Mail’s Search feature: embarrassingly poor

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
September 18th, 2003 • 6:04 pm

The Search feature in Mac OS X’s Mail application, which is supposed to enable you to locate specific archived messages based on keywords, is embarrassingly poor. It is, in fact, pretty much unusable, and I am glad that I am a fairly well-organized person, which makes finding older messages easier for me without HAVING to use the Search feature.

Sometimes, however, my organizational skills fail me, and I have to resort to using Mail’s Search feature. And every time this happens, I am reminded of how poor it is — especially compared to the search features in other programs, such as Eudora and Mailsmith.

First of all, the interface is highly inappropriate. Instead of using a separate dialog window, Mail requires you to use the “Search” field that’s located in its toolbar. Like the one in iTunes, this “Search” field is a “live” thing, meaning that Mail starts searching as soon as you start typing in the field, even without asking it to start the search. This “instantaneous matching” approach is fine in theory, but in practice, with thousands of messages in hundreds of mailbox folders, it is woefully inadequate. Even on a fast machine, such searches take time — and there’s simply no way that this “Search” field with its live matching can provide a fluid experience to the user, unless he’s trying to search for a message in a very limited context, i.e. within the context of a single mailbox that only contains a limited number of messages. But then, if you only need to do this type of search, you probably don’t need a search feature in the first place, do you?

In my case, I only need to use the Search feature precisely when I don’t know in which mailbox the message I am looking for might be. And that’s where Mail’s Search feature suffers from another huge shortcoming: You can only search either in the currently selected mailbox or in all mailboxes. You cannot search within, say, a folder of mailboxes. You cannot search within a selection of mailboxes. it’s all — or nothing. If you don’t know where your message might be, you have to use the “brute force” approach of searching through all mailboxes, even if you strongly suspect that the message might be in a specific subfolder in your mailbox folder hierarchy.

And then Mail suffers from a huge bug that causes it to refresh message coloring (based on the coloring rules defined in your Mail preferences) in each and every mailbox before it starts actually searching for a message in it. I have hundreds of mailboxes, many of them containing hundreds of messages. Coloring takes time, even on a fast machine. Why does Mail need to refresh message coloring in a mailbox before searching in it? I only need Mail to refresh the coloring when I actually open a mailbox to see its contents!

I’ve reported this bug, and Apple tells me that they are aware of it. But there have been several updates of Mail since then, and it’s still there. Grrr…

This effectively makes the Search feature completely useless if you have a large archive of mail, because refreshing the message coloring in all these mailboxes takes a very long time. In fact, I tried again this morning, and left Mail running for about half an hour. When I returned to it, it still hadn’t finished the search/coloring refreshing process. When I returned to it again 15 minutes later, the application was frozen, and I had to force-quit it. Good grief!

And then when you do actually manage to get search results in Mail, the way the results are presented is, once again, woefully inadequate. Mail lists the messages in the main Mail Viewer window, which means that they are listed as the content of an imaginary mailbox that doesn’t exist. The columns include the subject, date, sender, etc. But the only way you can tell where the message actually is in your archive — which is, presumably, one of the most important bits of information you need — is through a column that shows you the name of the mailbox that contains it. But you have no way of opening that mailbox or seeing where in the hierarchy it actually is! If, like me, you have many mailboxes nested deep down your mailbox folder hierarchy that have similar, if not identical names, this means that the search results won’t actually enable you to locate the message! They’ll let you view the contents — but if you were hoping to actually locate the message, in ORDER to be able to move it, for example, you’re out of luck!

This, in a nutshell, is the reason why Mail’s Search feature is so awful. Why am I still using the program, then? Well, as I said, I am fairly well organized, so I don’t actually need to do an archive-wide search very often. In addition, switching e-mail programs is not for the faint-hearted, as I have had the opportunity to EXPLAIN in the past.

I’ve also described many other shortcomings in Mail here, here, and here — not to mention other items in this blog.

My position at this point in time is to wait and see what improvements Apple has made in the version of Mail included in Panther. If there aren’t significant improvements in the areas that matter most to me, then it’ll be time for yet another big move, this time to Mailsmith, I suspect.

One Response to “Mail’s Search feature: embarrassingly poor”

  1. Paul Robertson says:

    I couldn’t agree more, if it wasn’t for the prospect of this being fixed in Panther I’d switch right away, it is the single most annoying thing for me in OS X.

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