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Utilities for Switching on the Cheap

by Terrie Miller

The previous article covered some of the Mac OS X interface features for switchers. But if you're considering making the switch, you might be concerned about your additional software costs as well. Those basic utilities can add up fast! In this article, we'll look at some inexpensive options to get you productive on some common tasks:

  • Communicating with email and instant messaging
  • Uploading files via SFTP
  • Editing and converting graphics


Before switching to OS X, I had used Outlook for a long time. Over the years, I developed my own habits of using Outlook's contact management, notes and journal features, habits that I couldn't give up lightly. So I was quick to download the trial version of Microsoft Office X, which includes Entourage, the OS X equivalent of Outlook. In fact, purchasing the $499 full suite of Microsoft Office X appears to be the only way to get Entourage. I thought it was worth a try. I planned to get email going at least for a month and then decide if it was going to be worth anything near five hundred bucks to keep it going.

If you just can't live without Entourage:

Check out the set of export-import scripts for Entourage X by Paul Berkowitz, described in this article by Dale Dougherty

Meg Hourihan blogged a mini-tutorial for importing from Outlook to Entourage on her site.

Once the deed is done, be sure to read Derrick Story's article, Taming the Entourage Database.

I quickly had the same problem that all other Outlook-using switchers have: Entourage does not gracefully import Outlook files. After a couple hours of fiddling, I finally realized that I was jumping through all sorts of hoops for the privilege of purchasing a high-priced product that, given its reputation, would probably increase security risks on my computer anyway. I chucked the whole thing and turned to the built-in Mail (or "") client that comes with Mac OS X. Sometimes I still have to go to a Windows machine to get into my old email folders, but surprisingly enough that's not very often, and I could probably live without it. I exported critical information to text or .csv files, or transferred it to memos and contacts in my Palm Desktop (I've heard good things about DevonThink for notes and such also, but I haven't tried it yet). I've found that the AppleWorks 6 applications included with my iBook cover everything I used to do with the other MS Office features (including working with files from others who use MS Office). In one fell swoop, I was able to save a hefty bundle of cash.

I didn't say I was doing the most elegant and seamless switch in the world. This switch is all about fast and cheap.

Mail stands up to the test of daily use remarkably well. I do a lot of filtering of mail into folders and especially like the easy-to-use rules interface of Mail. It just works.

Screen shot.
The rules interface is simple and easy to use, especially if you want your spam filtered with the accompaniment of frogs. This screen shot was done under the Mail client used with OS X 10.1.5.

The Jaguar update brings even more functionality to Mail. You've undoubtedly heard about the great junk mail filtering, but perhaps like me you're a bit apprehensive about having a software program decide what is and isn't spam. Not to fear, by default Mail doesn't move any messages automatically. It simply tags suspicious messages as junk:

Screen shot.
Messages are tagged as junk mail using a trash bag flag and color change. Use the "Junk/Not Junk" toggle in the toolbar to quickly change how a message is tagged.

Mail stays in "training" mode, simply tagging messages as junk, until you change it via the Mail--Junk menu (don't look for it under preferences!):

Screen shot.
Changing the junk mail settings.

Changing junk mail into "Automatic" mode will tell it to send any messages tagged as spam into the "Junk Mail" mailbox, a mailbox created when you first switch to Automatic mode. You still have the option to review all of those messages, but they're nicely moved out of your way.

Mail's use of folders, mail boxes, and accounts might be troublesome for some switchers. If you're an Outlook user, for example, you might be accustomed to having all mail come into the Inbox by default and then filter mail by account into various sub folders. Mac OS X mail is a little different. Each account has a mailbox that essentially filters messages by account for you. There's a top-level mailbox, In, where you can see all new incoming messages.

In Mail, folders that you create for sorting and storing messages are created either at the top level, or can be created in the default "On my Mac" mailbox. Folders cannot be created underneath the individual account mailboxes, at least if you're using POP. I'm told that IMAP may be different in this respect. If you are accustomed to sorting mail first by account and then into sub-folders under that account, you may need to think of organizing your email a bit differently.

Screen shot.
There are some limitations in where you can create folders. In this screen shot, "Work" and "Personal" are account mailboxes. The "Family" folder can be at the top level, as it is shown here, or it could be under "On My Mac," but it cannot be placed under "Personal."

Another handy addition to Mail is the ability to view messages by thread. When you select a message, other messages with the same subject line are highlighted.

Screen shot.
Other messages in the same thread are highlighted automatically when you select a message.

It's not a hierarchical discussion view by any means, but it can be a great help in cleaning out your inbox once the flames have died down.

And there's more to come. Up until now, Mail has been pretty limited to handling email messages. But clearly, Apple is thinking of users who have the related needs of contact management and calendaring. Now that iCal is released, Mac users can share their calendars across the Internet. That's far more impressive than being limited to sharing over a your business LAN. The system-wide address book can already handle contacts and will be especially useful once iSync is out. These will help a lot for any former Outlook user who is accustomed to having these services in a nicely integrated package.

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