Postbox, another non-alternative to Mail.app

… but it's not for a lack of trying.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine who had recently switched to a Mac, asked for help in finding a good email client, because Mail.app didn't feel right. The environment that friend is working in results in large numbers of emails that end up in his inbox every day and he has to send a lot of them, too.

He was coming from a perfectly customised installation of Thunderbird, that he'd been using for years without a hiccup. Due to Thunderbird's state of developer support, his employer is starting to prohibit its use and recommends moving to Outlook; so Thunderbird wasn't an option for the Mac. The application in question needs to handle Exchange, IMAP and two POP3 accounts (six in total).

Our first try was Outlook 2011 for the Mac, which proved easy to set up—especially the Exchange accounts—but overall less capable than the Windows equivalent, a bit buggy, poorly integrated with OS X, and in the end too much of a behemoth to be useful to him.

As I was a beta tester for Postbox before it hit version 1.0, I thought we should give it a try. The application is based on Thunderbird, uses the same underlying architecture for user data (e.g. profile folders, configuration files) and most Thunderbird extensions are compatible with Postbox. The application also uses an interesting approach to folders and attachments, which would've made it an even better fit than Thunderbird.
The lack of Exchange support was the first hurdle, but since his employer also provides IMAP access to emails it wasn't a deal breaker. Setting up the accounts was pretty easy (I used the same information that had been saved in Thunderbird) and migrating the POP3 inboxes to Postbox was equally painless (Thunderbird, Postbox and Mail.app all use the MBOX-format for storing emails).

But now the problems started:
Even though all IMAP accounts were protocol-compliant, Postbox wouldn't handle the folders properly. A lot of deleting and moving was necessary to make it a) see all the folder and b) load all messages within.
Next was a lack of support for the system dictionary and spellcheck routines. Postbox, just like Thunderbird, relies on user created dictionaries and translations, which often simply aren't good enough. With everything set up the app did it's work for about three days. Then for no apparent reason—no error messages popped up, the logs showed no changes or errors—Postbox wouldn't connect to any SMTP server. Receiving emails worked fine, but he couldn't send any. After reading loads of FAQs, support entries, troubleshooting guides and forum posts, I tried and failed to fix this by;

  1. Deleting and reentering all login data from Postbox.
  2. Uninstalling and reinstalling Postbox entirely and reimporting all data.
  3. Deleting everything, reinstalling Postbox importing the original Thunderbird profile.
  4. Setting up a new user on the machine and manually installing everything there.
  5. Manually setting everything up on a mint system (I usually have a spare HDD lying around with a SuperDuper! clone of a mint OS X installation).
  6. Checking if my router blocked certain ports (a long shot, since I use the same ports for my email accounts), but it also didn't work in his work network and Mail.app was still sending and receiving just fine with the same data.

Nothing worked. It turned out that this is pretty much a known and unexplainable bug in the underlying architecture of Thunderbird and Postbox: For some reason at some point Thunderbird/Postbox refuses to connect to SMTP servers. Not one proposed fix worked and this isn't even limited to OS X; there are also reports of users on Windows Vista/7 having the same problem.
What pushed me/us over the edge was the lack of customer support for the developers of Postbox. If you're not a paying user who bought Postbox in a very specific time period (my old contact email didn't work), you cannot reach the devs through any means. This is what a desperate customer finds on their support pages:

We have found that the best way to service Postbox customers is to help them, help themselves. In fact, 96% of Postbox users find the answer they're looking for right here on our Support Portal.

and

Please note that we do not offer one-on-one support offerings to new users at this time. All support efforts are currently dedicated towards providing better documentation and self-help solutions so that our users can more quickly find the answers they need.

We were thankful that there's a 30 day trial period for the app and even more for the fact that the error cropped up before my friend had to buy the application. For a paid application—even if it's only $ 9.99—this is unacceptable.

In the end I helped him set-up Mail.app and tweak it to his liking. It might not be perfect and he misses one or another feature from Thunderbird, but it works.