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I would like to start using my Gmail account with Mail on Mac OS X Lion but I do not want it to download all of my Inbox as that would use unnecessary space. Can Mail be set to store only the latest messages as it does on the iPhone?

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I don't think it can keep only the latest conversations, however, you can set the iPhone to permanently remove deleted messages through Settings -> Mail -> Account -> Advanced and set delete after to like a day or so

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