geek software

There are some categories of software that I tend to play around with a lot, switching frequently from one application to the next. The category of text editors is one (though recently I have settled fairly comfortably on vim/MacVim), and email clients is another. I think that part of the problem is that these are applications that I use very frequently, for which I have rather exacting and complex requirements. Put simply, I try a variety of applications and tend to encounter a kind of ‘Goldilocks’ situation: the application is too simple, or too fussy and complicated, and it’s difficult to find one that’s Just Right.

Recently I’ve switched email clients again1, and have started using MailMate. This is a relatively new and not very well known application, but it deserves to be a lot better known. It reminds me in many ways of the excellent Mailsmith, in that it has powerful features but without unnecessary frills. Also, unlike Mailsmith, MailMate is under very active development and only supports modern technologies like IMAP. I had actually tried it once several months ago, and wasn’t sure that it was for me, but I don’t think I gave it enough of a chance. MailMate has some really wonderful features that you can’t imagine living without after you have been using them for a while. These are my favourites:

  1. The ‘Correspondence’ button: this is magic. If you select an email in the list and click this button, the display changes to show you all the emails you have exchanged with that sender. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is a feature I use every day, several times a day now, when trying to quickly track down an email in an exchange in which we may have changed subject and broken the threading a few times. It’s also really fast: in my head, I hear a Steve Jobsian ‘Boom’ every time I click the button, because the listing appears instantly. You can also use it to pre-filter emails for further search. Let’s say that I hit the Correspondence button but I can’t immediately see the email I’m looking for in the list. I can hit the / keyboard shortcut to bring up search, and then narrow it down to a particular subject, a word or phrase in the body, or filter on a date range.
  2. Handling of signatures: Signatures (and whether you ‘top-’ or ‘bottom-post’ replies) are handled rather rigidly and inflexibly in most email clients. In MailMate, you can set up different signatures as you can in most email clients, but it learns which you prefer to use with which recipients/accounts over time. It does the same thing with top- or bottom-posting. I mostly want to bottom-post, and it always irritated me that you couldn’t get Apple’s Mail to do this by default. However, sometimes I have to reply to epic email threads at work in which everyone has top posted without trimming the content of the email. If I bottom-posted to those my reply would be buried at the end of an enormously long email and probably missed. So I set bottom-posting by default, but it’s easy to switch to top-posting using a drop-down menu in the compose window. The next time I respond to these persistent offenders, it will probably bottom-post right away, because it has learned the patten. The effect is rather magical after you’ve been using it for a while: it just seems to anticipate exactly what you want to do.
  3. Navigation and moving emails: MailMate has emulated TextMate’s excellent popup list to jump to and move emails. The way it works is this: if you want to jump to another mailbox folder (or account), you hit Cmd+T and a list appears with a search box at the top. As you start typing the name of the mailbox you want to go to, it filters the list. Once you have the right one selected, you hit enter and jump right there. The same thing works for moving emails: you select the ones you want to move, hit Cmd+Option+T and type away. Again, these lists are sorted by recent use, so you can very quickly find what you’re looking for.

It would be some kind of miracle if MailMate was Just Right in the Goldilocks sense. There are inevitably a few things that I would like to see done differently, but they are not serious enough that I want to move to another client. MailMate displays HTML emails fine, and cleverly uses Markdown to help you to generate HTML emails, but it falls down slightly when you need to forward (and edit) HTML emails inline. I don’t need to do this often, but occasionally someone at work sends me an HTML-formatted extravaganza2 to forward on to students to promote some event or other, and on those occasions, I have to go into Fastmail’s web interface to accomplish this. If I wanted to forward it un-edited as an attachment, MailMate would do that fine, but I usually do need to do some trimming of the text.

The other thing I would love to see is the ability to ‘focus’ on a particular account, hiding the mailboxes associated with the other accounts and also muting any notifications from them. Someone called infotexture suggested this in a support ticket, and I made a comment on it. I would still love a feature like this, but since making the comment, I’ve discovered a way to temporarily focus on one account, hiding another. When you have one of the accounts selected, you can choose to go offline. Unlike Apple’s Mail, this setting is easy to get to and persists across restarts of the application. Once the account is offline, you can still view already downloaded emails (and see the mailboxes of that account), but you don’t see any new mail, nor do you get any notifications. I’ve found this to be a reasonable work-around for my attempts to separate work and home lives. I put the account I don’t want to see offline and my pathetically distractible, over-stressed brain doesn’t have to be bothered by notifications until I actively choose to put the account online again.

  1. I know. I’m also playing with the organisation of my dotfiles again, but at least it keeps me off the streets and out of trouble.
  2. Hello, Comic Sans!
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