Walt Mossberg

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Mossberg’s Mailbox

Searching for the Best Web Mail

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained questions about Yahoo’s new Web mail and switching from PC to Mac.

If you have a question, send it to me at I was reviewing. Since both companies are strong in search, it’s no surprise that both have good email search features. You are correct that the search in Gmail is quite good.

However, just as it does in other areas, I believe Yahoo’s latest email search system beats Google’s. A new Yahoo Mail search feature, now gradually rolling out to users of the current Yahoo Mail service, not only searches the text of emails, but also searches within email attachments. In addition, this new search system, which will eventually make it into the test version of Yahoo’s new mail service, can pluck out just the photos from your email, or just the attachments, and display them in search results — something Gmail’s search system can’t do.

As for the folder issue, I am all for the idea that better search will eventually obviate the need for people to laboriously create folders and perfect file names in the computer’s operating system, a task that is a challenge for many mainstream, nontechnical users.

But folders in email programs are different, in my mind. They are easy to create, without any knowledge of the file system, and provide a useful visual metaphor for organizing lots of email. I prefer folders in email programs to Google’s alternative, which isn’t search, but instead a system of labels. This was one of several reasons I cited for why I prefer Yahoo’s new version of its mail service to Gmail.

I am considering switching to a Mac. However, I have hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars of software for my PC. Are the new G5 Macs capable of running PC software?

When you contemplate a switch to the Mac, you have to separate the concept of your data, or files, from the concept of the programs, or software, you currently use to display, edit or play that data on your Windows PC. The Macintosh, out of the box and unmodified, won’t run your current Windows programs. But it will almost certainly handle all of your data using different software or programs designed for the Macintosh. And most of that Macintosh software is free.

For instance, if you have photos on your Windows PC in the common “JPG” format, which almost all digital cameras produce, you may be viewing them in the “My Pictures” folder in Windows, or by using a program like Adobe Photoshop Album. This folder and this program don’t work on the Mac. But, if you copy those pictures to a new Mac, you can view and edit them in iPhoto, an excellent — and free — photo program that comes on every Mac, and which I regard as better than the Windows photo programs in its category.

The Mac doesn’t run the Windows version of Microsoft Office. But all of your Office documents can be viewed and edited, and new ones created, if you buy the Mac version of Microsoft Office. Even if you don’t, the Mac can read and edit Microsoft Word files out of the box. It can also open and create PDF files without downloading or purchasing any software from Adobe.

In fact, for all of the types of files commonly used by mainstream Windows users, the Mac is able to handle them through its own programs that are generally better than their Windows counterparts. And most of these programs, except for Microsoft Office for the Mac, are free on every new Mac.

Still, if you insist on running Windows programs on a Mac, because you strongly prefer them, or there isn’t a Mac equivalent, you can modify a Mac to do so. You do this by buying and installing a $250 program made by Microsoft called Virtual PC for the Mac. It creates a virtual Windows PC inside your Mac that runs alongside the Mac operating system.

However, I don’t recommend relying heavily on Virtual PC for daily use, because it is slower than a regular Windows PC, even on a very fast Mac; and it can also open you up to Windows viruses and spyware that normally have no effect on a Mac.

* * *

Because of the volume of e-mail I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by e-mail, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com


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