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Tweaking Tiger Mail

by Giles Turnbull
06/21/2005

The launch of OS X 10.4 certainly created a lot of interest and generated a lot of media coverage. The build-up, expertly handled, as always, by Apple's PR teams around the world, ensured that we all knew just a little—but enough to spark our interest.

Since then there have been dozens of reviews, overviews, and weblog posts about the most eye-catching and obvious new features in Tiger: Spotlight, Dashboard, Automator, and so on.

The release of Mail 2.0 was largely overlooked amid all the fuss about Tiger's system-level features, but a number of people made public complaints about changes made to the user interface. Mail's performance has improved, but the apparent willingness of Apple's designers to create an entirely new kind of toolbar icon just for use in Mail got up some people's noses.

Thankfully, Mail doesn't have to remain in that default state, and utilities to tweak it so it looks more like it used to popped up very quickly after Tiger was released.

We're going to look at some of those cosmetic tweaks in this article, as well as some of the more interesting performance and productivity hacks available for Mail.

But first, a trip down memory lane.

My Personal Experience with Mail

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When I first bought my G3 iBook, I spent a while trying out everything OS X had to offer, including Mail.

My first impressions were not good. Mail took forever to do even the simplest tasks, such as create a new empty message. Searching through old messages to find something specific was glacier slow. Doubtless there were circumstances specific to my machine that made it this bad, because I know other people who found it perfectly usable.

But first impressions are what matter, and these days few people have the patience, or the time, to allow software to improve at its own pace. I abandoned my efforts to use Mail, and returned to Eudora.

That is where I stayed until the release of Tiger just a few weeks ago.

Having installed Tiger, and read up about the new features and improved performance of Mail, I thought it would be silly not to at least try it out. After all, Tiger itself has proved faster than Panther, and Panther was faster than Jaguar. There was no reason to think that Mail might not have made similar leaps forward.

This turned out to be the case. Mail 2.0 was almost as zippy and quick as Eudora. Not quite as fast, but other features and integration with Spotlight made the lure of Mail too strong to resist. I switched over the same day I installed Tiger.

And I haven't regretted doing so. Sometimes, Mail is still slow, or just slower than Eudora. Very occasionally, I open a message and have to wait for a few seconds while a "Loading message..." warning appears in the window, but that's too infrequent to be annoying.

Most importantly, Mail has shown itself to be an excellent reader of email in threads, fine for single-folder archiving (thanks to Spotlight) and most of the time, just as fast as Eudora ever was.

The only things I really didn't like when I started using it were the new icons in the toolbar. And I wasn't the only one.

Ditch the Lozenges

It wasn't long after the release of Mail 2.0 that people started complaining about the new toolbar button design.

new toolbar button design
"Euw..."

Where Panther's uniform iconography once sat, there was now an incongruous and unexpected new kind of icon wrapped inside a curved button. A lot of people, especially newbies, might not even have noticed the change, but to some long-term users of Mail it was unwelcome.

John Siracusa called the new look "hideously ugly" and described the groupings of buttons available in the Customize Toolbar sheet as "inflexible, inconsistent, and again, a little strange."

Other people had similar thoughts: "Whoever was in charge of changing Mail to use these types of icons needs to have their head examined".

If you're of the same opinion, there are a handful of simple ways to get rid of the ugly icons.

The first, and most obvious, is to make use of the Customize Toolbar command and simply drag out all the buttons. I've done this, so that the only remaining interface element is the search field. Living without buttons means learning a few keyboard commands, but that was a simple task (made even simpler by the use of Mail Act-On, of which more follows below).

Customize Toolbar command and simply drag out all the buttons
If you don't like the toolbar, you don't have to have it hogging screen space.

Removing the buttons altogether isn't going to work for everyone, though, because lots of people prefer to use the mouse rather than the keyboard.

How about giving the buttons a new look? There's at least two free applications that do exactly that, both focused on giving the previous, beloved interface back to long-term users.

Mailstamps is free software that "Pantherizes" Mail. Install it and relaunch Mail to see a toolbar much more like Mail 1.0 on Panther: simple icon shapes without the lozenge-shaped surrounds.

Cagefighter does almost exactly the same job, removing the lozenge shapes and restoring some dignity to the icons themselves. It also allows you to restore a Panther-style title bar and forces mailboxes to highlight in blue, just like everything else in Tiger is highlighted, rather than the default, but idiosyncratic, gray.

Use Mailstamps if you particularly want the full-size Panther icons. Otherwise, either is a good choice. Since they're both free, downloading and trying both won't do any harm.

Organize Your Mail

Assuming you have a strategy for dealing with incoming email (and these days, everyone needs one), you could simply drag your messages from one mailbox to another, just as Apple intended.

Personally, I find that method time-consuming. I'd rather just hit a key or two than lift my fingers off the keyboard to reach for the mouse.

Mail Act-On is a superb plug-in for Mail that lets you do this and plenty more. Think of it as a way to create dozens of personalized keyboard shortcuts.

The beauty of Mail Act-On lies in its simplicity. Rather than create new code to make things work, it uses Mail's built-in rules system to create tiny little series of actions—you might even think of them as workflows, as in Automator—and applies simple keystrokes to trigger them.

Once you've installed Act-On (It's free; go fetch it already.), your main task is to define a series of new rules that it will, um, act on.

Mail Act-on's menu
The interface is an exercise in simplicity

Act-On lets you define a keystroke that will bring up the Act-On notification menu, a grayed bezel of the sort seen when using the System's volume or brightness controls, or in third-party add-ons like Quicksilver.

The default activation key is backtick (`) but I've changed mine to forward slash (/). Every Act-On rule you create includes a single character key command, which is what you hit next to activate that rule.

Last year, before I upgraded to Tiger and switched to Mail, I changed my email filing habits in Eudora and moved all my archived mail to a single, huge Archive folder. Eudora's search system was so good that I was confident it could find whatever I needed. (I'm not a natural hoarder. Most of my incoming email gets deleted unless I think keeping it will be useful; as a result, my Archive folder is smaller than you might think.)

With Mail Act-On in place, all I have to do when I want to move a message to the archive is select it (or open it) and hit "/" followed by "a."

Better yet, Act-On permits shortcuts within shortcuts. I can use the CTRL key, plus one of my Act-On commands, to carry out the rule without pulling up the menu first.

With a few rules in place, you're suddenly able to zip through an overcrowded inbox with ease. If you're one of these getting things done freaks, you're going to love this kind of thing. Create rules that mirror your locations or contexts and zap! You can have everything filed in a few keystrokes.

Mail Act-On's preferences window
Mail Act-On's preferences window

My needs are pretty simple. I've created the "Move to Archive" rule, and one that deals with my spam—this one marks a message as spam, moves it to the spam folder, and forwards it to my email host's spam-killing software package as well. Before Mail Act-On, this task was so convoluted that I never bothered doing it, which might explain why my spam problem just kept getting worse.

You needn't keep your rules simple, though. Act-On is smart enough to allow you to assign different rules to the same keyboard command, giving you lots of control. So, with one keypress you can Archive all the selected messages, and simultaneously have all the selected messages from family members copied to another folder, flagged, and forwarded to your Gmail account.

Sounds enticing, doesn't it?

Fans of Spotlight might be interested in exploring Jeff Porten's MessageLaser script that lets you add text to the Spotlight comments field of selected mail messages.

There's a problem at the moment, which results in comments being lost if the message is subsequently moved; but used in conjunction with Act-On to apply comments after a message has been moved to an Archive folder might be a possible workaround.

Spotlight does an excellent job of searching through archived mail messages (more on that below), whether invoked from Mail's own search field or from the Spotlight control on the Menu bar. It does so good a job that I wonder if adding specific Spotlight comments to files is worth your time and effort. There's further discussion of this approach over at MacOSXHints.com.

Mail's Automator Actions

The built-in Mail actions in Automator offer plenty of scope for more mucking about.

Using Automator, you can search your email archive using any of the usual combinations of criteria (the same you might use to create a Smart Mailbox), and then, for example, combine those messages into a single piece of text in TextEdit.

One of the most useful Mail actions in Automator is "Combine messages," because it gives you the chance to create instant documents out of any combination of mail messages you choose.

For example: you could email yourself articles you've read during your morning browsing, then use a quick Automator script to turn those emails into a summary of your activity in TextEdit. Save that as HTML, and it's ready to be posted to a weblog. Or Automator could create a new Mail message and send it to your mailing list.

It's also trivially simple to create a Finder plug-in allowing you to select any file, right- or Control-click, and send it off attached to a fresh email message.

(I've seen reports that "Combine messages" and some other Mail actions don't work as advertised. Your mileage, it would appear, may vary.)

Automator isn't the only option available, of course. Andreas Amann's Mail Scripts collection is a worthy addition to anyone's scripts menu, but since the release of Tiger it has suffered some minor compatibility problems.

The most annoying of these is Apple's decision to remove the script menu from Mail itself. You can still use scripts in Mail from the system-wide script menu, but then the keyboard shortcuts built into Amann's no longer work.

Fear not, there is a workaround: combine Mail Scripts with Mail Act-On. (See? It's just so good I had to mention it again.) Since Act-On is a trigger for Mail's own rules, and since any rule can trigger any Applescript, you can install Amann's Mail Scripts then create Act-On rules that will restore the keyboard control you wanted.

Search Mail Using Boolean Expressions

Mail uses Spotlight's search smarts to find the stuff you're looking for, and just like Spotlight it can understand certain Boolean commands in search requests.

Just type the commands into the Mail search field like this:

And so on. You get the idea. Since my switch to Mail, I have been very impressed with the speed and quality of the search system; I've yet to spend more than a few seconds finding the precise message I was looking for. Boolean terms can be useful, but you might well find that simply throwing the words you want into the search box, combined with sensible use of the filter controls underneath ("Entire Message" or "From" or "Subject", and so on) will usually do the trick.

Some Other Useful Tweaks and Add-ons

Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer and editor. He has been writing on and about the Internet since 1997. He has a web site at http://gilest.org.


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