The anatomy of the Mail window

Christopher Breen
1 April, 2013
View more articles fromthe author

There are many ways to communicate with others using the tools Apple provides – text, voice and video chats, and posts to social networking sites. But the one most frequently used by many of us is email. You create an account, compose a message, slap on an attachment if you like, add a recipient and subject heading, and send.

Some time ago, I showed you how to set up email accounts on your Mac through Mountain Lion’s Mail, Contacts & Calendars system preference. With this lesson we begin exploring the application you’ll use to create, send, and receive email messages – Apple’s Mail.

By default the Mail window is a fairly straightforward affair. Along the top you see the toolbar as well as a Search field. Just below the toolbar are heading for mailboxes you’ll routinely access. If you click the Show button in this area, a Mailboxes pane appears. Below this area is a list of messages contained within the selected mailbox. And to the right is the message area, which takes up the bulk of the window. Let’s take a look at the anatomy of the Mail window.

The toolbar

Like toolbars found in Finder windows, you can edit this to include just those items you like. By default, however, you’ll spy these tools:

Get New Mail (Shift-Command-N): Click the button that bears an envelope icon and Mail will retrieve any new messages for your online accounts.

Wait, online accounts? Yes. It’s possible to choose an email account – your iCloud account, for example – and take it offline so that it won’t send or receive messages until you choose to bring it online. (You can change an account’s online status by choosing Mailbox > Online Status and then selecting an account name from the submenu that appears.) We’ll discuss why you might want to take an account offline in another column. For the time being, just know that if an account’s offline, clicking the Get New Mail button will retrieve no messages.

New Message (Command-N): The button with the pencil intersecting a square is Apple’s universal “write something” icon. Click it and a New Message window appears where you can compose a new email message. We’ll look at doing that at another time as well.

Delete (Delete key – known to old-timers as the Backspace key): Unless you’re a helpless packrat, you’re going to want to delete messages that you no longer need. This button is the means for doing that. Note, however, that deleted email isn’t immediately vaporised from your Mac. Rather, it’s placed in the Trash mailbox, from where you can retrieve your messages if you later decide that you really do want to earn US$250 million in just three easy days. (When we look at Mail’s preferences you’ll learn just when these messages are deleted for good.)

Mark as Junk Mail (Shift-Command-J): That thumbs-down button wasn’t designed with “Wow, Joe is really a jerk, I can’t believe he sent this message!” in mind. Instead, it’s used specifically to mark selected messages as spam or junk mail. If you receive offers for questionable nostrums or hot money-making schemes, select them and click this button. This helps train Mail’s junk-mail filters so that future messages that contain this content are marked as spam.

Messages that are deemed to be spam appear in the messages list in a brownish-orange colour. If you believe that such a message has been mismarked, just select it and you’ll see that the thumbs down icon changes to thumbs up, which is the Mark As Not Junk Mail symbol. Click that button and the message will be deemed good and lose its junky colour.

Reply (Command-R): To reply to a message you’ve received, just select it and click the Reply button. A message window appears with a subject heading that begins with “Re:” and is then followed by the original message’s subject line – Re: Danny’s Unusual Habits, for example. It’s automatically addressed to the sender and contains all the text from the original message, bracketed on the left with a blue quote line (which indicates that this is the text from the original message). The cursor appears above the quoted text, ready for you to type.

Reply All (Shift-Command-R): Messages are often sent to multiple people. If you’d like to reply to everyone the original message was sent to, click the button with the two overlapping left-pointing arrows.

Normally I don’t introduce issues of etiquette into Mac 101, but in this case I’ll make an exception. Please, please, please, use Reply All judiciously. If the boss sends around a message to the staff proposing a Suck-Up Of The Year award, reply just to your office overlord. No one wants to wade through 258 “Great idea, Boss!” messages sent to everyone in your organisation.

Forward (Shift-Command-F): There will be times when you receive messages so fascinating (or scandalous) that you’ll want to share them with others. That’s the point of the right-pointing-arrow Forward button. Similar to the Reply and Reply All buttons, clicking Forward creates a new message that contains the quoted text of the original message. However, in this case the subject heading begins with “Fwd:” and the To field is left blank.

Oh, very well, more etiquette. It’s kind of a rotten thing to forward messages intended for your eyes only if that forwarding would embarrass the original sender.

Flag: With Mountain Lion’s Mail it’s possible to flag messages with particular colours – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, or grey. You might flag a message to identify it as important. Or you could flag related messages – yellow for all your coworkers who believe the yearly Suck-Up award is a waste of time, for instance. After setting a flag you can later choose to clear it by selecting Clear Flag from this menu.

If you find this small collection of tools not nearly complete enough, simply Control-click (right-click) the toolbar and choose Customize Toolbar from the resulting menu. A tools sheet will appear from which you can drag additional icons to the toolbar.

Below the bar

By default you will see five items below the toolbar – Show, Inbox, VIPs, Sent, and Drafts. We’ll look at the effects of clicking the Show button shortly. In the meantime, I’ll just explain that if you click one of the mailbox links you’ll see the contents of that mailbox listed in the messages pane. The number of unread messages will appear to the right of the mailbox listing – Inbox (25), for example.

The VIPs entry has a downward-pointing triangle next to it. Click this triangle and you can opt to view all VIPs or just one of your choosing. (I’ll explain VIPs in a future lesson.)

You don’t have to live with just these entries (or any of them, for that matter). To add other mailboxes, click Show to expose the Mailboxes pane and drag the mailboxes you want to link to into this area. To remove mailboxes, hold the Command key and drag them out of the area, where the entry (but not your mailbox) vanishes in a puff of virtual smoke. You can also Command-drag them to rearrange their order.

And speaking of the Show button….

The Mailboxes pane

Click Show (Shift-Command-M) or choose View > Show Mailbox List and the messages pane moves to the right to make room for the Mailboxes pane. It’s within this pane that you find a list of your mailboxes. (If you have more than one account, there will be a right-pointing triangle next to the Inbox.) If you click Inbox, you’ll see all the messages in it, regardless of which account they were sent to. This is termed a unified inbox. Click the triangle next to the Inbox entry and a list of your accounts appears. To view just the messages within that account’s Inbox, click the account’s name.

To the right of these mailboxes you may see a number. This number indicates the number of unread messages in the mailbox, not the total number of messages it holds.

Below the Inbox are other mailboxes you have. You’ll see entries such as VIPs, Flagged, Drafts, Sent, Trash, and perhaps, Archive. You’ll additionally find individual headings for your accounts – one for iCloud and another for Gmail, for instance. Under these headings will be a list of the mailboxes each account contains. If, for example, you’ve added mailboxes within your Gmail account or you’ve added mailboxes to your Mac, you’ll see them here.

At the bottom of the Mailboxes pane are three icons—a Plus (+) button, a Show Mail Activity button, and a Tools button.

When you click the Plus button you find options for creating a new mailbox or a new smart mailbox (we’ll discuss smart mailboxes at length in a future lesson). Choose New Mailbox and a sheet appears that includes a Location pop-up menu and a Name field. From the Location menu you choose where you’d like this mailbox placed. If you have an iCloud account, that’s the default location and messages placed in this mailbox will be stored in the cloud. But you can click that menu and choose to create the mailbox on your Mac or attach it to any account you have.

If that account is IMAP-flavoured (which I also explained when discussing how to set up an email account), any new mailboxes you attach to it will be reflected on the other devices you use. For example, if I attached a mailbox named ‘Mail From People Named Burt’ to my Gmail account, when I picked up my iPhone, I’d see that mailbox listed under the Gmail heading. Likewise, if I visited my account via my Mac’s web browser, there would be the ‘Mail From People Named Burt’ mailbox.

Click the Show Mail Activity button and a small pane appears at the bottom-left of the Mail window. When Mail is up to something – sending or receiving messages, for example – you’ll see progress bars that detail what’s going on. Some people like to expose this so that they can see that their messages are being sent.

The Tools button also contains a variety of commands. Click it to see what they are. I’ll run through all these commands in a later column.

The Messages pane

As I’ve explained this is a list of the messages within a selected mailbox. By default this list is sorted by date received, but you’re welcome to change how it’s sorted. Just click the Sort by Date entry and a menu appears where you can choose to sort by Attachments (meaning that attachments exist), date, flags, from, size, subject, to, and unread. Plus you can choose ascending or descending order.

Messages in this list bear the subject heading, the date the message was sent, and the first two lines of the body text (you can elect to view fewer or more lines in Mail’s Viewing preference). Unread messages have a blue dot next to them while read messages lack the dot. If a message has an attached file, a small paperclip icon will appear to the right of the sender’s name. Select a message and you can use the tools in the toolbar above. The message appears to the right in the Message Viewer pane.

Any messages that, to the right of the excerpt of the body text, show a gray box, are conversations (also known asmessage threads). If you click one of these messages, you’ll see in the preview area to the right not a single message but multiple related messages. For example, you might spy your original “Who wants cake?” message with separate replies from Fred and Barney. By default, the most recent replies will appear at the top in the Message Viewer pane. And, again, speaking of which….

The Message viewer

We finally arrive at the heart of the matter – the place in Mail where you can read the scintillating messages you’ve received. At the top of the message you see the sender. Click the small triangle that appears to the right of the sender’s address and you find options for copying the address, adding it to your VIPs, creating a new email message to the sender, and adding it to your contacts. You’ll find the same kind of triangle and menu next to the To address (more helpful if the To recipient isn’t you, as would be the case with multiple recipients).

And then there’s the subject heading, date, and, if you have one attached to the sender’s contact, the sender’s icon or image. If you drag your cursor into this area, Delete, Reply, Reply All, and Forward buttons appear in the viewer, making it a tiny bit easier to invoke one of these commands.

In the main portion of this pane is the message body. This can contain text, links, images, previews of PDF files, and attachments, which you can drag out of the message to make a copy or launch directly from within the message by double-clicking them. In a conversation, you’ll also spy a See More From X link. When you click this, the conversation expands so that you can view the entire thread, along with levels of quoted text, in a single page.

And that’s the general map of Mail. In coming lessons we’ll look at composing, sending, and receiving messages; configuring Mail’s preferences, working with mailboxes and smart mailboxes; and putting some of Mail’s special powers to good use.


By Christopher Breen. Macworld.

Leave a Comment

Please keep your comments friendly on the topic.

Contact us