Replacing Mail.app with Gmail on OSX

Off late the Mail.app email client on OSX has been acting up on me. It often stalls or displays the spinning beach ball of death till a forced quit is required. Also, it seems to have display rendering issues when a mail classified incorrectly as junk is moved back to the inbox.

I tend to use the Mail.app as a local email client for three main purposes:

  1. Offline mode for reading my emails when there is no Internet connection available
  2. Easy desktop search for the mails via Spotlight, and
  3. Easy archival of important mail in my project workspaces (either in Devonthink or plain text export)

The other features (TODO and Notes) are nice, but not really useful for me as I use other tools for these items. The mail itself is served out via gmail accounts and IMAP synchronization.

However, Mail.app is one of the few (only?) Apple provided applications that I have a love-hate relationship with. I love the fact that it integrates seamlessly with iCal and Address Book, and the other features such as support for multiple signatures, digital signing and encryption via the GPG plugin and the smart quote while responding are quite good. the threading is also functional.

But the incessant crashes and freeze ups are getting to be more than annoying. I have tried the various cures such as re-synching the entire mailbox, rebuilding the mailbox, trashing preferences, changing the cache setting and a ton of other voodoo. These seem to be temporary solutions however, and the problems come back pretty fast. Apparently I am not alone in my suffering though – Apple’s discussion and support forums are full of unhappy Mail.app users.

So I am now on the hunt for an alternative offline/local client solution. I have already tried Mozilla Thunderbird, and it looks too ugly for my tastes (though an excellent client on the Windows platform). In addition, two more deal-breakers exist right now:

  1. Getting Spotlight to work with Thunderbird requires a third party indexer which seems to be a hack. It looks like an experimental mdimporter plugin does come with version 2.0 but is flacky
  2. Missing integration with the system provided AddressBook.app application (I need to sync the addresses with my Blackberry, and AddressBook.app is a core part of the synchronization workflow)

Another promising solution seems to be using Gmail directly as the primary email client. This requires a few additional steps to enable a seamless offline operation:

  1. Installation of the Google Gears extension for the browser (no support yet for the latest Safari 4.x version) – this enables a copy of the emails to be stored on the local disk and allows access and usage of the gmail interface when offline – note that the first-time sync takes a long time as last 6 months worth of emails are downloaded to your computer – it is pretty peppy from then on
  2. Installation of the Gmail Notifier application which provides notifications on receipt of new emailgooglenotifiersignin.png
  3. Setting up Gmail as the default mail handler from URLs by using an option on the Gmail notifiergooglenotifierpreferences1.png
  4. Using a Site Specific Browser such as Fluid.app or Mozilla Prism and creation of a Gmail SSB application (remember to set a nice icon)fluid1.png
  5. Setting up the Gmail SSB as the default mail application by setting the “Default Mail Reader” option from Mail.app’s general preferencesmail-appgeneralpreferences1.png
  6. Synchronizing the addresses between Addressbook.app and Gmail using iSyncaddressbookpreferences.png
  7. Using Google Desktop for searching the mails on Gmail

Whew! Quite a bit of setup here to do – and it is still not perfect. Lets look at the pros and cons:

Pros:

  1. Can use the excellent Gmail UI everywhere, online or offline – on all platforms. Hurray for Web apps!
  2. Great keyboard shortcuts – much better than Mail.app
  3. Using the SSB allows a smooth integration of the mail experience with rest of the desktop
  4. No more waiting for the local client to download the mails before accessing – it is near instantaneous after the first offline synchronization
  5. No more crashes!

Cons:

  1. It is a hack right now – definitely not a “download and start using” solution
  2. Google Desktop is duplicating search functionality that already exists via Spotlight
  3. Synchronization of the addresses between Gmail and AddressBook is not reliable
  4. No support for multiple signatures (can get around with a auto-typing solution such as Typinator or TextExpander)
  5. Cannot export the emails (not the contacts) from Gmail to the local computer

I intend to use this setup for the next couple of weeks to get a better feel of the system. Will follow up with a post on the findings. Do let me know what you think.

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