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Is Apple Mail on Mac a good replacement for Outlook for Mac?

MacBook Pro
On message: the Mac Mail app is surprisingly powerful

I’ve been an Outlook user for as long as I can remember, but my patience has popped. I switched to Mac over a year ago, and while Outlook for Mac isn’t as terrible as everyone warned me it would be, it’s not great either. It’s bloated, buggy, lacks features that have been in Outlook for Windows for years and Microsoft is making a terrible hash of a migration to a new version.

I’ve had enough, and I’ve decided to seek alternatives. My plan is to spend a week with a series of Outlook for Mac rivals to find one which best suits my needs, which is basically juggling four different accounts, a mixture of Gmail and IMAP accounts.

The most obvious alternative is the one that comes pre-installed on every Mac – Apple Mail. Is Apple’s freebie strong enough to replace Outlook for Mac? Here’s my week-long view.

Apple Mail on Mac – the good bits

In no particular order, here are the things I like about Apple Mail.

It’s very clean looking. If Outlook is a fussy jumble of icons and menus, Apple Mail is the exact opposite. It has a very minimalist design that I initially thought betrayed a lack of power features, but there’s actually more to Apple Mail than appearances suggest. It has both light and dark modes, but I prefer the light mode with its subtle gray shading on the menu chrome, the slim inbox view and the wide reading panel, saving extra clicks to open messages and read them.

Smart Mailboxes. One of those hidden power features that I really like in Apple Mail is Smart Mailboxes. These are effectively mailbox filters, but they allow you to quickly access relevant items without having to scan through your entire inbox(es) or perform a search. To give you an example, I’m frequently sent invoices by freelance writers/designers that my company employs. I now have a Smart Mailbox set up for emails that contain the word ‘invoice’ and have an attachment. It’s not foolproof, but it catches 99% of the relevant messages, and so when it comes to payments at the end of the month or tax return time, it’s now much easier to find the relevant emails.

Apple Mail Smart Mailboxes

You won’t miss important messages. With four different accounts to monitor, it’s easy to miss vital messages in the fog when you come back from lunch and find 56 unread messages waiting. Apple Mail for Mac has a couple of brilliant tools to make sure you don’t miss those emails from the boss, the other half etc. I wrote about these features last week, so I won’t labour it here, but if you want to find out how to set up unmissable alerts or coloured backgrounds for messages from VIPs, click here.

It’s very customisable. It’s most unlike Apple, who generally prefer to dictate a design and tell you to get on with it, but Mail for Mac is very customisable – at least as much as Outlook for Mac. The preferences let you set different fonts and font sizes for message lists and messages themselves; you can set how many lines of preview text you want to see for each message; change the info shown in message headers; apply different signatures to different mailboxes; change the unread mail counter in the Dock to only show the number of messages waiting from VIPs. It’s surprisingly powerful once you start fiddling under the bonnet (‘hood’ for those of you who fill cars up with ‘gas’, even though it’s a liquid).

Apple Mail on Mac – the bad bits

Setup was a bit hairy. Although adding my four different email accounts was largely plain sailing, something went wonky with the Gmail account, which resulted in Apple Mail failing to download messages from any account and an unhelpful ‘downloading’ progress bar that didn’t progress. After trial and error, the problem was solved by deleting the Gmail account and starting over, but I think many people would have been flummoxed by this.

Search is just ‘OK’. For the majority of searches, Apple Mail’s simple search bar does the job, but I do miss Outlook’s ability to easily refine searches by sender or to only include messages with attachments. There are ways of refining searches in Apple Mail for Mac, but they’re not as obvious as they are in Outlook.

It’s easy to miss new messages in conversation chains. I’ve stuck with conversation view for now, so that those endless Reply To All chains are contained within a single message thread. However, Apple doesn’t do a great job of marking where the new, unread messages begin in these chains, making it hard to keep track of unread items. You can turn conversation view off and I might have to.

Apple Mail on Mac – the verdict

So, after a week with Apple Mail on Mac, am I crawling back to Outlook on my hands on knees and begging for forgiveness? Absolutely not.

It has a few shortcomings and quirks, but I’ve been surprised by just how painless the transition has been. Plus, there are features such as Smart Mailboxes and the VIP stuff that, while there are Outlook equivalents, are much better implemented in Mail for Mac.

I’d be quite happy to live permanently in Apple Mail for Mac, but I want to try a few more alternatives first to see if there’s anything better out there. I’ve got Blue Mail and Big Mail on my shortlist. If you know of a great Mac mail client, let me know on comments below and I’ll try and check it out.

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About the author

Barry Collins

Barry has scribbled about tech for almost 20 years for The Sunday Times, PC Pro, WebUser, Which? and many others. He was once Deputy Editor of Mail Online and remains in therapy to this day. Email Barry at barry@bigtechquestion.com.

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