Migrating to New Climes with PowerMail
As a freelance translator, I rely heavily on email to stay in touch with my customers and to transfer files back and forth. For the more than five years I’ve been using the Internet, Claris Emailer has been my tool of choice. It’s one of the most user-friendly applications I have ever used, but I’ve found myself thinking along the lines that TidBITS managing editor Jeff Carlson expressed in his recent article about switching from Emailer to Eudora. Emailer won’t work forever, and I worry that the upcoming Mac OS X may break it for good. I’m seeing signs of fatigue even in Mac OS 9.0.4 – on my machine, Emailer crashes every time I try to rebuild its mail database.
Feel the PowerMail — So, I went in search of a new email client. Where Jeff settled on Eudora, in part to work more smoothly with the rest of the TidBITS editors, I’ve instead settled on PowerMail 3.0, the third version of a Macintosh-only email program by the Swiss company CTM Development. This program, although original in many ways, is intentionally similar to Emailer. Converting from Emailer to PowerMail is a simple process, and I managed to become accustomed to PowerMail quickly.
The actual migration process is easy: an assistant guides you through the procedure of importing your Emailer mail database and address book directly into PowerMail. This may take some time and is worth running when you’re away from your Mac if you have a large Emailer database. I had no difficulty importing 2,000 messages and more than 400 addresses in a few hours, though some users on the PowerMail mailing list have had trouble, possibly because of importing very large numbers of messages. If importing fails, there are other solutions, such as exporting your messages into text-only Eudora mailboxes, and then importing them from those mailboxes.
Rearranging Your Life — Switching from Emailer to PowerMail feels like moving house (something I did just two months ago) – many things are the same, but are in different places or work in slightly different ways. Becoming accustomed to the new aspects of a house may take months, but, surprisingly, it took me only a few days to feel at home with PowerMail.
In large part, that’s because PowerMail’s interface is very similar to Emailer’s look and feel, with supplemental display options. In addition to the two-pane display that Emailer provides, PowerMail offers two different three-pane displays. Folders line up on the left of the window, and you can choose between double-clicking a message to open it in a new window, or single-clicking to display it in the lower pane. You can view all messages in a folder, only unread messages, or only those containing a certain text string – you define this either through a menu command or by clicking a cute eyeball button at the bottom of the browser window.
I find PowerMail’s message list display nicer than Emailer’s for a couple of reasons. First, PowerMail displays messages against a gray background, much like in Finder list windows, and, second, the font and size used match those that you have selected in the Finder preferences. Although I prefer this approach, I can understand that many might see it as a problem. Beware – if you use some strange font in the Finder, your email message lists will use the same font! Unfortunately, PowerMail provides no way of selecting a font that’s different from your Finder settings, although it does provide full control over the font used in the messages themselves.
PowerMail, like Emailer, allows you to check multiple email accounts at the same time. [Unfortunately, unlike Emailer, PowerMail cannot connect to America Online email accounts due to AOL’s refusal to allow access to third party clients. -Adam] But it goes one step further: while Emailer checks different accounts sequentially, PowerMail checks them all simultaneously. This means that accounts with no mail don’t incur much, if any, additional connection time, since they are handled while mail is coming in from your other accounts. In another nice touch, PowerMail can send messages at the same time it’s receiving messages. This feature proves occasionally quite useful, since it lets me send out quick responses to incoming messages before all my mail has downloaded. PowerMail also makes incoming messages available as soon as they arrive, unlike Emailer, which unpacks them all at the end of the connection.
Features Galore — PowerMail has many other interesting features, of which I’ll mention the most useful here. One of my favorites, since I live in a cross-platform world, is being able to choose a default attachment encoding method for each contact in my address book. Thus, I can make sure attachments are encoded using Base64 for AOL users, uuencode for certain Windows users, and so on.
PowerMail is perhaps best known for its powerful search function, based on the same technology as Apple’s Sherlock. To test PowerMail’s searching speed on my iMac DV SE in comparison with Emailer, I searched for my first name in the 2,000 messages in my mail database. PowerMail took three seconds to display a list of the 1,000 messages containing my name. You can sort the list of found messages by sender, subject, date, or even relevance (which is itself only really relevant if you use more search terms). Emailer would have taken at least a minute to do the same. PowerMail’s searches actually take place in an index to your messages, which PowerMail creates either in the background or on demand. If you haven’t updated the index recently, PowerMail asks if you want to do so when doing a search. Although PowerMail’s relevance ranking is unusual among email programs and can be quite useful, PowerMail does not provide advanced search options that would let me, for example, search for messages containing "Kirk" sent between May 1999 and June 1999.
Another neat feature in PowerMail’s interface is the little increase and decrease font size boxes at the bottom of message windows. These enable you to adjust the font size used in the message at any time, one point per click. When you change the size, PowerMail changes it for all messages, which is useful if you change screen resolutions and want to read your email easily without changing the font setting in the preferences.
Other features include random signatures, many scheduling options, sorting by any column title field in the list views, and mail filters that can handle up to 16 variables each, with multiple variables in each filter. Any number of actions can occur when a filter is activated: file the message in a given folder, apply a label to the message, add the sender to your Address Book, run an AppleScript script, auto-reply, auto-forward, and more.
Limitations — PowerMail isn’t perfect, and although there aren’t many failings, one of them was enough for me to press Emailer back into service briefly. Emailer, like most other email programs, enables you to choose the maximum size of messages to download – if a message exceeds this size, Emailer downloads only the subject and headers and lets you choose whether to download the attachment or delete it. A customer sent me a 5 MB file that choked my mail server, preventing me from accessing the rest of my messages. I used Emailer to download the message without the attachment, and then deleted it, after which I asked the customer to resend it in several smaller bits. PowerMail definitely needs this feature, and CTM Development has said on the PowerMail mailing list that it is one of the company’s priorities.
Another annoyance with PowerMail is its manual, or, more correctly, the lack of a manual. Although most of PowerMail’s functions are obvious, at least for experienced users, some others are not. It’s a shame that the only manual available is one on the CTM Development Web site for the previous version, 2.4. I hope CTM Development will remedy this failing soon, since there are certainly features I haven’t yet discovered or figured out entirely. For example, when PowerMail receives an HTML message, it displays it with all of the HTML tags (it can’t parse HTML and display the results, as can Outlook Express, Netscape Communicator, and Eudora), but a small globe icon appears at the bottom of the window. Clicking this icon displays the message properly in your default Web browser. I hadn’t noticed the globe initially and only learned of its functionality from the PowerMail mailing list.
The PowerMail application does not take up much more hard disk space than Emailer, but it does need a bit more memory. The default is set to 8 MB of RAM, but it will work with less. Like Emailer, PowerMail stores all of its messages in a single file mail database, but it’s more efficient than Emailer’s approach, resulting in faster data backups (though not as fast as a program that stores mailboxes as separate files, like Eudora and Mailsmith). My 2,000 messages took up about 13 MB with Emailer, but only about 10 MB with PowerMail.
Was It Worth It? All in all, as a former Emailer user, I am more than satisfied. Migration was painless, most of the key features I am accustomed to are available, and many of the additional features make life notably easier. But above all, PowerMail is alive, and development will surely continue, at least for the immediate future. Compatibility with Mac OS X is assured.
PowerMail 3.0 requires a PowerPC-based Mac with Mac OS 8.5 or later. A 30-day demo is available as a 2.1 MB download. PowerMail 3.0 costs $49 new via download; users of previous versions purchased in 1998 or 1999 can upgrade for $29, and those who purchased PowerMail in 2000 can upgrade for free.
[Kirk McElhearn is a freelance translator and technical writer who lives in a village in the French Alps.]