My single biggest concern: email search

Time has passed.  More info has trickled out.  Pre-orders are in.  There has been much to mull.

Over time I have become increasingly comfortable with my decision to use my iPad as my primary computer.  But there’s one aspect that continues to gnaw at me: email.

In general, I consider the email app on the iPhone to be pretty good.  Sure, I’d really like a unified inbox.  But in the grand scheme of things I feel like I can cope without one.

So what’s the problem?  Search.

I am an email pack rat.  I have something on the order of 80,000 messages and several gigs of attachments stored on IMAP servers, in a series of nested folders for sorting (and searching).  This was a system I put in place prior to the emergence of excellent, spotlight/gmail style search tools for email.

Nonetheless it’s a system I find incredibly useful.  Sometimes I find it easier to simply scan a list of emails within a given folder.  Sometimes I like to use spotlight within a given folder.  And sometimes I have to search the whole magilla to find the message(s) I’m looking for.  And therein lies the problem.

Unlike Mail on the MBP desktop, on the iPhone at least, Mail only pulls in the most recent 200 messages (max).  And considering I have some project-specfic folders with over 10,000 email messages stored in them, I’d describe the finite limit as “very finite.”

Spotlight on the iPhone 3GS is pretty fast on those 200 local messages.  But when selecting to “Continue Search on Server,” something almost always necessary for me, it can get pretty bogged down.  I’d call it spinning-beachball territory if it were on the mac.

I understand that resources are tight on a smartphone.  Processor, memory, bandwidth, etc. are all understandably less robust than on a desktop, so tough choices – like limiting local messages to 200 – have to be made.  It’s workable, but not great.  I want the experience to be great 🙂  Hopefully the iPad, with its beefier CPU and higher memory, will allow a (much) higher number of messages to be stored locally.

There’s another problem: nested folders.  On the mac, you can search in All Mailboxes.  Not so on the iPhone.  There’s no option to do so.  On the iPhone, searches are limited to the folder you are currently in, even if folders are nested within. Again, I understand that resource limitations have forced these kind of choices.  Hopefully though Apple will open things up a bit on the iPad.

Is any of this calamitous?  Not so much.  As I said though, with the passage of time I’ve been able to ponder certain usage requirements more thoroughly.  As with all such things, generally speaking I find that there are workable, if imperfect, solutions.

At the very least I hope that Apple releases (much) more detailed descriptions of the built-in apps like Mail prior to shipping…


About Tony Moody

I make movies. I wield a Les Paul and an iPad. I consume media - copious amounts. And I dabble in assorted nonsense. What do you do?
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21 Responses to My single biggest concern: email search

  1. Tim Chaten says:

    For me – I use gmail and haven’t used Apple Mail in a while so this has never been an issue I use GMate on the iPhone which is a great way to check multiple gmail accounts and the web client of gmail is very good as well.

  2. My solution to this has been to use a Gmail account as my primary working e-mail. This lets me do two things:

    • Perform routine e-mail chores (reading, replying, forwarding, filing, et alia) with the Mail app.

    • Use Google’s search feature to sift through the bottomless pile of old e-mail via the web interface.

    The only thing to be careful about is that your settings are adjusted so that nothing ever gets automatically deleted from the Google server after being read and deleted from the iPhone/touch/iPad.

    This has worked fine, and I’ve always been able to find what I’m looking for.

    • yoyoyankees says:

      Thanks for posting. Yup as I mentioned to Tim, I’m hesitant to pull the trigger on using Gmail for my primary mail. I know I can switch my mail servers to Google and use Gmail. Something about doing so….I don’t know. Maybe if I ever give up the iPhone for a Droid 😉 I know, irrational!

      • I don’t think it’s irrational. I’m not a huge Google fan either.

        Sonny Jurgensen of the Washington Redskins — my favorite quarterback of all time — used to say, “Take what the defense will give you.” Which I take to mean, more or less: If life offers you an easy path, then take it. For me, Gmail solves the storage problem and the search problem and is accessible through the Mail app … so why not? I’ve tried various alternatives, but none are both seamless and free.

      • yoyoyankees says:

        Thanks. I’ll have to look into this again…

  3. Arthur says:

    I would suggest turning your emails into one big slug of a pdf. Many of the pdf readers on iphone can handle 50 Mb file. Maybe everything over a year old. The pdf searches can be more sophisticated than your normal searches too, so added benifit. Not sure how to handle the attachements though. Still have to work on that idea.

    • yoyoyankees says:

      Thanks for posting Arthur. This is a really interesting idea. On the attachments, it is indeed frustrating. I can ‘select all’ messages and simply remove attachments, but there’s no smart mailbox or other process I seem to be able to do which removes AND saves them somewhere. Have to save them one message at a time. Ugh…

  4. Babak says:

    Another small issue for me sometimes has been the lack of ability to search through the body of the email. I don’t have anywhere near the amount of emails you have, (about 5,000 in all folders combined), so maybe that’s something to think about as well.

  5. 4FalconAF says:

    About the unified mailbox, it will appear in a next version of the iPhone OS regarding to Steve Jobs. Article can be found at MacRumors (

    I’d like to see Apple steer the middle course with this problem. If locally a list of all the relevant information about each email is saved (eg. the date, sender, receiver and the message) you can search locally, and then download the mail with attachment you selected.

    Btw. your footnote on the MR forum brought me to this very interesting website. Have bookmarked it! Keep up the good work!

    • yoyoyankees says:

      Thanks for posting, and for the kind word. I’d seen that about the unified inbox and I am frankly thrilled. I’ve gotten used to the back-and-forth of checking amongst 3 different accounts on my iPhone, but it’s not fun!

      I like your idea about saving a copy of all pertinent info locally. That’d help. I do sometimes search within the body of emails though so on some level I’d like this capability. Worst case I have to do so via webmail interface. Inelegant, but functional when needed.

      I’ve still not seen any screen shots of the folder structure “to the left” of the inbox on the iPad. Will they have triangles allowing us to collapse and expand them? PLEASE!🙂

  6. randy says:

    We really need this ipad to hold as many messages “locally” as you have hd space for. thats the whole point of 64 gb ssd card. to search a “server” for a year old critacal email is just plain stupid. Thats one reason i use a blackberry for email and an iphone for everything else. I get 200 emails in 3 hours and would never be able to see my emails from yesterday. lets hope apple fixes this problem.

    • yoyoyankees says:

      Thanks for posting, and I very much agree. This pref setting is one that we may not get an answer on until a civilian gets their hands on an iPad and checks. The iPhone maxes on 200 messages stored locally per folder. Hopefully the iPad will go up an order of magnitude higher. With the beefier processor, greater RAM, and general speed all the reviewers talked about, it’d be a real shame if Apple didn’t allow for many thousands of locally stored messages.

      That said, b/t storing more locally, or being able to search message by *content*, I’d first take searching messages by content…

    • 4FalconAF says:

      200 emails in 3 hours seriously? That 2400 emails a day, and every 36 seconds a new email. You could spend the whole day replying on mail…

      • yoyoyankees says:

        You know unfortunately I know several people who fit this mold. Some have taken draconian measures, like literally limiting themselves to say 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour in the afternoon – checking/responding to emails. Otherwise they literally spend the entire day doing nothing else!

  7. John McArthur says:

    Is there any way to select all emails instead of having to click on each email to tag it to delete. Is there a way to select all emails to delete instead of deleting them all one by one?

  8. Ross Aimer says:

    Apple “Mail” sucks!
    I am having all kinds of problems with Mail on both my Mac Book and Ipad2!
    Am I the only one?
    Thanks for letting me rant.

  9. Sendy Chen says:

    Is there a way to make spotlight search in gmail app rather than default mail app?

    • Tony Moody says:

      Unfortunately not to my knowledge. I would expect Apple to continue to allow greater customization and features to the Mail app (if not also Spotlight) over time.

      One general advantage gmail does offer for search though is the All Email folder. I’m a big filer/sorter of emails into folders and sub folders. Sometimes though I can’t remember where I filed something, or, more likely I mis file something. The All Messages folder is super helpful in that regard. Gmail is not my primary email service but I do use it for a lot of personal email filing for this reason.

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