-oriented application, and this may be a serious turn-off for some users. If you receive an HTML formatted message, it must be opened in your web browser as a separate operation to read the formatted version. This can be an advantage for some power users. It allows the reader to quickly see the basic content of the message without all the foo fra of the over-designed pages, and, if desired, it's one click to see the message in all its glory. However, switching between the browser and the mail application can be a pain unless you have a huge display or use something like Expose or Code Tek's Virtual Desktop (an application from the Linux world that creates a collection of "desktops" that you can easily move back and forth among). Exposé and Virtual Desktop makes switching a little easier, but it's still a minor hindrance. With a large display, you are not searching through layers of desktop windows - you just click from app to app.

Being Text-only, the main drawback of Mailsmith is that you cannot create highly formatted stylized messages within the application. It's text, text, text. For some users, such as myself, this is a productivity blessing. I don't waste time formatting, and instead I focus on the content of the email. If I need to send a lot of formatted words with pictures, I do that with an attachment. To me, this is better email etiquette. Others may find this maddening.

Power users, especially those who use BBEdit for text editing, will find the message creation and editing very comfortable. It's editing functions even include grep search and replace capabilities. You can even use Emacs key bindings just like in BBEdit.

Replies are easy to use with good form. Simply select the specific text to which you want to reply, hit the Reply button (or keyboard shortcut) and the message form is set up and ready for your response. Here Mailsmith shows its geeky ethic, suggesting that perhaps your reply might be too long or that you may have included too much of the original message when your reply is short. You can ignore or turn off this cyber conscience, if you desire. For those on the
Mac Guild mailing list, this behavior is perfectly in line with the Mac Guild mailing list posting guidelines.

Adding attachments is easy as browsing or dragging. One thing that you do need to watch is that unless you tell it not too, Mailsmith will compress large attachments with Stuffit (driving some Windows users barking mad), and it will automatically select the protocol to use (AppleDouble, Base64, or BinHex). This has rarely been a problem, but for some Windows recipients, I have had to specify Base64 for them to open Word documents attached to my messages.

You also can keep a repertoire of signatures on call with one (or none) as a default. Mailsmith also includes a function for randomly choosing from the signature set for those that like to vary the "sayings" or "quotes" in their email signatures.

To this point, I have described a fairly vanilla, "bare bones" if you will, email client. The real strength of Mailsmith is in its ability to help you manage your email.

The first management layer deals with spam. The application SpamSieve comes with Mailsmith. It is a separate program, but is so tightly integrated with Mailsmith that the user barely notices it. Its job is to learn what the user considers spam, then uses some fairly sophisticated algorithms based on the vocabulary used, message sources, etc., to filter spam out of your inbox. These messages are moved to a "spam" mailbox, and you can check it from time to time to see if any false positives occur. Initially, you "train" the spam filter by creating a "corpus" of "bad" messages and one of "good" messages. This doesn't take more than a week or so of correcting the filter's behavior. After that, if the occasional spam message sneaks through, a keystroke banishes it and further trains the filter.

The second mail management layer is organizing the incoming mail. Mailsmith has a filtering system that is relatively easy to set up. The basic use of the filtering capability is to sort incoming mail into separate folders according to the user's approach to dealing with this information. For example, in my business, it makes sense to me to keep mail from different clients in separate folders, as well as having separate folders for mail that deals with various business issues such as marketing and management of the business. In addition, I keep my personal mail from family, friends, various mail lists in separate folders so that I can apply my own sense of priorities at any given time as to how I process the email. Some days, while on the road, I need to deal quickly with project and client mail, yet still make sure that something important from my family or business partners doesn't get lost in a pile of incoming. When I have time to look at other things, such as various mailing lists that I subscribe to, I know exactly where to go to find them.

Mailsmith's filtering process uses common sorting rules to shunt messages to an appropriate location by applying the rules through a top-down sequence of a folder hierarchy. I set up a fairly complicated structure of mail folders and filters to sort my mail without ever looking at the manual, and it worked fine. When I started to work on this review, I thought it might be a good idea to check out the manual. I found that the way the designers explain how to set up mailboxes and filters is very different from what I had made work. So, you can do it their way (it works, too), or you can do it your way. The point is, it's a very flexible program for handling your mail.

The simplest way to create a filter is to decide which categories make sense for your mail, create the appropriate folders ("mailboxes"), then use the "Make a Filter" option in the Mail Menu. The simple process is to select a message in your inbox that you want to be processed automatically in the future, and select "Make a Filter".


Mailsmith "Make a Filter" option


In the dialog box, give the filter a name and choose from the logical rules using check boxes and radio buttons, and then click "Create." You are then offered another dialog box, designed according to the rules you selected, for establishing the criteria for the filter.


Adding Filtering Criteria


In this dialog, you can add, subtract, or edit the rules. When adding or modifying a rule, you specify the criteria that triggers the rule, and then select the action (or actions) you want to perform if the rule is triggered. The range of actions is show in the figure below of the actual Actions popup menu.


Filter Actions



The options available with this simple process are staggering. In addition to that, Mailsmith allows you use any scripting language (like Apple Script or Perl) along with the filters to automate any process that your scripting language can handle. Thus, the message can be just the starting point to trigger a whole process that involves multiple applications.

The third mail management layer is finding messages. There are two options. One is a simple search that allows you to choose any part of the message (To, From, Subject, Body), any (or all) mailboxes, and specify some text string criteria. An "Advanced Query" brings up a dialogue box (that looks somewhat like the filter dialog) that allows more precise logical options (including grep and "fuzzy" patterns as well) to find specific messages. It is not an indexed search, so it is relatively slow when there are thousands of messages to look through. It also does not allow you to refine the search within the initial query results, nor does it allow searches inside enclosures.

Speaking of searching, Mailsmith's proprietary database is not indexable by Tiger's Spotlight search engine. However, because Mailsmith creates a copy of an enclosure as a separate document (or spreadsheet, or whatever) when it is opened, Spotlight should index the enclosure. You won't be able to trace it back to the specific message, but it does make up a little for the inability to search enclosures within Mailsmith. So you can use Mailsmith to search the actual email messages, and then Spotlight to search the attachments.

Two other aspects of the application that need to be mentioned are support and portability. In general, the support for Mailsmith is good in the sense that the manual is detailed and readable, and the updates are solid. The FAQ is pretty weak, but there is a Mailsmith list (Mailsmith-Talk@barebones.com) that is well worth watching. Bare Bones people participate in the discussions and many of the other participants seem to know what they are doing, so getting special help and hints is quick and easy. I have never used any direct support from Bare Bones about Mailsmith, but I've never had a problem I couldn't figure out, and the app has never crashed on me.

One thing I like is that it is easy to use the software on my different machines. I simply copy the user data to a flash drive (greater than 500MB) or to an external firewire disk, keeping the mailboxes updated for every machine. I haven't tried to move the SpamSieve corpus to the external drive, so it is trained differently on each machine, but after a year of use, I don't notice any particular differences from machine to machine.

The thing I don't like, and haven't found a great solution for, is the difficulty of archiving old mail. The more mailboxes you use, and the more non-text attachments you have, the more cumbersome it is to organize email. I had hoped that there would be some kind of "archive" command that would move (or copy) all mail older than some date to an external file. My main reason to want this is that I tend to save everything, and the database gets to be huge. Since I want to "transport" my mail among different machines, this becomes unwieldy. The only way I've found to archive (and thus make the mail database smaller) is to sort the messages by date in a given mailbox, select the old messages, and drag them to the desktop. This creates a text file (in mbox form) with the name of the mailbox on the desktop. Then you delete the selected messages from the mailbox, and then do the same with all the other mailboxes. To archive the attachments, you have to move the downloaded versions individually to wherever your archive target is. Also, backing up is a little trickier than it should be. If you use Retrospect, it's not a problem, but if you haven't invested in Retrospect, it would be nice to be able to use one of the simpler utilities (like rsync) to make a quick backup file. Mailsmith's proprietary database does not support rsync.

There are a number of features that I haven't used that could provide productivity dividends: stationary, the Glossary, Plug-ins, and scripting. There are also a lot of subtle features and further customizations provided within Mailsmith, too many to try and address them all in this review. The best thing to do is download and review the
Mailsmith PDF user's guide.

Summary
Mailsmith is a powerful, flexible email client that provides enhanced productivity for power users. For basic email functionality, Mailsmith is a solid and stable email client. For those willing to make the investment to set up the application's powerful keyboard, filtering, and scripting tools, Mailsmith is a cut above other email clients. It also incorporates a terrific spam handler (SpamSieve), and has potent editing and searching capabilities. For those who prefer keyboard navigation, Mailsmith provides keyboard shortcuts for nearly everything. Mailsmith is text only, so you cannot send fancy stylized emails unless they are sent as attachments. As a text-only client, Mailsmith may not be for everyone. If, however, you are someone whose life centers around email and you prefer the efficiency of pure text processing, you will love Mailsmith.


Pros

  • Basic functionality is easy to use
  • Powerful filters
  • SpamSieve
  • Keyboard shortcuts
  • Powerful search

Cons

  • Text only
  • Does not support Spotlight indexing
  • Cumbersome archiving process


Overall Rating

4 out of 5 Mice