As a Webmail user for the past three years, I have become dependent on its convenience, versatility and safety. The ability to check mail...

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As a Webmail user for the past three years, I have become dependent on its convenience, versatility and safety.

The ability to check mail from any connected computer, whether I am carrying a laptop or not, makes life easier.

And while the conquering of my sleep disorder has been attributed to pharmaceuticals and weight loss, part of the credit is due to the fact that my mail files remain intact despite any local hard-disk crashes.

During this time I have reviewed several mail clients, software that organizes mail files on the local hard disk rather than the Web.

While local software solutions boast superior safety and searchability, the programs haven’t held my interest for much longer than the review period. After Thunderbird, Eudora and Incredimail, the only exception has been the free-with-every-Mac Mail program — although it lacks flexibility.

Expectations

In that sense, my enthusiasm for Entourage, the e-mail component of the new Microsoft Office for the Mac, may be an example of the definition of insanity — expecting a different result from the same behavior.

Odds are that I will embrace Entourage as the latest bright shiny object, then return to using the Web interface at all times, despite some obvious shortcomings.

Or maybe this one will stick. I used Outlook for a long time, and I like the idea of a soup-to-nuts mail client that includes easy message retrieval and sorting along with the ability to write comfortably within the mail software.

One advantage of Outlook is its use of Microsoft Word as the default word processor for message composition. The ability to have an active word count while composing a message is an essential tool for those of us required to write to a specific length.

Entourage is the perfect translation of Outlook to the Mac world, leaving behind the complicated interface and the busy command structure.

Unfortunately, the close integration of mail and word processing is a feature the Entourage brain trust decided to omit.

As a result, a “real” writer must cut and paste a document into a word processor to get a word count, or install a third-party utility.

You may as well write the entire document in Word and transfer it to the mail client when you are through. So from a writing standpoint, this is no difference than using Gmail or Yahoo.

This aside, Entourage has certain advantages over its free brethren. There is the customizable layout, where you can set the folder list, message list and message pane in adjoining vertical positions (although you need a wide screen to make this work).

The message list is sorted in collapsible views for each day. And the arrival of each message gets a soft-focus announcement at the lower-right-hand corner of the screen.

Local backup

The key word in all this is “free.” Entourage is part of Office, and has never been available separately. To get a copy, you need to pay for the whole package, which many users will be unwilling to do because the free options are good enough.

On the other hand, Office costs only $150, and you get Word as part of the deal. So even if there are plenty of alternatives to Entourage, Word is pretty much the only game in town if you write more than shopping lists.

Truthfully, it is reversed. Most people will buy Word, then incorporate Entourage as an adjunct.

Entourage, like any mail client with expectations of success, links with Webmail accounts and provides a local backup should your Webmail provider ever go out of business or crash for the weekend. And with a few tweaks, you can make it do pretty much anything you want.

If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him by e-mail at cbermant@seattletimes.com. Type Inbox in the subject field. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.