OS X Lion: Using Mail’s New Search Features

Let’s see. I’ve done a tip about Lion’s Mail. I’ve done a tip about Lion’s Spotlight features. Now the logical tip to do is one about searching within Mail, right? Well, you can’t stop me, so I’m going to, mostly because Lion’s Mail search has been much improved from Snow Leopard’s. I think it’s a very useful and elegant way to access your messages, and it’s certainly easier than paging through 4,724 mailboxes to find what you’re looking for. So read on to learn what’s new.

What we’ll need to go over first is the feature that Apple calls search tokens, which is their not-very-intuitive name for search results. These are any of the items that pop up when you start typing within the search box in the upper-right of your Mail window.


The amount of greyed-out stuff here makes me look like I work for Homeland Security. But every result there is clickable.


As you can see, the results are now organized into categories, so you can easily select what’s appropriate for your search. Click on any of those, and Mail will save that token and thus start narrowing things down.

Type more information directly after that token to add extra detail to your quest for messages. Choose more results to add more tokens and refine your search even further.

In the screenshot above, I’ve told Mail to search for attachments with the word “melissa” in their names that were sent from Melissa Holt. That’s weird and kind of meta, isn’t it?

You’ll note that these tokens have a dropdown arrow next to them, so click that arrow to alter your search if you’re not finding what you’re looking for.

Since the default when you click on a someone’s name is to search for messages from that person, you can also type in text commands to perform some of the same searches for simplicity’s sake. For example, if you type “to:melissa” in your search box and hit enter, Mail will behave as if you clicked on a token from the list. This may be faster for some of you than performing the search, clicking on the drop-down arrow as shown above, and changing the setting. You can use the box to search by date, too; if you type a month into it, one of your clickable options will be that month of the current year. If you prefer, it’s possible to type out a full month and year to find messages from that date (e.g., “April 2010”).

When you’re satisfied with what you’ve got, click the familiar “Save” button (shown in the screenshot above) to keep that search as a Smart Mailbox. If you do so, Mail will present you with a dialog box full of all sorts of options, meaning that you can get as specific as you’d like before you save that Smart Mailbox. And then forever after, you can access messages that fit your criteria without having to perform that search again.

Finally, if you want to look in a specific location, do so by either selecting a folder directly from your Mailbox List before you begin your search or by choosing one of your Favorite Mailboxes from the toolbar. You can also select “All” from your toolbar to search everything within your Mail.

Choose a mailbox from here before you begin your search…

And it’ll show up in your toolbar in blue to indicate that’s where the search is being performed.


And as in Snow Leopard, if you’re not finding something that you know should be there, check within Mail > Preferences > General to make sure that the appropriate search locations are selected at the bottom of that tab. 


Neat, huh? Not everything’s different, but I’m really digging the tokens as an easy way to combine several search terms into one giant mega-search. Because when you get 236 messages a day, it’s useful to be able to narrow them down.


(Disclaimer: I do not get that many messages. I just wanted to seem important.)