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Lion Mail: Faster, full-screen, and feature-packed

During my testing of OS X Lion during the last month, I decided to take a break from my beloved Sparrow to see if the reboot of Mail.app could bring me back into the fold. I hate to tell the Sparrow team, but I'm heading to back to Mail. In this post, I'll discuss the features that have made me happy with Mail again.

When you launch Mail for the first time after upgrading to Lion, the database will need to be updated. I chose not to do that, since I use all IMAP server, and just let Mail download the messages into its database. While I didn't time the process, Mail was able to bring all 40,000+ messages down from eight different mail servers in just a few hours. The process was much faster than it was under Snow Leopard on a more capable Mac.

Adding new accounts has been simplified even more. After entering your name, email address, and the account password into Mail, the app checks to see if it "knows" about the email provider and if so, it automatically configures the settings for you. That's not all -- if your account (Gmail, Yahoo!, whatever...) also includes a calendar, contact, or chat, Mail asks if you'd like those to be set up as well. I added a Yahoo! Rocketmail account that I never read to my list of accounts, and it immediately tried to link me to the Yahoo! equivalents of iCal and iChat.


The Mail UI has changed a lot (below), looking much more like the Mail interface on the iPad than the previous Mac Mail. Mail has been written as a full-screen app, so with one click it takes over your entire Mac screen. That's somewhat overkill on a 27" iMac, but perfect on an 11.6" MacBook Air. Enabling full-screen mode allows the app to be have its own Mission Control window. That may not sound impressive, but that means that with a few quick gestures, you can switch between Mail and other full-screen apps.

The Mail toolbar (below) is slightly different, with a few icons that may be confusing even to seasoned Mac users. Get Mail is an envelope icon, New Message uses the familiar iOS "pencil and paper" icon, Note pops up a small yellow lined notepad for writing reminders or short documents, Delete is a trash can, and Junk is a new "thumbs-down" icon. One new icon is the Show Related Messages icon, which looks like a letter with a line over it. A click brings up any replies or forwarded messages that are related to the currently highlighted message. Finally, the Flag icon lets you apply a rainbow of colored flags to a message so that you can group message by color.


As with previous versions of Mail, it's easy to customize the Mail toolbar to your needs. For individual messages, there are some new icons for the Message toolbar -- the Send icon is now a paper airplane, which has to have the Sparrow folks going berserk. There are also buttons for displaying the new Format Toolbar (used to format the text in a Mail message), the Photo Browser for adding photos, and Showing Stationery. The stationery in Lion Mail doesn't seem to have changed from Snow Leopard.

Some of the new Message Toolbar icons are useful -- Append lets you include information from an existing email in a brand new message, while Lists is used to create numbered or bulleted lists in a message. The Format Toolbar (below) is quite helpful for creating nice looking Rich Text emails, with buttons for changing Font, Font Size, Color, Bold/Italic/Underline, Justification, and the Indent/Outdent of a paragraph.


Reading Mail messages is a bit easier now as well. Message headers appear in default with just three lines of information -- the name and email address of the server, the message subject, and the date and time of receipt. Click a new Details link, and the header expands to provide you with extra information.

Conversations (below) is a new feature to help organize chains of emails. At TUAW, we sometimes have emails that have 15 to 20 responses and forwards. Conversations groups together related messages automatically, with each email numbered to help with organization.

One of my favorites is the Hidden Quoted Text in Conversations. If you need to see some of the previous messages to figure out why someone responded a certain way, there's a "See More from" link that appears in the message. With a click, you see the original text.

Searching is tremendously improved over previous versions of Mail. When you start typing a search into the Mail search field, grouped search suggestions appear in a drop-down menu. There are also search tokens (below), which appear when you type in a person's name, a phrase, or some specific label. The tokens often have a small drop-down associated with them which shows available options. Search tokes can be combined to create very focused searches of your mailbox.

Attachments can also be searched. Creating a search token for "attachments" looks for messages with attachments, and adding another search word will look for that word in the attachments.

Data detectors have improved in Lion Mail as well. While in the previous versions clicking on a data detector would open iCal, now a mini-calendar pops up so you can see if you have any calendar conflicts. Have a hyperlink in a Mail message? A click on the disclosure triangle near the link brings up a Quick Look of the web page (below).

All in all, Lion Mail brings a much needed facelift to Apple's built-in Mac email app. Have any questions for the TUAW crew about Mail? Leave a comment below.

The images used in this article are taken from the upcoming Apress book Taking Your OS X Lion to the Max.