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Mac OS X: Make Snow Leopard (and other cats) roar like Lion

Ryan Faas | April 16, 2011
Tips and tools for getting Lion-like features today.

Mail improvements

In Lion, Apple is making some improvements to Mail. Mac OS X's native email client is pretty decent overall, hitting all the basics such as support for multiple accounts, easy setup, the ability to organize and search messages, and support for a range of mail rules or filters. Mail is missing a few modern touches, however.

One big issue is that the view format is pretty much limited to a dual-pane display that shows a small list-box of messages above a preview pane, plus a sidebar with accounts and folders -- an interface that email clients have used for nearly two decades. The hierarchical folder view in the sidebar can make locating specific folders difficult and limits the ability to manage messages from multiple accounts. Similarly, the small message list-box makes scrolling to locate messages challenging.

Another issue is that while Mail offers decent search capabilities, specifying multiple criteria (by a word in the subject line, the sender's domain name and to whom it was sent, for example) isn't really possible. Even getting granular with a single phrase or name and a specific folder or account isn't particularly user-friendly.

Apple says it will improve the view options in Mail by allowing a wide-screen approach, where you can have columns for all your accounts/folders as well as messages and a full-size display for a selected message. This option has been around in other email apps (most notably Outlook) for quite some time. Although Apple hasn't been too specific about search capabilities, it has said search in Mail will be refined. The screenshots available imply that the toolbar will be improved to make overall navigation better.

While there isn't much you can do to improve the toolbar and search capabilities of the current version of Mail, you can use one of two plug-ins to make the interface more user-friendly. WideMail and Letterbox do essentially the same thing: Replace the message list-box with a column that displays a greater number of messages and offers a larger message view next to it.

Both are good options; the differences between the two are minimal. WideMail is donationware, while Letterbox is free. WideMail offers some formatting options for how the message column is displayed, such as types of dividers, date style, and alternating background colors in the list. Both support Snow Leopard and Leopard; Letterbox also offers a version for Tiger.

A couple of other notable Mail plug-ins offer features that aren't quite Lion-like (at least from what we know about Lion at this point) but deserve some mention as well.


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