Despite the rise of Facebook, Twitter and other social media, email remains something that we all use every day.

And although over the past few years, more and more people have been using email via web-based clients such as Hotmail and Gmail, using a rich, desktop-based client still has some key advantages.

Using a desktop client gives you a local copy of your emails, which enables you to view them even when you're offline – and although it might amaze some, there are still plenty of occasions when an internet connection simply refuses to connect.

In this test, we've looked at six of the best desktop email clients on the Mac.

Apple Mail comes with every copy of OS X, and has improved over the years from a bare-bones email client to a more powerful product. Outlook 2011 is the latest email client from Microsoft, replacing Entourage in the newest version of Office. Mozilla Thunderbird is an open source email client from the team responsible for Firefox, and includes plenty of powerful features. PowerMail, GyazMail and Mailsmith complete our line-up.

All of the clients have strengths and weaknesses, but we've chosen to focus on ease of use, support for different email protocols, filtering and spam handling. Let's take a look…

Test One: Ease of use

Setting up an email client can go one of two ways…

Test 1

All of the products on test support the POP protocol, and all except Mailsmith support IMAP as well. Mail and Outlook also support Microsoft Exchange servers. Most will have a go at auto-configuring themselves to your account settings, although results can be variable depending on the type of account you use.

As expected, Outlook performs well if you're using it with an Exchange account, but given a Gmail account it requires some tweaking. Likewise, GyazMail, PowerMail and Mailsmith require a little fiddling to work with Gmail properly.

All of the products are easy to use when it comes to day-to-day tasks. Mail and Outlook integrate with calendar systems (built-in and iCal respectively) to create to-do items based on emails.

Thunderbird, which in its previous incarnations was somewhat tricky to set up, has been much-improved. Now the overall interface has been brought up to the kind of standards set by Mail and Outlook.

Test Two: Multiple accounts

How well does the product handle multiple accounts?

Test 2

Many users now have multiple email accounts, which makes handling more than one email address important. All of the applications on test have the ability to handle multiple email accounts.

There are two schools of thought about how email clients should handle multiple accounts. The first is that every inbox must be kept separate, so that you don't mix work mail with home mail, for example. The second says that everything should end up in the same inbox, so you can process all your email quickly and easily.

Mail, Outlook and Thunderbird give you the option of both methods. With Mail or Outlook, you simply click on the Inbox icon at the top of the list and it places all your inboxes into a unified view. With Thunderbird, you need to click through to its special 'unified view' mode.

The other packages keep inboxes separate, although in all cases you can create filters or special views that show you unread mail from all accounts.

Test Three: Filtering

How well does each package filter incoming email?

Test 3

All of the clients include the ability to filter messages as they arrive. Often, this will be used to file incoming mail from a mailing list into a folder, to avoid inbox clutter, but filters can do a lot more if given a chance.

PowerMail includes some extra filtering options that will please power users, such as the ability to automatically save attachments to a specific folder – handy if you receive files from a client and want to ensure they are always saved in a particular place.

Outlook enables you to set To Do actions using a filter. This means, for example, that you can add a rule which creates a To Do item for any email from your boss.

Mail – the only other client with support for To Dos – doesn't have an equivalent feature. However, it does have 'smart mailboxes', which let you set up folders with a set of filtering criteria. Instead of moving mail into a folder, though, a smart mailbox just displays matching email, no matter where it's located, which is useful when searching.

Test Four: HTML handling

Email can come in HTML form, but do our clients like it?

Test 4

Despite the complaints of the purists who believe that all email should be standard text, HTML email is a fact of life. Not only do companies send out formatted newsletters using HTML, but some clients even enable users to create HTML emails to send to others.

Mailsmith takes the purist's approach, and doesn't display HTML in-line at all. Instead, if you receive an HTML email, it converts it to text but gives you the option to send the HTML to a web browser for display.

All of the other applications attempt to display the HTML, with varying degrees of success. PowerMail enables you to turn off HTML email by default, and – like Mail – also offers to automatically download images (although both applications note that this can be a security risk).

PowerMail also includes a handy 'Quick Look' feature, so if an email has an attachment, you can see its contents without having to leave the application or open the file.

The Winner: Apple Mail

Apple mail

Of the six clients on test, three fell by the wayside fairly quickly. Mailsmith's lack of IMAP support outweighs its plus points. GyazMail, while having a simple interface, has little to recommend it, and PowerMail – despite its excellent filtering – feels like a product in need of a major upgrade.

This leaves us with Mail, Outlook and Thunderbird. All three are easy to use and have powerful filtering and account support. However, Thunderbird lacks direct support for Exchange servers, while Outlook is the only one that costs money.

That leaves us with one winner: Apple's Mail. It's free, works with virtually every kind of server going, is integrated well into OS X, and has plenty of options for handling accounts, spam, and filters.

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First published in MacFormat Issue 228

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