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by Kyle D'Addario
& Wincent Colaiuta

Making The Most Of - Part 2: Mail Preferences
May 18th, 2001

In my last Hot Cocoa column, I wrote about getting set up with the appropriate accounts and mailboxes. (For the record, I know that was actually two weeks ago, and in the interim Wincent has written an outstanding article about using OS X's command line interface. For those that have not yet caught on, Wincent and I author Hot Cocoa on alternating weeks. Now back to our regularly scheduled column. :-) This week we are going to dive a little deeper into OS X's and talk about the application's preferences. This column is targeted more toward the user that is just getting his or her feet wet with OS X, or someone who has not spent a lot of time with Mail. Advanced users will more than likely be familiar with much of the material presented.


To access Mail's preferences, go to Mail ->Preferences. Here you have access to the six major areas that Mail allows you control over. While at a glance this may not seem like much, users actually have quite a bit of control over the functionality of the program. For those that have been using Mail since it first appeared in Mac OS X Public Beta, the Preferences section will likely offer you many options that you had thought were missing right from the start. Your preference options:

Accounts - I talked about the Accounts window in a fair amount of detail, but I did not cover all the options presented in this panel for selecting how often Mail checks to see if you have new messages, and if and what sound the program plays to notify you of new messages.

While not allowing you precise control, Mail does offer the option of checking for new mail every minute, every 5 minutes, every 15 minutes, every 30 minutes, or every hour. If you do not want the program to automatically check for new messages, you can set this option to "Manually," which will check for new messages only when users click the Get Mail icon in the toolbar.

Users also get to choose which system sound they would like played when a new message arrives. Originally presented with the standard system sounds, users may also select another sound from elsewhere on their hard drive from this menu.

Unfortunately, these settings are "Mail-wide." That is the sound and interval that new messages are checked for apply to every and all active mail accounts. Perhaps in future versions of mail, users will be able to select separate sounds for separate accounts, as well as being able to select sounds for when there is no new message, and when a message is successfully sent. Outlook Express users have grown use to the audible feedback, and may find it more comfortable to have the same types of cues in Mail.

Fonts - The fonts panel allows users to choose the default font for viewing messages and the message list.

Here users are also able to select a font for fixed-width plain text messages, and how text will be quoted when replied to or forwarded. Mail allows users to select three levels of message quoting, making it relatively easy to keep track of the flow of a conversation if a mail message is bounced back and forth from one user to another. Mail's Fonts preferences are pretty standard, and do not hold any surprises.

One oddity is the check box for color-coding quoted text. Even if that check box is left blank, Mail will default to color-coding quoted text. It is quite possible that I am missing something, and equally possible that this is a bug in the current incarnation of Mail.

Viewing - Early versions of, going back to the Public Beta, handled deleted messages in an odd way. There was no "Trash" or "Deleted Items" folder or mailbox. When one deleted a message, rather, it just disappeared from that particular folder. If you wanted to see deleted messages, you would have to go to Messages -> View Deleted Messages. Deleted messages stayed "hidden" in their respective mailbox until users chose to Compress Mailboxes from the Mailbox menu. The version of Mail that shipped with OS X 10.0 handles deleted messages in a far more traditional way.

The Viewing preference allows users to move their deleted messages to a special mailbox or folder, and even allows users to choose that folders' name, Trash, Deleted Messages, or Deleted Items. Whatever a user chooses, a "blessed" mailbox will be created with that name, and all deleted messages will be moved there. Users can go into their special deleted messages folder or mailbox and drag them out if they decide they don't want a message deleted. This is very much the way that Outlook Express, for example, handles deleted messages.

The Viewing preference also allows users to select whether or not they want their deleted mail, well, deleted (the trash emptied) on a scheduled basis. Users can always choose to empty their deleted messages folder by going to Mailbox -> Empty Trash (or Deleted Items, or Deleted Messages - whatever name you have given to your "trash" folder).

This window also allows you to decide whether or not you want HTML related attachments automatically downloaded or not. If you do not want to receive images, animations, or other HTML attachments in your e-mail messages, leave this box unchecked. If you would like to receive HTML based attachments, then go ahead and check this box. I've not received any objectionable content via e-mail as of yet, but several friends and co-workers have. This option allows you to avoid those potentially awkward situations. This does not work for "attached" images, but rather for those sometimes annoying HTML based e-mails (like the Apple eNews Letter) that include images and other large files.

Lastly, you can choose how much detail you would like displayed in your headers. The Default setting shows the To, From, Date, and Subject fields. If you would like more information displayed, you can select that from here. You can add custom headers here, or select the All setting to show the above along with the CC and Reply To fields.

Composing - The first thing you can do in the Composing panel is choose where to save copies of Sent messages and copies of message Drafts that you might be working on. You can save them to any created folder or mailbox, but the defaults are, cleverly enough, Drafts and Sent Messages. There is usually little reason to change these defaults, but you can if you would like.

The Composing panel also allows you to choose whether the default composing style is Rich Text or Plain Text. Plain Text is the format of choice for a vast majority of e-mail users out there. Some older e-mail programs are not capable of displaying Rich Text, or stylized, messages. However, Plan Text messages do not allow you the type of control of style and formatting that Plain Text messages do. I suggest sending a Rich Text "test" message to people you frequently interact with, find out if the format bothers them. If not, then you are all set. If it does, you may want to set the default to the more traditional and universally accepted Plain Text format.

The Composing panel also offers you a number of miscellaneous options, such as whether or not you want your spelling corrected as you type. This uses OS X's system wide spell checker, which in theory is accessible from any Cocoa application. You can also choose to list group members individually, which allows users to see each individual recipient associated with a particular group. The "Lookup address in a network directory" function currently does not work. If you click the "Edit Server List" button you will see that there are no servers listed. While it does give you the ability to add a new server, we have not tested the feature to see if it is completely functional. This is likely another feature that will be enabled, with a server pre-configured, in a forthcoming version of Mail.

The Replying options are fairly standard for users of just about any e-mail program. You can choose to reply using the same format as the sent message, over riding the Rich Text/Plain Text default selected above. You can also choose to CC yourself with each message sent (a practice I never understood), and choose to include the original message when replying. If, when you reply, you would rather open a blank message document, rather than one containing the message you are replying to, leave this unchecked. This is a matter of preference, but it is often easier to follow the flow of an e-mail "conversation" when the original message is included.

Signatures - This is where you can create a variety of e-mail signatures to attach to the end of your mail messages. If you want to create a signature, click the Create Signature button and enter the signature exactly as you would like it to appear. Once you have signatures created, you are also able to manage them from this panel.

At this time, unfortunately, Mail will not allow users to attach separate signatures to separate accounts. What you can do, however, is set the program to allow you to choose a signature when you compose a message. This adds a pull-down menu to your compose window, allowing you to easily choose any signature you enter via this panel. If you have one account and one signature you always want to use, simply select that signature in this panel, and leave the "Choose signature when composing mail" option blank.

Again, this is something that we imagine Apple will address in a future version. That is, it is our guess that users will be able to attach signatures to accounts, meaning that each account will be able to have a default signature, basically eliminating the need to choose the signature at composition time.

Rules - Mail's rules are not as robust or full featured as those in Outlook Express, but should get the job done for most users. Rules are actions that are applied to messages based on some criteria that the user selects. So, for example, if you play in a volleyball league and you want all messages pertaining to that league to automatically go into a designated folder, you can do that. Combined with automatically moving a message, Mail's rules allow you to set the color of a message, delete it, forward it, or play a sound.

To create a rule, you first must select a "trigger" or criteria to activate the message. There are a number of options, all of which include looking for a string of text in a certain area. You can invoke a rule from text located in the From, To, CC, or Subject fields. You can also have Mail search the body of a message for a string of text. So, for our volleyball example above, you may want to set the Subject or the Body to search for the word volleyball. If Mail locates the word volleyball, it will then move the message into a special mailbox called volleyball. It is important to remember that all folders and mailboxes that you might want to use for a rule be created before setting the rule. If you know you want to create the above "volleyball" rule, but sure to create a mailbox called volleyball first, then go and create the rule


Once you have created a rule you are taken back to the main rule panel, and from there you can manage rules by changing their order (by clicking and dragging) or activating and deactivating them.

As you can see, there are a large number of customization options for Apple's Mail program. It is certainly not as full-featured as Outlook Express or Eudora, but is powerful enough to serve as your every day e-mail program. And by spending a few minutes working through the preferences, you will be able to get even more out of this delightful application.

-Kyle D'Addario

You are encouraged to send Richard your comments, or to post them below.

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Kyle D'Addario is the assistant editor of The Mac Observer and has logged about as much time on Mac OS X as is humanly possible. Kyle studies Computer-Mediated Communication, whatever that is, at the graduate level, and was a founding member of the original Webintosh team.

Wincent Colaiuta runs Macintosh news and criticism site,, and joined The Mac Observer team as a contributor in March 2001. He has worked with computers since 1984, and his interests in that area include Macs, PHP programming and security.

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