Beginning Mac: Mail


Apple (s aapl) prides itself on creating products that are simple and easy to use. A prime example of this philosophy can be seen in Mail, the default email application included with Mac OS X. Mail is not an all-encompassing “collaboration” tool, and it is not “groupware;” it does email (and a little bit of note-taking and RSS feed-reading), and does it exceedingly well.

Getting Started

The first thing you’ll want to do is set up your account. If you use MobileMe, your account is probably already set up for you. If you use another popular email service like Gmail or Yahoo Premium, Mail can automatically set up your account. If not, you will need to know the name of your incoming mail server (something like, your outgoing mail server (something like, and your username/password combination. After setting up your account, Mail will download all of your email, and spotlight will index it for easy searching.



Apple includes several stationary templates that are highly touted, but rarely used. Most of the people I email could care less about how pretty my email is, and many would prefer not to receive HTML email at all, and that is what these stationary templates are. However, from time to time I like to send one out, because, well…because they’re there. My Mom is normally the lucky recipient, and as far as I can tell, she likes them just fine. When you begin typing a name or an address in the “To” field, Mail searches Address Book for matches, and makes suggestions based on what it finds. Select a name, or type in a new one, type in a subject, type your email, and click send. That’s all there is to it.


Smart Mailboxes

Once you’ve downloaded all of your email, it’s very likely that you will be tempted to organize it. Don’t worry, I used to do it, too. That was before the power of full text search and Smart Mailboxes became a reality. Now, what I do, and what I recommend for anything close to “organizing” email, is to create Smart Mailboxes for keeping things of importance in easy reach. For example, I have a Smart Mailbox set up for emails from family, which simply takes all of the contacts in the “Family” group in Address Book and creates a smart group from them. You can find lots of other examples of Smart Mailboxes with a quick Google search, but I recommend starting here.

There are two ways to create a Smart Mailbox. The first, and most effective, way is to simply enter your search criteria in the search box at the top of Mail. As you type, Mail will display the results of your search, and will also give you the option to save the search as a Smart Mailbox. This allows you to preview and refine your search as needed before creating the Smart Mailbox. When you click “Save” you’ll be offered the chance to add criteria to the Smart Mailbox, and save it as whatever name you choose. The second way is to select “Mailbox,” and then “New Smart Mailbox,” and then enter your search criteria in the drop-down sheet.



Mail has the ability to perform certain actions on email as it arrives, according to predefined rules. These are defined in the “Rules” section in the Mail preferences panel (Mail > Preferences…). There are many options available both as search functions and as actions to take that can further help organize your email.


Notes and To-Do Lists

Leopard Mail includes the ability to take notes and create to-do lists. Creating notes containing to-do lists is really easy, and very handy. Simply create a new note and at the top, create a context for the list — say, phone calls you want to make — and type the name of the note on the first line. I named mine in classic GTD contexts like @Next, @Phone, @Desk, etc.

Next, click the “To Do” button, and the current line will become highlighted and add a check box on the left of it. All to-do’s that you add to any of your notes will also be seen in the “To Do” group under Reminders in the left-hand pane. In your note, clicking on the red arrow icon to the left of each to-do will bring up a pane where you can add a due date, assign a priority, and integrate the task with iCal.



Finally, Mail can act as a decent RSS reader to keep current on new posts from your favorite sites. While not nearly as powerful as specialized RSS readers like NetNewsWire or Google Reader, it does a decent job of keeping track of a small number of feeds. It treats each incoming feed item the same as an email, allowing you to move them around to different folders. It will also let you create Smart Mailboxes that apply specifically to feeds, like one that groups all unread feeds together in one place. Depending on how many feeds you subscribe too, Mail’s RSS reader might be a great choice for you.


This article is a very brief introduction to a very powerful application. Apple Mail is almost deceptively simple in appearance, hiding a sophisticated information management application that integrates perfectly into the Mac. For more information, including how to sign and encrypt messages, adding additional criteria into spotlight searches, and a ton of other information, check out the included Mail Help, available in the menu bar.