Inbox Tamers

Desktop Clients

Microsoft Outlook

The name Outlook 2003 might make the program sound past its prime. In fact, this e-mail app remains a worthy contender for corporate users, but its helpful collaboration features are overkill for most home and small-office users.

Outlook is available by itself for $109 or as part of Microsoft Office.

Outlook's unique rules wizard for setting up mail filters could make the task easier for newbies. Outlook also has the ability to send encrypted and digitally signed messages. When your correspondents use a compatible mail program, you can restrict them from forwarding your mail, or you can set the message to expire after a certain date, a function unavailable in the other mail clients we tested.

Integrated access to a dictionary, a language translator, and an encyclopedia ensures that you'll always have the right word at your fingertips. Outlook 2003 works with regular POP3 and IMAP servers, can get mail from Microsoft Exchange Server (useful in many corporate environments), and can download mail from Hotmail Plus accounts. Unlike PocoMail and Thunderbird, however, Outlook doesn't include a newsgroup reader.

Without any training Outlook's spam filter identified more junk mail than any other client app: It caught 19 of the first 25 spam messages testers sent it. After testers had trained its filter, Outlook caught 94 percent of the junk.

The calendar, task manager, and contacts manager are nicely integrated. Also, you can initiate instant messaging conversations from Outlook.

Mozilla Thunderbird

Thunderbird's spelling checker can't check spelling while you type, as PocoMail and Eudora can.
Thunderbird's spelling checker can't check spelling while you type, as PocoMail and Eudora can.

For home and small-business users who want very good features but don't want to pay for e-mail, Mozilla Thunderbird 1.0 is our top choice.

Commands are easy to find, and the search field provides instant gratification: Type a few letters of the subject or the sender's name, and a crowded inbox is reduced to the messages that match. In addition you can customize the views with categories like "Unread" or "Last 5 days."

The program can encrypt messages and attach a digital signing certificate. Thunderbird's filters automatically file and color-code messages, though they lack Eudora's ability to match patterns or automatically forward a message. Our biggest complaint is that Thunderbird's spelling checker works only after you've finished composing a message: It can't check your spelling as you type.

Without any training, Thunderbird's spam filter caught 18 of the first 25 spam messages it received, just shy of the success rate of Outlook's filter. After our testers finished training it, the filter caught 95 percent of the junk mail it received.

Downloadable extensions allow you to add new tools to the program. Among the dozens of add-ons available at the Mozilla Web site are a dictionary search function and support for mouse gestures, which allow you to execute a command (such as opening the next message) by right-clicking and pushing the mouse to the right, for example.

Besides supporting POP3 and IMAP for e-mail, the application serves as a Usenet newsgroup client and as an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) reader. The RSS reader is a nice touch, and Thunderbird is the only desktop e-mail client we looked at that includes one. Given the growing popularity of blogs, it is a sensible addition to an e-mail program.

PocoMail 3.2

PocoMail 3.2 is a decent, basic e-mail client that doesn't overwhelm you with extra features. It has no RSS viewer or collaboration tools, just straightforward, reliable POP3 and IMAP e-mail. With scripting and numerous configuration options, it could appeal to control freaks, but we can't find many reasons to spend $40 on PocoMail when free e-mail clients can work just as well.

PocoMail's interface can be convoluted, though its tabs let you conveniently switch between folders. Also, the program can check spelling as you type. Other features include message threading for following conversations, automatic completion of phrases (for example, you can set it to replace "yt" with "Yours Truly, Frederick Smelty III"), and a pop-up window that permits you to read a new message while you use another application.

Oddly, in PocoMail's default settings the junk mail filter is turned off. But PocoMail also has a Bayesian filter, which eventually learned to filter out 90 percent of the spam it received.

PocoMail 3.2's built-in scripting language enables you to build automated mail-handling tasks, such as finding all messages that you haven't replied to yet. Also, PocoMail offers a decent Usenet client.

Qualcomm Eudora 6.2

For inexperienced e-mailers, Eudora pops up unique alerts to warn of "phishing" attempts in incoming mail.
For inexperienced e-mailers, Eudora pops up unique alerts to warn of "phishing" attempts in incoming mail.

If Eudora 6.2 were a person, it would be a middle-aged man enduring a midlife crisis: smart and capable, but no longer youthful looking and hip. Eudora's interface is cluttered, and it reminded us of Windows 3.1, with countless cryptic, unlabeled icons littering the landscape.

Interesting features aimed at newbies include MoodWatch, which warns users that they might be writing an inflammatory message, and alerts about potential "phishing" attempts in incoming mail.

Eudora serves up SSL encryption, graphs of e-mail statistics, and powerful filters. For example, you can have it automatically forward messages with a specified number of letters in the subject line.

Plug-ins can adjust text by rewrapping, sorting, and fixing capitalization. But the search function is like molasses compared with Thunderbird's.

After our testers trained it, Eudora's spam filter identified 98 percent of the junk mail it received. At the outset, however, it spotted only 12 of the first 25 junk messages sent to it.

Spam Filters: The Learning Curve

To see how well the four desktop clients filtered spam, we asked AV-Test.org to evaluate them. Each app received a total of 500 messages: ten batches, 50 messages at a time, with the results measured after each batch. Half of the sent messages were junk and the other half were legitimate, including some newsletters. The testers used each application's default spam-filter settings.

After each of the first five batches, the testers taught each application's filter which messages--125 in total--were spam. Then the testers let the apps sift through the last 250 messages, without further instruction.

Though all of the programs eventually achieved at least a 90 percent success rate, some of them had a more difficult learning curve. Outlook was the most impressive out of the box, identifying 19 of the 25 spam messages in the first batch. PocoMail, on the other hand, learned relatively slowly: Its junk mail filter is turned off by default, and the program missed the first 50 junk messages. However, PocoMail also has a Bayesian filter, which examines all of the text in a message to determine whether that message is spam, though the user must train it. Eventually--after AV-Test's testers identified the first 125 spam messages for it--PocoMail's Bayesian filter caught up to the rest of the class, correctly filtering 90 percent of the remaining junk mail.

--Eric Butterfield

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