Creating a great desktop email client is a tough task, and every option for Mac OS X falls short of perfection for one reason or another. That said, by a small margin, we’ve chosen MailMate as our favourite thanks to its power user-friendly feature set, small footprint, speedy operation, and excellent search capabilities.Note: There is no best when it comes to Mac OS X email clients, but rather a lot of great but imperfect options that will suite the needs of some better than others. As important as our choice is the competition section. You may be much better served by another app for various reasons, and you may not.
Platform: Mac OS X
- Supports multiple IMAP accounts
- Excellent search capabilities
- Smart mailboxes
- Full keyboard control
- Plenty of viewing layout options, including widescreen mode
- Dynamic signatures, meaning different signatures are automatically chose and inserted based on your previous usage. (More on this.)
- Menubar and Growl notifications
- Full offline access
- An compact, space-saving interface
- Threaded messages
MailMate succeeds on many, many levels, especially if you like Apple’s Mail.app but find it to be lacking in features, speed, paltry viewing options (no widescreen mode without third-party plug-ins), and several other things. MailMate has a very similar interface to Mail.app but corrects pretty much everything that’s wrong with Apple’s default client while adding a few other really compelling features.
MailMate has a footprint of 13MB. It’s light on disk space and it runs very quickly in comparison to every other email client we looked at. Search is amazing, providing you with a ridiculous amount of control. Smart mailboxes are smarter because you can filter based on plenty of very specific criteria, plus you can get pretty specific with the rules you can assign. Practically everything can be accessed using the keyboard. The layout of the app can be changed with a quick shortcut to one of five very useful options, including widescreen mode. While Gmail support could be better, you can actually do things like archive messages with a click of a button. Lastly, dynamic signatures is very helpful. MailMate takes a look at the last email you sent to a particular person and what signature you used (if any). Rather than selecting a signature based on the email account you’re sending from, it selects the last signature you used.
As great as MailMate is, there are quite a few notable downside — so let’s get through them quickly. MailMate only supports IMAP (sorry, no POP3). The widescreen layout is single-line instead of the more-useful multi-line format. Navigation can get a little confusing until you get the hang of it, especially when searching. While MailMate is generally very fast, it can become unresponsive when it has a lot going on. It’s better than Mail.app in this regard, but it’s still a problem. Threaded messages are an improvement over Mail.app as well, but certainly not best-in-class. For example, Sparrow (see the competition section) does a much better job.
While not really a downside, MailMate has a bizarre feature called “Distortion Mode” which is not explained. What it does is essentially turn your list of messages into what looks like slightly comprehensible gibberish. It seems that maybe the idea here is to hide your email for the purposes of privacy, but I couldn’t find a help document discussing the feature at all. The feature might be helpful, but it’s definitely a little weird.
Lastly, MailMate is kind of pricey. It’ll cost you $US40, which is a lot for something Apple gives you for free with Mac OS X. Obviously there are advantages to MailMate, but they won’t be worth $US40 to a large number of people.
The obvious competition is Apple Mail(.app), which is very similar to MailMate but with fewer features and more problems. If you want to save $US40, however, those problems might be worth it.
Postbox is another great competitor with another high price tag ($30). Like MailMate, Postbox excels in search options and additional powerful features you won’t find in most other mail clients. For example, you get message summary mode, sorting by type/subject of email (called the Focus Pane), add-ons, easy archiving of messages, and more.
Sparrow is a minimal email client that provides the best Gmail integration on OS X. If proper Gmail support matters to you — especially the ability to use labels — Sparrow is the way to go. It also supports IMAP so you aren’t limited if you use accounts outside of Gmail. It’s free for a single account and $US10 for multiple. While Sparrow isn’t perfect — like everything else — it’s still very new and rapidly improving. It may become the best option down the line.
For the ultra-minimalists, there’s Notify. It runs in your OS X menubar. It’s pretty. It’s surprisingly feature rich for such a tiny application. It’s very much not an app for the power user, but rather someone who uses email casually.
Lastly, there’s Outlook and Thunderbird. These are two well-known email clients on the Mac (and on Windows as well, of course). Both offer compelling features but tend to not integrate with Mac OS X quite as well as most other apps.
Lifehacker’s App Directory is a new and growing directory of recommendations for the best applications and tools in a number of given categories. This week, we’re focusing on email clients.