Nothing in Max OS X Lion mattered more to me than the hope that Mail would be truly improved. Despite its failings, Mail’s integration with the OS has always made it worth putting up with, and no competitor has ever been able to lure me away. (I have tried mightily to like Postbox, and I suspect it is the best alternative for most people, or perhaps now Sparrow as well, which was the hands-down simplest choice when my wife needed a client for her Gmail account. But there have been insurmountable issues for me.)
So certainly it’s not all bad news about Mail. Here’s some of the good to start, although it’s generally damning it with faint praise:
- The new Favorites bar is just a list of favorite mailboxes. It feels a little underwhelming, but the simplicity is good. I find I’m using it, and it certainly saves screen real estate; 80% of my mailboxes are of no interest to me 80% of the time.
- Large, embossed numerals indicate message position in a conversation. Nice idea. It would be nicer still if the total # was also displayed. #5 of how many …?
- The new default layout is another minor but welcome improvement: a generally better use of space.
- And still another minor improvement: message previews are helpful, to the point where I often get most or all of a message from the preview and never actually open it to read it.
- The new search features are not actually “good,” but they are better … and we certainly needed something.
- Vast message lists are handled speedily, and that’s not a trivial programming accomplishment. (Just don’t try to turn on the new “Conversations” feature — that’ll grind it too a halt.)
It nows seems to finally be possible to (reliably) navigate between panes with the tab key again. This capability has been AWOL for a few versions now. Welcome back, basic functionality.This worked great for about three days, and then mysteriously became highly erratic again — just like in the last version.
And now the bad news
Let’s start with a nemesis bug that symbolizes all that is wrong with Mail.app: an impressively lame bug, a head-shaker bug, the kind of bug that really makes you wonder if anyone is at the wheel … and it has still not been squashed. When Leopard pounced in the fall of 2007, Mail lost the ability to reliably use a rule to play a sound. I had been happily using a rule like this to play a “purr” sound upon receipt of an order notification — the delightful sound of making money. (Cool, eh?) After installing Leopard, the purring either failed altogether, or was delayed by many minutes or, eye-rollingly, even an hour or two.
I was amazed to watch this bug remain consistent not only through new machines and clean installs, but even through upgrading to Snow Leopard … and now Lion and a major overhaul of Mail. Indeed, it is actually obviously even worse now: I am unable to trigger a sound even by “manually” applying the rules to selected messages, which always was always how I confirmed that the rule was at functional in principle before, even if it refused to trigger automatically. Now I cannot even trigger the rule manually! Incredible! And so Mail, through three major OS upgrades, is still unable to perform one of the simplest and most useful rule-based functions imaginable.
And people are puzzled when I say that Mail.app sucks!
But there’s so much more …
- Substantial CPU spikes. I’m seeing 100-150% CPU usage for 10 seconds after sending a message. This does not seem cool.
- Slow. I gave Mail credit above for snappy handling of huge message lists, and that’s true … but it also goes away completely when you turn on the flagship new Conversations features, one of the only truly substantive new features in Lion’s Mail. I cannot use Conversations in large mailboxes, period. And even if I could …
- Sluggish “organized by conversation” message threads. The previous item was about the whole app becoming unresponsive when threading large message lists. But even once the list is available, the first message in the thread — the one I want to read! — is routinely obviously slow to display. Instead of displaying the message, an empty frame is displayed where the message will appear, eventually. It apparently knows the size of the message, since the frame stays the same size even after the message has finally displayed, and yet it cannot actually show it to me for several seconds for some reason — slower than a web page load. A fairly serious optimization problem with this major new feature.
- Visual glitches in message list. For instance, I deleted a message and the highlighting moved to the item above, but the “deleted” item did not move: it remained in the list until I relaunched Mail. Just one of many similar examples. A related one…
- The “message list font” size setting has no impact on anything in the new layout view — only the old view — and the font size of the new “message list” is therefore actually impossible to change. Sloppy! This sort of thing is really typical of the shitty Mail.app I know too well.
- There are virtually no changes to preferences whatsoever. Why so unchanged, for such a major update? Because the changes to the app are mostly cosmetic, and not nearly as big a deal as many reviewers seem to think. One of the only changes is simply confusing: Mail account preferences can now be tinkered with in the system preferences as well as in Mail, which bound to baffle many users. I can already hear myself explaining it to my parents in some future troubleshooting session…
- Mail’s rules turn off right after being turned on. Reproducible. An obvious and nasty bug. My rules are nearly useless as a result. (No, this doesn’t explain the failure of the “purr” rule bug described above — carefully checked. These are two separate, serious problems with rules.)
- Significant bugs with the signature feature “show related messages.” For instance, it clearly and specifically tells me that messages exist in mailboxes that they definitely do not exist in. The error is reproducible, and the feature unreliable and therefore unusable.
- The flagship “organize by conversation” feature is strangely disabled by default, is not available in the toolbar by default, and can only be enabled via the view menu. Not a serious problem, but it’s an odd lack of polish to have a major new feature represented solely by a menu item.
- Many elements in Lion are excessively gray and minimalistic … to a fault. Many have complained about the usability implications, but it goes beyond aesthetics and visibility in Mail. Specifically, the toolbar buttons that toggle view modes have no persistent state — you cannot tell what mode you’re in from looking at those buttons. In some cases this results in literally or nearly invisible respond to using the button. If I click the “show related messages” button right now in Mail, the button is unchanged, and indeed there is barely any change in the entire interface: a single tiny blue link “2 duplicates” appears in the header of the currently visible message. That’s it. That cryptic, miniscule change is the sole response of the app to clicking a button. Similarly and worse, if I click the “organize by conversation” button, it has literally no visible effect whatsoever: it is actually not possible to tell if the feature is on or off, because the button does not change.
- IMAP message status confusion … still. If I mark a message as read in my inbox, Mail still cannot figure out that the same message in other Gmail folders should also be marked as unread. If it consistently failed in this way, it might be forgivable. But it is erratic: sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t, and so you get a gradual accumulation of “unread” messages in your Gmail folders that were actually read long ago. Mail has always done this, and it still does this. But it gets worse ...
- IMAP syncing confusion … still. Not only does Mail struggle to update the read status of messages in other Gmail folders, it also struggles to update their existence. This is a new problem that I do not recall from the pre-Lion version. With alarming frequency, messages that are confirmed as present in a folder in Gmail (by checking the web interface, for instance) are not found in corresponding folder in Mail — and refuse to appear without a relaunch. This has mildly serious consequences, such as making searches untrustworthy, leading to entirely to much “but I know that’s in there” frustration until I remember this problem.
- Can’t remove attachments from sent messages. As far as I can tell, this significant bug is still unsquashed.
There’s more — oh, indeedy — but this is too long already. Next time: Mail search and “smart” mailboxes are still kinda lame.