Outspring Mail 1.0 takes radical approach to e-mail management

Outspring Mail 1.0.4, a brand new competitor in the e-mail landscape, attempts a radically different and immensely promising approach to e-mail management. But in this early version of the program, its good intentions seem to exceed its actual abilities.

Let’s talk techBayesian filtering, commonly used for spam blocking, lets users teach a program a list of words often found in junk messages.

Once the program is sufficiently educated, it can spot offending words within a message, calculate the frequency with which they appear, and weigh the odds that the message is actually spam.

Outspring Mail takes this concept one step further, applying Bayesian filters to nearly every aspect of e-mail management. A set of features dubbed the Brain lets Outspring Mail examine and learn from incoming mail, remembering where you file different types of messages, or how you respond to certain questions. Over time, Outspring says, the program will automatically offer to file your mail in the right folders, and suggest reply templates for commonly received questions or requests.

It’s a highly innovative goal, but Outspring Mail’s current version remains a work in progress.

During my testing, both the Brain and the program’s Bayesian spam filter were still in learning mode.

The auto-filing feature did a good job of suggesting places to file messages once it learned where I’d routed mail from similar senders. But on the whole, the program’s suggestions missed far more often than they hit.

Working out the kinksThis review was written shortly after Outspring Mail’s official release, and its programmers were still squashing bugs and working on planned features.

Opening messages and mailboxes felt slightly sluggish on my 2GHz iMac G5-not quite as fast as other clients, but not aggravatingly slow.

However, version 1.0.4 consistently crashed when attempting to search in the “unseen” category. (Outspring Mail’s programmers couldn’t immediately replicate this bug on their own machines, and this did not happen on all the Macs we tested with.)

The program’s built-in search, while speedy and accurate, couldn’t search within a message’s body. Outspring Mail’s folder list had only rudimentary contextual menus for folders or their contents, and the program wouldn’t let me move nested folders of imported messages out into the larger list.

You can use the contextual menu to create a new folder, but there’s no simple button to do so, as there is in Apple Mail.

In addition, Outspring Mail did not allow users to create filters that would automatically route incoming mail to given mailboxes, nor to create custom smart mailboxes based on search and filtering criteria. (Five preset smart mailboxes did come with the program, including collections of recently arrived, recently viewed, and unread messages.) The program’s built-in help features also seem lacking, consisting only of a link to a single FAQ Web page. At press time, the programmers said they planned to add more comprehensive, searchable help files, and the other absent features, in future updates.

Credit where it’s dueOutspring Mail does several things extremely well. I really liked the Deferment feature, which lets you temporarily banish messages from your inbox for a set number of hours, days, or weeks, until you have time to look at them. It’s a great way to cut back on clutter, without the risk that you’ll forget about the deferred messages entirely.

In addition, the interface looks great, with several clever touches I haven’t seen in other mail clients. Outspring Mail assigns each account an icon in the message list, letting you know which messages were sent to each of your addresses. A terrific combination of color-coding and big quotation marks helps you follow the thread of previous replies within a message.

The Brain appears as an unobtrusive, retractable box at the right of the preview pane, offering its filing and response options as clearly labeled buttons.

Outspring Mail also sports first-rate OS X integration, tying seamlessly into Apple’s Address Book, and offering data detectors that bind days and dates to iCal. Setting up new accounts was a breeze, and the Apple Mail messages I imported upon first launching the program arrived in their proper folder structure.

The program automatically detected, downloaded, and installed new updates flawlessly. Outspring Mail offers notifications of new messages through Growl, and it’ll offer to automatically download and install Growl if you don’t already have it. The programmers also say Outspring Mail’s messages should be available to Spotlight searches from the Finder, though they weren’t on my computer.

Buying adviceOutspring Mail 1.0.4 isn’t ready for prime time yet-especially not at its US$95 price tag. It’s not unusable, but it doesn’t feel complete, either.

Still, the program deserves credit for trying a whole new approach to e-mail. Given time to iron out its quirks and add planned features to its first-rate interface, this program could become a serious contender on the Mac e-mail scene.

[Nathan Alderman is a writer, copy editor, and non-Bayesian spam filterer in Alexandria, Virginia.]


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