Postbox offers a serious alternative to Apple's Mail app

When Postbox 2 ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) debuted, I thought it blew the doors off Apple Mail and Microsoft Exchange, offering solid performance and an arsenal of first-rate email features. Since then, Apples Mail has closed much of the feature gap, integrating its own versions of Postbox features such as quick replies and threaded conversations. In response, the new Postbox 3 focuses more on integration with other popular apps than on inventing new interface bells and whistles. And if its not quite as distinct from Apple Mail as its predecessor, its also considerably less expensive, at just $10.

Postbox 3 does add a few new interface touches, including a Favorites menu for frequently accessed folders, reminiscent of the similar feature in Apple Mail. But Postbox 3s biggest draw is its close cooperation with Gmail and the Dropbox and Evernote services. Over IMAP or POP, the program recognizes Gmail labels and sorts your mail accordingly. It can use Gmail-style keyboard shortcuts, shuffle messages into your Gmail archive, and move detected dates within messages into your Google calendar(s).

If youve installed the Evernote OS X app and set up an account, you can take any message in Postbox and convert it into an Evernote note with the click of a button. The tags, subject, and text of my test notes were all correctly reflected in my Evernote account.

Postbox already supported Facebook and Twitter, pulling in user avatars and letting you post to each service from within the program. Postbox 3 adds support for LinkedIn and Dropbox. Once youve signed into your accounts from Postboxs Preferences, Postbox will recognize contacts from LinkedIn and Facebook, and display links to their respective online profiles, in the near-miraculous Inspector sidebar. You can also post status updates to LinkedIn, and see contacts job titles and employers drawn from that service.

Adding Dropbox to the list of supported accounts lets you easily send links to large files stored in your Dropbox account, rather than attaching those files to a message and attempting to squeeze them through email servers.

The aforementioned Inspector, always one of Postboxs handiest features, still culls and catalogs all links, images, and attachments found within each message. But now it adds addresses, dates, and package-tracking numbers, making it easier than ever to see all the relevant info in a message without sifting through the actual text.

In my days as a PR rep for a city power company, sending off endless variations of the same proscribed answers to the same limited set of customer questions, I would loved Postboxs new Canned Responses feature. Other programs let you customize signatures; Postbox adds the power to craft entire messages, saving yourself from endless retyping and copy-and-paste-induced carpal tunnel. Just enter your stock responses in Postboxs Preferences window; when composing a new email message, you simply choose the appropriate template from a pop-up menu and Postbox does the grunt work for you.

Elsewhere, Postbox still does threaded conversations better and more clearly than Apple Mail, thanks in part to the capability to expand or collapse individual messages in a thread and a quick reply box at the end of each message for speedier replies. Speaking of which, that Quick Reply box is one of my favorite Postbox featuresavailable in any message, it makes it a snap to fire off swift responses.

Postbox 3 also supports some Lion and Mountain Lion features, including fullscreen mode, trackpad gestures, and, as of version 3.0.5 Notification Center and Gatekeeper.

Not everything about Postbox 3 works perfectly, however. It supports tabbed views of your mail, but opens a new tab only when you double-click an individual message, or right-click a mailbox and select Open in New Tab. You cant simply open a new blank tab, then choose what to view in it. Postbox can handle POP and IMAP with aplomb, but it still doesnt support Exchange, as Apple Mail and Outlook do. And while I appreciate the capability to browse my iPhoto and iTunes libraries when attaching photos, I wish Postbox provided that feature within the Inspector sidebar. Searches performed within the Inspector can summon only potential attachments or photos from files already found in other email messages.

Another issue I experienced while testing Postbox is that the program tended to slow to a crawl when chewing over especially big tasks. For example, initially downloading and indexing messages from a newly added Gmail account took hours. To be fair, that could owe as much to my aging hardware as anything else, and subsequent searches ran swiftly.

The company offers abundant help through its website, with clearly written posts that answered all my questions. As that documentation reveals, this program is meant more for power users than newbies, despite its overall accessibility. For example, some advanced features require tinkering in Terminal to turn on.

Everyday email users can probably stick with Apple Mail, which offers most of Postboxs basic features. But at $10a mere 25 percent of the previous versions pricePostbox 3 makes a superb upgrade for those who want more out of their email client. Those who need serious email for business, or need to quickly pull crucial information from piles of messages, will likely find Postbox 3 indispensible.

[Nathan Alderman is a writer and copy editor based in Alexandria, Virginia.]

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This story, "Postbox offers a serious alternative to Apple's Mail app" was originally published by Macworld.

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