Mac Mail vs. Microsoft Outlook: The dirty truth

Erik Eckel takes a look at how Mac Mail performs next to Outlook for Mac. Which do you prefer and why?


Sometimes, I find myself wanting to become an Apple fanboy. It would be easier, after all, within the hectic, ever-changing IT industry to just know I can trust what the manufacturer tells me. But years of technology consulting have taught me that vendors are evil.

Yes, it’s true. I’m sorry you had to read it here. But that's the way it is in the real world, where the consulting firm I operate services hundreds of different commercial businesses and organizations. Vendors will promise you the world and assure you its mail client (or other product) is the best. However, your experience may differ.

Even before I began offering IT services to others, family and friends purchasing new Macs would frequently ask which email client is the best on OS X. I’ve always been partial to OS X Mail, which should make Apple developers happy. They’ve earned the accolade. The app is integrated within the OS, loads quickly, boasts a basic but attractive interface, possesses clean and well-laid elements, and proves to be easily navigable. Composing messages, replying to email, and sorting the inbox are painless tasks. Creating rules or email signatures within Mail doesn’t induce knee-knocking anxiety, the way doing so might in, say, Microsoft Outlook. Mail is simple and not that complicated, and the resulting lack of complexity makes it more approachable.

Microsoft’s older Entourage applications, of course, earned little popularity. Rightfully so. Many Entourage users complained of database corruption and slow performance. Microsoft wisely replaced Entourage with Outlook. With Outlook for Mac 2011’s release, I was hopeful that a new standard was in hand. But I’ve been disappointed. Outlook takes longer to open (my scientifically invalid, non-double-blind testing shows Outlook requires 23 seconds to open, whereas Mail requires only five), regularly encounters synchronization delays, and often simply doesn’t update my Exchange mailbox with changes as accurately or rapidly as does Mail, at least in my experience.

Ultimately, I use both Mail and Outlook for Mac, if for no other reason than to stay current with both platforms. I’ve configured the Macs in my home and business to connect to POP3, IMAP, and Exchange accounts, too, and I access mail, contacts, and calendars using Outlook and OS X’s built-in Mail, Contacts, and Calendar. Apple’s unending efforts to improve Mail, including message integration within Notification Center, iCloud reliability improvements, and Conversation views are encouraging and continue to make Mail a favorite application.

However, Mail isn’t perfect.

Outlook, ultimately, gains an edge due to the clean manner in which it successfully integrates contacts and calendaring. Opening shared calendars, in particular, is easier within Outlook, in my opinion, than within Calendar. And Outlook consistently displays HTML email messages, specifically marketing messages that I’ve requested to receive, properly.

Mail stumbles on that front. Marketing messages that are sent by large, well-known firms you would recognize (ThinkGeek, Barnes & Noble, and NPR are a few examples) and may also receive within your inbox, regularly fail to format properly within Mail. That’s frustrating.

So, it’s a tradeoff. If you want the ease of use and generally acceptable performance Mail provides, you can save hundreds of dollars per Mac leveraging Mail instead of Outlook. But if you operate within an enterprise environment, you may well not have time for workarounds and simply find Outlook the best fit. But if you or your users also need Word, Excel, and/or PowerPoint, Outlook’s almost certainly going to be included with the license your organization purchases, and firing up Outlook becomes a no-brainer. Just be sure to give Outlook time to open and then sync changes with Exchange before exiting the program.

Which do you prefer: Mac Mail or Outlook for Mac? Share your opinion in the discussion thread below.