Promising to save Outlook users from the onslaught of unwanted e-mail, Sunbelt Software produced its iHateSpam e-mail filtering program for Outlook and Outlook Express (and soon for AOL).

I can remember when the word spam was simply the brand name of a popular (well, in some areas maybe) canned meat product. Now it’s universally understood as the most loathed phenomenon in the digital communications world: unsolicited e-mail messages.

The iHateSpam tool offers a variety of configuration options to help you block or quarantine spam. You’ll no longer have to wade through a deluge of unwanted messages in your Inbox; iHateSpam neatly pulls them out of your regular message queue and dumps them into a folder of your choosing or deletes them altogether.

It’s a potentially useful program handicapped by a few shortcomings that may diminish its effectiveness, depending on how much patience you have. If you have the patience to train the program, you’ll be rewarded with effective message filtering. But if you encounter the same issues I did, you may find yourself uninstalling it before you have time to train it.

Installation and configuration
The iHateSpam program uses a standard Setup Wizard and installs quickly. Once you’ve restarted your machine, you can begin to configure iHateSpam using the Getting Started Wizard, which identifies friends by gathering data from your Contacts and other folders. The program scans folders and prompts you to add the names it finds to your Friends list (as shown in Figure A) so that messages from these addresses will be accepted without being quarantined.

Figure A

After searching for and adding contacts to your Friends list, you can select the filtering threshold for iHateSpam using a slider bar, as shown in Figure B. At the highest level (All Spam!), the program filters the most items from your Inbox. Anything resembling spam is automatically sent to your junk mail quarantine folder.

Figure B

You can also filter messages by the character sets used to quarantine e-mail in foreign languages. You can select individual character sets to filter, or you can simply select the option to accept mail in Western or U.S. character sets only, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C

You can select a variety of other options for iHateSpam as well, including specifying where and how to route quarantined junk mail. The iHateSpam tool can direct spam to specific folders according to the type of spam. You can either segregate your junk mail or have it all dumped into a single folder.

You can also opt whether to have the iHateSpam toolbar displayed in Outlook, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D

It takes some time to thoroughly examine the options available in iHateSpam, and patience is required to fine-tune the program to work the way you want it to. Though the tabbed interface for selecting the various filtering options is easy enough to use, I found myself having to click through each tab in succession to set up various options.

Since the program offers a Getting Started Wizard for some items, I wonder why a more comprehensive wizard couldn’t have been included to step through each of the options on the tabs, especially since you’ll probably end up doing this anyway. I think adding a general setup wizard that would launch after the program is installed would be a good option for general users. Those who didn’t want to use the wizard could simply exit it and set up the program as I did.

The good, the not-so-good, and the uh-oh
One thing you have to realize about iHateSpam—and this is probably true of many filtering programs—is that it’s not going to filter everything you want it to right out of the box. You have to train the program to recognize what you consider spam. While the program is generally capable of recognizing obvious spam, you have to teach it to recognize mail that fits in the gray area. And in some cases—depending on the type of e-mail you receive regularly—iHateSpam will quarantine messages you consider legitimate.

A two-fold process is involved here. The first involves selecting the Learning option in the Setup Wizard, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E

Once you activate Learning, you can tell iHateSpam which messages you want to quarantine and which you want to keep; it will remember your selections to direct e-mail accordingly in the future. When you receive a message you consider spam, you can add the sender to your Enemies list, and iHateSpam will quarantine all future messages from that sender. You can add messages from legitimate sources to your Friends list so iHateSpam won’t inadvertently quarantine messages from those senders.

The good
The learning seems to work well. Once I told iHateSpam to consider a certain sender to be an enemy, it automatically sent the sender’s messages to my Quarantine folder. The program can also notify you via a pop-up window when it quarantines items. If you want it to quarantine messages without notification, you can deactivate this option.

This is the good part about using iHateSpam. It does learn and can filter items you consider junk mail, and it can recognize some spam on its own.

But I noticed something curious about iHateSpam’s recognition of junk mail: As part of my test, I went to various sites and signed up for newsletters and various e-mail notifications. The iHateSpam tool would sometimes quarantine the confirmation messages I received and sometimes not. In one case, it quarantined a confirmation message but allowed the Thanks for subscribing message to go through.

Once I actually added the senders to my Enemies list, however, iHateSpam became a rottweiler on guard.

The not-so-good
The downside is that this functionality comes at the cost of some heavy overhead. The iHateSpam program seems to be a resource hog. When you initially start Outlook, you have to wait for iHateSpam to inspect your messages before you can do anything. Depending on how much e-mail you receive and the number of filtering options you’ve activated, this can take anywhere from several seconds to a minute, during which time you will be unable to do anything really productive.

As messages arrive in your mailbox, you’ll also notice slowdowns as iHateSpam analyzes items and directs them accordingly. Granted, these performance issues will vary greatly depending on how much horsepower you have under the hood. My test system is a 600-MHz PIII with 128 MB of RAM, so I’m well above the minimum requirements of a Pentium 200 with 32 MB of RAM. Granted, I usually have multiple programs running at once, including Outlook, Word, and Internet Explorer in addition to background apps.

The uh-oh
One odd problem I encountered while using iHateSpam was that messages arriving in my Inbox would mysteriously have the wrong subjects attached to them. For example, I would receive messages in response to articles I’d written, but what was listed in the subject field had nothing to do with the article or the comments. In every case, the subject was filled with terms relating to other topics I was researching and about which I’d requested information.

I really have no idea why this message mix-up occurred, and it’s possible it had nothing to do with iHateSpam. I do know, however, that the problem went away after I uninstalled the program. I believe now that the issue occurred as a result of CPU and memory utilization. Because of the overhead required for iHateSpam to work, it was running out of memory as it analyzed some messages and ended up mishandling them. That’s purely theoretical, but since no other explanation has come to the fore, it’s what I’ll go with for now.

My recommendation
In spite of some of the problems I encountered, I think iHateSpam is an effective tool. You must have some patience to work with it and train it to recognize junk mail. And be prepared for the kinds of performance issues I experienced if you have an underpowered machine. I can’t verify the actual source of the subject-line snafu, so I can’t necessarily blame that on iHateSpam.

If you’re like most people and you’re tired of seeing your Outlook Inbox inundated with junk mail, then iHateSpam can help. Another attractive feature is the price. The iHateSpam product costs just $29.95. Keep in mind, though, that this is a workstation solution aimed at individual users, not an enterprise spam fighter.