How is this different from a similarly configured rule? Smart mailboxes don't move messages as a rule can. Rather, they present a list of messages that match the mailbox's conditions. The original messages stay right where they are.
While this arrangement is useful enough on its own, having a list of related messages gathered together in a single mailbox has additional advantages. For example, if you Control-click (right-click) this smart mailbox, you can choose to archive all the messages in it (meaning, make a copy of all these messages and their attachments). Once you've made that archive, you can then delete the original messages from the Mail app, secure in the knowledge that you have a backup. (I'll have more information on backing up and restoring your messages in a future column.)
The VIP mailbox: With Mountain Lion, Apple introduced the VIP mailbox. It's very much like a smart mailbox, though you configure it differently. The idea behind it is that you can designate certain people you correspond with as very important persons. When you receive a message from such a person, it appears in the VIP mailbox. (Just as with a smart mailbox, the original message remains in the mailbox it was originally delivered to--your inbox, for example.) The purpose of this mailbox is to call out those messages you really want to pay attention to.
You have two ways to bestow VIP status on a contact. The first is to open a message, move the pointer to the sender's name, and click the star icon that appears to the left of that name. Alternatively, you can place the pointer over any email address at the top of a message (the address will turn blue), click the downward-pointing triangle, and choose Add to VIPs.
So, is this simply a smart mailbox for people who don't know how to use smart mailboxes? Not entirely. Where VIPs have a leg up on smart mailboxes is in your ability to use VIP status in a rule. If you return to the Rules preference, create a new rule, and then click the first condition pop-up menu, you'll see that Sender Is VIP is one of the conditions. For example, you could use this condition to create additional alerts--a sound, a bouncing dock icon, or a notification--when you receive a message from a person you consider important enough to merit VIP status.
Rules, smart mailboxes, and the VIP mailbox can be helpful tools for sorting out your email automatically. Take the time to explore each one, and you'll unclutter your inbox in impressive ways.
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