Ahoy, ’Mate

My last post notwithstanding, “the geek’s prerogative” makes it okay to try other email apps — like MailMate.


My last post closed with:

Do I ever look at other [email] apps any more? Oh, sure. It’s what I sometimes call “the geek’s prerogative.”

And that continues, as I have become interested in MailMate. This macOS-only, IMAP-only app is a creation of Benny Kjær Nielsen, a Danish indie developer and holder of a doctorate in computer science.

Dr. Nielsen first released MailMate as a public beta almost a decade ago, in January, 2010, when the Mac version of Apple Mail looked very similar to how MailMate looks even now. But, while the appearance of Apple Mail has changed a lot since then, MailMate’s really hasn’t all that much — and that’s fine with the good doctor, not to mention the app’s many adherents.

Screen capture of the MailMate app

Image: Screen capture of MailMate, with its Latin-displaying “distortion mode” engaged for privacy’s sake.

Power trip

It’s hard for somebody who’s prided himself since the 1980s on knowing his way around the Mac-o-sphere not to give MailMate a try sooner or later. After all, its fans swear by it as the email client for Mac power users. However, perhaps because I had become so locked into my personal “Holy Grail” where email is concerned, I became aware of it only recently.

Although my email needs aren’t dramatic — as I’ve explained before, I don’t use my Mac to access work-related email1, so it’s simply my personal stuff, albeit over twenty years’ worth of it, and plenty more rolling in every day — I still was intrigued by several aspects of MailMate.

The info is there

First, the documentation, apparently all written by Dr. Nielsen, is superb, although certainly not a light read. If you’ve got a question about MailMate, it’s hard not to find the answer there.

Now, mind you: it’s got very few screen captures, and none that are current. Indeed, the ones you’ll find on his site are several years old. Yet, since he’s labored to make the app work better rather than revising its appearance every time the other apps doll up their UIs2, that doesn’t really affect the screen captures’ usefulness in explaining how MailMate works.

Stick to standards

Then there’s Dr. Nielsen’s clear dedication, as you can see between the lines of his page about how MailMate handles accounts, to making MailMate ultra-compliant with email standards.

I’ve been an email user since 1995 — although I can’t claim the “street cred” to swap stories with the Unix geeks who were reading their email with Pine long before then — and <rant>I have little patience with how Google, in particular, plays fast and loose with these hard-won standards, notably where IMAP is concerned.3 Standards make things work across borders, boundaries, and platforms, so vendors should adhere to them. Period. I don’t care if a vendor is monstrously big; it’s still not the only vendor. I want to be able to read my sent and received emails years from now, regardless of the vendor, device, or software I’m using. Sticking rigidly to standards makes that possible.</rant>

Indeed, this zeal for following standards extends even to how MailMate handles hooks to external applications through “bundles,” eschewing proprietary links for, instead, a default format that works with any email client (see the MailMate description in this article, albeit that it’s one pushing other apps). That’s impressive.

I got your formatting right here, pal

Finally, given my previously expressed support of Markdown, how could I not admire an email app that not only respects the plain-text foundations of email but even requires the use of Markdown to do any formatting in the composing process?

And the results are impressive. You can do boldfacing, italics, tables, blockquotes, code blocks — pretty much all the stuff Markdown makes possible — and it comes out on the other end in perfect HTML so it looks just as you’d intended.

I sent some test emails from MailMate to Outlook 2013 running in Windows 7 at work and, sure enough, it all came through. Pretty cool to see a code block show up in an outdated Microsoft email app and outdated Microsoft OS, I gotta say.

There are other email apps that let you use Markdown, but MailMate requires it for any formatting in composing. Chutzpah? Yeah. But I like that kind of chutzpah.

If you haven’t looked at MailMate in years, you may still think it can’t handle incoming HTML email content well enough. However, for some time now4, it’s been able to handle, display, and even forward all the “pretty” mail you want, thanks to some clever embedding techniques (see “Replying/Forwarding HTML” here).

Of course, you’ll still have to use Markdown to compose formatted text. And, again, that reliance on plain text is how email was designed from the beginning so it would work everywhere. It’s a good thing. As Dr. Nielsen himself explains it:

MailMate only allows emails to be written using a plain text editor. It is important to understand that this is a feature of MailMate. It might even be its most defining feature.

And there’s more

While those are the biggies, there are other reasons why MailMate interests me these days.

It’s hard to think of any method of searching through and filtering emails that MailMate doesn’t provide. The app is simply astonishing in this regard. As a result: if you’re inclined to use Smart Mailboxes, its implementation of them goes ’waaaay beyond similar capabilities on other email clients.

Of course, the drawback to using Smart Mailboxes on MailMate, as on other email clients with similar capabilities, is that they don’t sync with your iOS devices’ mail apps.5 The way around that is to apply rules that work with IMAP folders and subfolders, etc., at the provider level.

However, at that point, you may well say: what’s the use of the filtering on MailMate?

Well, MailMate makes it much easier to set up those provider rules because it tremendously simplifies figuring out what to filter. For example: in a list of emails, pick one you want to filter and double-click on one of the columns — say, the “From” address — and you’ll almost instantly see a list of every email with the same address, from which you can easily get the information to tailor your provider-side rule perfectly. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg where MailMate’s search and filter powers are concerned.

If you’ve got time and you’re feeling a little adventurous, MailMate’s hidden preferences allow numerous options for customization to an amazing degree. In this, one relatively pedestrian capability that appeals to my typography-obsessed brain is the ability to set the default CSS which controls the appearance of unformatted emails, especially since that describes a lot of the old emails I recently imported from an ancient PC.

You can customize various aspects of the display, such as the font size and leading of a column listing emails — although you can’t add any text preview to the columnar view, as is commonly available in most other mail clients. It’s something Dr. Nielsen mentioned as a “I’d-like-to-do-this-but” item over two years ago, and there it sits, still undone; but it’s a minor nit.

Still thinkin’ . . .

I began the 30-day trial of MailMate prior to Apple’s WWDC 2019, curious as to whether there’d be any big changes in Mail for what we now know will be macOS Catalina and, if so, whether they’d be enough to keep me from continuing to consider MailMate. After all, Apple Mail is included with macOS while, at this writing, MailMate costs $50.

However, the answers were “No” and “No.” The changes in Apple Mail in Catalina are welcome, yet of minimal impact. So I’m still thinkin’. I’ll keep you advised as to how I land.

Update, 2019-06-11

My tweet tonight says it all:

Bought a license for, and became a patron of, @mailmateapp. Very impressed with the software and the developer, as I made clear in my recent post: brycewray.com/posts/2019/06/…

  1. To clarify: yes, I do work from home sometimes, typically each Friday; and, yes, I access work email from home. However, I do so through the employer-supplied VMWare Horizon Client, not through other apps on my Mac. ↩︎

  2. In a blog post in January, 2017, Dr. Nielsen said, regarding the look and feel of the product itself, “I admit that I’m usually more concerned about the look (and adherence to standards) of the emails that MailMate sends (something which seems to be a bit unorthodox among email client developers).” ↩︎

  3. This is one of several reasons I recently dumped Gmail after thirteen years, having finally got all my important correspondents to use my FastMail-based email address, instead. Update from the future: Not long after I initially published this post, the provider changed its name from FastMail to Fastmail↩︎

  4. At least, that’s as far as my research can tell me since, again, I haven’t actually been aware of MailMate until lately. ↩︎

  5. The exceptions to this are multi-platform apps like Airmail and Spark, and you pay for that convenience through (a.) their keeping your credentials on their servers and (b.) their less-than-optimal privacy policies↩︎