OS/2 E-mail Client 3-Way Review
Written by Marco J. Shmerykowsky
So you've finally outgrown the Ultimail Lite package that came with OS/2 and Netscape Mail just isn't your cup of tea. It's time to start looking for a replacement E-mail client which will be capable of coping with the needs of a traveller on the ever expanding Information Super Highway. Fortunately, the OS/2 community has several high quality packages to choose from. This review will examine the features of Nick Knight's MR/2 ICE, SouthSoft's PMMail, and Innoval's Post Road Mailer.
Choosing the right E-mail client is almost exactly like buying a car. Not only does the machine have to meet your basic requirements for transportation but it must also have the right mix of comfort, power, and style which matches your personality. Some people need "economy" cars which just get the job done, some need "status" symbols which look good, and others could care less about looks and economy as long as there is a high horsepower, high torque V-8 under the hood. The e-mail clients presented here have a different mix of features which have different degrees of value to different people.
MR/2 ICE by Nick Knight
MR/2 ICE can be likened to a 1960's muscle car which is in the midst of a restoration project. The exterior appearance may look rather plain and in need of some work but the engine bay contains a chromed 450 cubic inch V-8 engine which is ready to go racing.
MR/2's basic interface is based on the traditional OS/2 settings notebook where each major category is placed a separate page of a tabbed notebook. Upon startup, the program displays a "page" or "tab" for the Inbox, the Outbox, and for user created "Folders." The Inbox and Outbox represent the standard message index where basic information about each message (ie. From, Subject, Date/Time, To and Size) are displayed. Although the information presented in the message index is adequate, there is no provision for adjusting the sequence, the width, or the type of fields.
The folders page is one of MR/2's more attractive features since it provides a single location for determining how much e-mail you have in each folder. Each folder name is preceded by the total number of entries and the number of new messages. When new messages are received, the color of the text for a folder changes. Currently, the Inbox and Outbox are not included in the Folders summary. I would find their addition useful for obtaining a one shot picture of the status of my e-mail. This, however, is arguably a matter of individual user preference.
The program also contains a positionable (top, bottom, left or right) toolbar which is augmented by Lotus like "bubble help." Since this feature does use additional "computer power," Mr. Knight has given the user the option to turn off this feature. The bottom of the main window contains a status bar for message retrieval and sending. Finally, MR/2's user interface makes significant use of the Right Mouse Button (RMB) to provide quick access to relevant features.
The user has the standard capability manage messages within MR/2 (ie. move, copy, and delete) and extending from the program (ie. forward, redirect, reply). Internal message management is augmented by the ability to search for text in messages and to apply a three-level sort to a folder's message index. The power of MR/2's text search capability isn't readily obvious to a new user due to the "simplistic" dialogue box which asks for a "text string." This text string, however, can include full Boolean logic as well as tags for searching through a message fields such as "from" or "subject." Consequently, this text search tool is actually quite flexible and powerful.
MR/2 also provides the option of choosing between "formatted" and "draft" printing. The "formatted" print job will provide consistent headers and footers on each page while using a user-selectable font. The "draft" printing will use the default font set in the printer hardware. This feature is helpful for users with printers that don't always get along with OS/2.
The e-mail client has provisions for maintaining a basic address book, mailing "groups", message filters, templates, and often used phrases. Templates are another unique feature of MR/2 ICE. These templates allow a user to create a variety of "boilerplate" messages which can be used for creating new messages and "standard" replies. In addition to containing the basic structure of a message, these templates can use variables which can include anything from a current time stamp to an entire file in the body of a message. These templates essentially take static "signature" files and turn them into dynamic message builders.
One of the reasons people outgrow "Lite" e-mail packages centers on the lack of filtering capabilities. This is another area in which MR/2 excels. The user can choose from the following four basic filter types: simple, free-form, REXX, and special. The simple filter allows a user to search the major fields of a message for a certain text string. The free-form filter allows a user to build a complex filter which supports Boolean search logic and message field tags, The "Special" filter will search for attachments of a certain type or size, and for messages over a certain length. Finally, the REXX filter capability allows for the use of an external REXX program. Once the message is filtered, the program can properly file the message, provide an automatic reply, forward it to another person, or link it to a REXX script.
These filters can be applied in five basic modes: pre-fetch, pre-send, inbound, outbound, and inbound/outbound. The pre-fetch mode is MR/2's way of providing a user with the ability to control the material which will be downloaded from a mail server. For example, it is possible to set up a "pre-fetch" filter which will only retrieve the headers of messages which have file attachments over a certain size. If needed, the user can retrieve the rest of the message manually. This can help protect a user from having to download a massive message over a slow dial-up connection.
One half of an e-mail client's ability centers on message composition. In addition to providing standard editing capabilities MR/2 has a few nice features. The program allows for toggling fonts, header display, text case, and rot13 encoding. The editor also has a unique "split screen" capability which may be used when replying to a message. The upper window will contain the message to be quoted while the bottom window will act as the composition window. This givers the user the ability to easily refer to and selectively quote the original message. Finally, MR/2 includes both a thesaurus and a spell checker.
MR/2 has a few additional features which may be of interest. These include an internal text editor, a calendar, a calculator, and the ability to launch a WWW browser or FTP program by highlighting a URL in a message. Currently, MR/2 will open a new instance of the WWW or FTP program for each URL selected. The other two e-mail clients handle this differently by sending any additional URLs to the program which was first opened by the e-mail client. I tend to prefer this "one open browser" method, but it can be perceived as a personal workflow preference. During the review process, Mr. Knight added this functionality to the client. Now the user has three options. The default action is to let the client open a new browser. The user can also choose to use an open instance of Netscape, or to open a new view window from a running copy.
Finally, for those users that need to manage multiple e-mail accounts, MR/2 can handle it. Each account has a full range of configuration settings. Logging on to a different account is as simple as selecting an alternate user profile.
Although MR/2 contains a number of unique and powerful features, it does have some areas which could use more polish. For example, MR/2's support for drag&drop fonts and colors does not seem to be complete. The font can be changed on the status line and the background color in the index can be changed, but these modifications are not retained between sessions. The most serious deficiency in MR/2 is the lack of a completed on-line help system. The foundations for the system are there, but not every category has a complete description. Mr. Knight and his users have attempted to alleviate this problem through the use of an active mailing list, several FAQs, world wide web based manuals, and a viewable INF file which can be directly accessed from MR/2's help menu. Since finding "help" does require some work, a new user will most likely face a steep learning curve. The weak help system becomes less of an issue as the user becomes more experienced. I must also state that I have been impressed with Mr. Knight's responsiveness to his users. The product seems to be under a continual development and improvement cycle. Truly useful suggestions seem to be promptly addressed.
MR/2 ICE has the following additional basic feature:
PMMail by Southsoft
Upon starting PMMail, a user will be presented with the type of "traditional" user interface design which has been adopted by packages such as Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes, and Eudora. This interface divides the main window into two separate "panes." The left pane is provides a tree view of available user accounts and their corresponding nested folders. For organizational purposes, the user has the option to create folders "at the Root Level" of an account or "as a Child" of a particular folder. Thus, a user can create as many nested "sub" folders as are required to properly arrange the e-mail. Finally, the "tree" view allows a user to see a "global" picture of the entire organizational structure.
The second "pane" or window is the area where the real work is done. This window displays the status of a message, whether or not it contains attachments, the date, time, subject, the "from" name, and the size of the message. While the user does not have the ability to control the width of each data field, Southsoft provides a settings option which allows a user to select the sequence and type of fields which will be presented in the message display window. Finally, Southsoft allows the user to customize the display window through the full support of drag&drop fonts and colors.
The final major portion of the "main window" involves the status bar. This bar typically displays the "Fetch" status, the "Idle" status, the total number of messages in the currently selected folder and the number of unread messages. Additionally, the message number area is used to display short context help for the toolbar buttons. As the mouse pointer is moved over each toolbar icon, a short description of the buttons function appears on the status bar.
While the choice of a user interface is essentially a matter of individual user preference, PMMail does have some strong points. First, the "traditional" user interface may provide a shorter learning curve at a site which uses multiple e-mail "popular" e-mail clients or which must frequently train new users that have a familiarity with "popular" clients. Second, the interface has a clean professional look to it. The icons are well designed and the entire main window supports customization of fonts and colors through the use of standard drag&drop operations. Although this last point is not a technical issue, it does help to give certain users a "warm fuzzy feeling" that they are using a well developed product. A rather large software developer from the Pacific Northwest has elevated this "looks good" design principle to an artform. Unlike the software from the aforementioned part of the country, SouthSoft's product actually works and works well.
PMMail also contains a feature known as "remote control." Conceptually, this feature provides the same functionality which would be available through the use of a Unix shell account and a quick text based e-mail client such as pine or elm. The "remote control" portion of the program will download the headers to all of the messages which are present on the user's mail server. At this point, the user can choose whether to download the message and delete the original from the server, download a copy of the file while leaving the original on the server, or completely deleting the message. The information is presented in the same organizational form selected for the main message window. Finally, as in many areas of the program, all of the functionality available on the pull-down menus may be accessed through the use of the Right Mouse Button (RMB).
A large amount of PMMail's functionality can be configured through the use of the "Utilities Settings" option on the "Account" pull down menu. The most basic features or "utilities" are the provisions for multiple signatures and canned replies. These two options simply contains standard text messages which can be either appended to the end of an e-mail message or automatically mailed in response to an incoming message.
The feature which provides the most functionality to the e-mail client is the filter utility. The first step in setting up a filter is to decide whether the filter will use "simple" or "complex" logic. The "simple" filter will search a given area of the message, such as the body or a portion of the header, for a given text string. This "simple" search can be extended by using a logical AND, OR, or UNLESS to search for two distinct text string in two separate message areas.
The complex filter provides an opened entry field where the user can implement SouthSoft's "Internet Communication Search Language" (ICSL). This "language" is essentially a parsing language which allows a user to use Boolean ANDs and ORs as well as special tags to search for almost any combination of conditions which may occur in a message. For example, a user could write a filter which would for search messages which are within a certain size range, contain a specific date in the header, and are not from a certain domain.
The next step in designing the filter is to choose the point of application. PMMail allows a filter to be applied before the message is sent, after it is sent, manually, or to all incoming mail. Finally, the user can choose up to five "actions" to be applied to a message from an extensive predefined list. This list allows the filter to set the message status, priority or subject, play a separate sound file, notify the user, automatically open or print the message, run a REXX script, send a canned reply, and forward, redirect, move, copy or delete a message. The filter can also be used to run a simple mailing list. E-mail addresses can be automatically added or removed to either the address book or a user defined group. Messages can be automatically distributed to an entire address book or to a single group.
The final utility implemented centers on the use of OS/2's REXX scripting language. These specific scripts are activated during the time when PMMail is in the process of either sending or receiving e-mail. For example, a user could set up a script to launch a dial-up connection only when PMMail needs to send queued mail.
Another area where SouthSoft has taken time to implement a nicely designed interface is in the "find" dialogue. The user selects the folder or account, the area of the message, and the text string which will be used in the search. Once the search is activated, PMMail begins to display the "from" and "subject" fields and the location of the message in a well dynamically updated list. Once the search is finished, the user simply needs to double click on a selected message to read it. This tool has the added convenience remaining open and retaining the search results after a message is selected. Finally, the search may be terminated before it is completed.
The internal message editor included with PMMail is of the standard variety. All of the standard editing capabilities are included, as well as the ability to handle message attachments and to spell check the message. The message editor also contains the interface enhancements, such as status indicators and drag and drop support, which is present in the main message window.
In addition to managing e-mail messages, an good e-mail client should also be capable of handling e-mail addresses. SouthSoft extends the structure of the main message window to the address book by maintaining two separate "panes." The left window "pane" contains individual address books or folders, and the right widow contains the individual e-mail addresses or groups contained in each book. This approach give the user a fair degree of flexibility in organizing e-mail addresses. Finally, in addition to entering a person's e-mail address, the user can enter two sets of snail mail addresses and phone/fax numbers. Thus, Southsoft allows the address book to be used as a simple contact manager.
PMMail has the following additional basic features:
In general, PMMail is a well designed program which has a great number of useful features. Its "familiar" user interface, detailed help system, and well organized features will allow anyone to quickly learn how to manage their main efficiently.
Post Road Mailer by Innoval
Post Road Mailer proves that in this world there are numerous ways to arrive at a good solution. While many e-mail clients seem to place the primary focus on message folders, Innoval has decided to make the "inbox" the user's work center. In this work center, the user is presented with a descriptive listing of all of the messages contained within the "inbox" as well as a powerful control panel which gives the user access to the program's major features. In general, this approach seems to be geared to the user who wants to look at very specific portions of information and does not want extraneous data cluttering the screen.
The "inbox" is essentially divided into two main areas. The first area consists of the message list where the "subject," "from name," "from address," and "date/time/time zone" fields are displayed. In addition to this standard information, Innoval has given the user the ability to attach a "mood icon" to each message. This "mood icon" gives the user the ability to visually distinguish messages from one another. For example, a icon representing a company logo can be added via a filter to all corporate correspondence while another filter could add an icon of a can of spam to the unsolicited junk e-mail that everyone seems to be collecting these days. Innoval also has allows the user to choose between a "standard" uncluttered two line per message information display and an "alternate" message display which follows the style implemented by clients such as PMMail and MR/2. The "standard" informational display has the added ability to display status "words" which indicate whether the message has been printed, deleted, or queued for printing.
The second area of the inbox is the action pad. This toolbar is essentially an OS/2 3.0 style launchpad which gives the user one-button access to most of the programs key functions. On the extreme left and right ends of the action pad, the program prominently displays two counters indicating the number of queued messages and the number of messages in the inbox. Each of these counters has a related color matched button which will send the queued messages or "refresh" the inbox. Additionally, the launchpad provides large buttons for composing new messages and for replying to or forwarding the selected message. Next to the message "action" buttons Innoval has added three icons for printing messages, print queue management, "shredder" management, and access to the message folders. The shredder management feature is a nice addition because it allows the user to perform operations on the messages prior to deletions. For example, before shredding the notes, the user could sort the messages by author, undelete all messages from John Doe, and delete all other messages. Essentially, this is a remote control for the shredder. The final button on the action pad is represented as a small ambiguous triangle. This button gives the user have access to additional Post Road Mailer features such as the address book, drive space information, message threads, signature blocks, and the "network log."
The inbox's pull down menu provide additional functionality which is not present on the action pad. Like PMMail, Post Road has a remote control feature which allows for the retrieval of message headers. Once the headers have been downloaded, the user can select which messages will be viewed, retrieved to a file, retrieved to the inbox, or deleted. Additionally, Post Road provide both the main window and the preview window with the ability to "break" or stop the send/retrieval process. This is an extremely useful feature which should give the user the flexibility to stop and check for problems such as massive attachments which are clogging a dial-up connection. Post Road has two unique features which have the potential of greatly improving productivity. The first feature has to do with the client's built in capability to download an "Internet file." If an e-mail message contains a URL of the format 'ftp://' or 'http://', then the user simply double click with the left mouse button (LMB). This action brings up a concise dialogue box which contains the file to retrieve, the name and location for the downloaded copy, and the username and password which will be used at an FTP site. The user has the additional option to queueing a number of files for "future" downloading. Finally, Post Road allows the user to manage the queued file through a menu option in the inbox. Thus the flexibility to remove files from the queue or to download a single queued file is provided.
This download feature deserves special recognition because it addresses the problems which are being caused by the e-mail attachment "craze." For example, in the civil engineering business many companies are deciding that Computer Automated Drafting (CAD) drawings should be sent as e-mail attachments instead of via hardcopy prints. While quicker, this causes e-mail servers and clients on dial-up connections to get clogged with 1.4MB plus e-mail messages. With Post Roads implementation, the e-mail message would simply contain FTP URLs instead of binary attachments. The end user then simply queues the files for download and gets back to work.
The second helpful feature centers on Post Road's ability to scan a current web page for all of the "mailto" tags. The user can then select the address to which a e-mail message will be sent. This unique feature is nice because it allows a user to keep all e-mail correspondence within a single e-mail program rather than splitting it between the e-mail client and Netscape Mail.
Innoval's has also implemented an excellent "address book" For each address book created, the user can add either a single e-mail address or an "address group" which consists of an assemblage of addresses from the current address book. Each entry can store a person's first and last name, a company name, five e-mail addresses, two phone numbers, a fax number, and a general notes field.
Innoval has added several nice touches to the address book. First, all of the entries in an address book are automatically sorted and separated alphabetically by "last name." When looking for an address, the user simply selects the correct letter and then scans the expanded phone book style list where are entries are presented as "first name" "last name" "organization" (ie. John Doe; Acme Products). Right clicking on any entry with the RMB activates a context menu which allows the user to print the entry, modify it, or to compose a message. If the selected person has multiple e-mail addresses, then the user will be prompted to choose one address from the "multiple e-mail id's which were found." This implementation follows the style of only presenting the information that is needed. Thus instead of creating two entries for a "personal" and a "business" address, the user simply creates one entry that contains all of the relevant information. Finally, Innoval has intelligently given the user to ability to print all of the data contained in an address book. Thus you can create, for example, a quick reference project contact list which can be used for e-mail correspondence, tacked to a wall for quick access to phone numbers, or tossed in a non-battery operated pocket.
Post Road Mailer, like the other two clients reviewed, has a nice array of filtering capabilities which are presented in a single dialogue box. The user enters a "search string," selects the portion of the message to search (ie. "from," "to," subject," etc.), and chooses the "reaction to take". In addition to the standard options of filing, deleting, copying and automatically replying to messages, the user can choose to apply "mood icons" to the messages or may select a "notification" message. As with the other clients, a REXX script can be automatically applied to a filtered message to take care of tasks which are beyond the capabilities of the predefined filters. Finally, pushing the "find" buttons to locate a certain file will reveal that Innoval has developed a file dialogue box which is more informative than the standard OS/2 dialogue. This dialogue box provides the added capabilities of simple file management, "speed lists," one button access to an editor, a quick search button, and simple control over the sort order of the files listed in the dialogue box.
Although the "inbox" seems to be the focal point of Post Road Mailer, the program does have support for multiple nested folders. The "folders view" is presented in the same tree format that all OS/2 folder objects use when opened using the "Open as ->Tree view" option. Next to each folder, the client displays the total number of subfolders, the total number of notes, the number of unopened notes, and the number of "files" which are contained a given folder. This information helps to present an overall view of the status of your e-mail messages.
The actual messages in a folder are only displayed in the "alternate" format which is available in the "inbox." From this list the user can take any of the standard actions such as replying, redirecting, forwarding, and deleting messages. Post Road also provides the capability of sorting messages by date, from address, to address, subject, or read status. Finally, messages can be organized in threads arranged by author, subject, or the "to" address.
The final major portion of Post Road Mailer is the message composition window. This window can be operated in "glued" mode as a single unit or as two separate windows where the header information is entered in one dialog box and the message is entered in a separate window. The header window allows the user to specify the basic "to," "cc," "bcc," "from," "reply-to," and priority fields. The user can also select the files which will be included as attachments, a "mood icon" and one of multiple user defined signature files. Finally, the message composition window supports formatting options such as rot13 and different fonts. The only disappointing aspect of the message composition window is that the "spell checker" is not included as part of the basic package and must be purchased separately.
Post Road Mailer also contains many additional settings features:
Well that should cover the basics. I had originally started this little thesis of a review because I was shopping for a new mail client. I was hoping that some one would tell me that Client A is the best and Clients B and C are worthless. Unfortunately, this didn't happen. I found all of the clients to be excellent products that fit different work habits and requirements. Basically, a client that works for one person won't necessarily work well for another person.
In general, none of these clients are perfect but they all have excellent features. The ideal client would combine the "unique" or well implemented features into a single product. The author who accomplishes this first, along with ports to several platforms, will have a significant revenue generator on his hands.
As an end note, if you really need to know which e-mail client I chose as "best for me," then send me an e-mail message and I'll let you know...
MR/2 Internet Cruiser Edition (Version 1.27c) [Version 1.28 is now out -- Ed]
PMMail (Version 1.91) [Version 1.92 is now out -- Ed]