Sparrow: Mail for iOS done right

When Sparrow first appeared last year it almost immediately became a runaway success. Email is such a vital part of many people’s life and its no secret that many people, including yours truly, are getting fed up with the rather archaic nature of the system. What Sparrow for Mac did was create a clean and simple way to work with emails with great functionality. This made emails, dare I say it, more fun. No longer was it such a laborious task.

I’m not suggesting that Sparrow have single handedly “cured” emails, but it certainly eases the pain. Naturally, there was swiftly a cry for the wonders of Sparrow to be brought to the iPhone, and now it’s here. Head on past the break to learn more.

Design

Sparrow for Mac brought us a clean design, based around the user interface that Twitter first created on their Mac app. You’ll be glad to know that when it comes to the iPhone version, Sparrow is wrapped in an even more delightfully designed user interface. It is clear that the team at Sparrow fully understood the problem that many people have with a heavy flow of emails; basic reading and answering was never a big problem on iOS, but navigating among different folders and accounts was a nightmare if it had to be done several times. The app design follows the “cards” or “panel” concepts from Facebook and it creates a great flow within the app.

The accounts, labels and folders, and the inbox "layers"

The accounts, labels and folders, and the inbox "layers"

There are four levels within the app, the lowest being the accounts section with a unified inbox and settings option. The next level shows the individual labels, inboxes and other sections like Drafts and Sent. Tapping on any one of these brings you into a list of emails based on what you tapped on, as you would expect. And finally, the highest level is the individual email that you have selected. This elegant hierarchical design makes switching and hopping around the place much easier as different labels from different accounts are mere swipes away.

You can see the difference between the content space in the Mail app (left) and Sparrow (right)

You can see the difference between the content space in the Mail app (left) and Sparrow (right)

The view of the individual email has been stripped down to reveal only what you need, and leave the maximum screen real estate for the content of the email. This makes a great deal of sense, after all, an email client should be a tool and not get in the way. If you look at the Sparrow compared to the iOS default Mail app you’ll see that despite viewing both on the same screen there is a lot more viewable content on the former.

The action controls when you tap on the lower blue button

The action controls when you tap on the lower blue button

The main reason for this is the removal of the lower bar, replaced with the blue button in the bottom right corner which only reveals the controls when you need them, and keeping them out of sight when you don’t. While this does have the disadvantage of requiring two taps to access for actions such as archiving or forwarding, the benefits of it being hidden outweigh these negatives, and reply — the most commonly used action for most people — is always present in the top right.

Features

You can quickly change from Inbox to Unread, and also Starred

You can quickly change from Inbox to Unread, and also Starred

Apart from coming with a wonderful design, the app is full of great features implemented in fantastic ways. For example, when you are in your inbox you can see some tiny dots just below the word Inbox and that shows that you can easily jump from Inbox to Unread and to Starred with a single tap or swipe

Swiping gestures like in Twitter reveal the actions for that message

Swiping gestures like in Twitter reveal the actions for that message

When viewing emails in their lists you can swipe from right to left to reveal actions such as reply and archive without having to jump into the message itself. The edit button allows you to select several messages for moving, archiving, deleting or marking as read.

Selecting with the option to mark as unread or moving the messages

Selecting with the option to mark as unread or moving the messages

If you select move either from this multiple selection list or via the swipe to reveal, you are shown your messages peeking out from your list and a simple tap will move them to that label or folder.

Thread views for multiple messages

Thread views for multiple messages

Gmail is known for making good use of threads because they make it much easier to track email exchanges, and Sparrow really takes advantage of these threads. When you are viewing a message from a thread, Sparrow displays which number it is in the thread. Dragging the message down will bring you to earlier messages in the thread, and pulling up will bring up later messages. However, when there are a lot of messages in a thread, that’s not the easiest way to navigate, and here’s where tapping on the number at the top comes in. This will show your thread in list view.

Sparrow offers all of these great features and many more smaller, but perhaps just as important ones. Like the desktop app, it has support for multiple accounts including IMAP and iCloud, as well as fetching profile pictures from Facebook if you so wish. Another great feature that’s lacking in the default app is the ability to attach photos from within the app, rather than having to go into Photos and select sharing from there. In version 1.1 there is now an built-in browser which is one of those small things that is definitely appreciated.

Disadvantages

Like any app, Sparrow has some downfalls, most notably the lack of push support. This is not due to lazy developers (once you try the app you’ll probably be offended that I even put these developers in the same sentence as the word lazy), but because Apple isn’t all too keen on third-party apps replacing their default ones. This could, however, be a blessing in disguise for some, because many find themselves distracted every time their iPhone makes a new email noise.

Editor’s Note: Just today, the Sparrow team announced that they will have push, “With or without Apple.” We’ll let you know how that goes.

Email on the go.

Email on the go.

Another potentially irritating feature is that when composing an email, you are required to choose the recipients first before going on to write the message. While they can be changed at any time while composing the message, it can get in the way when you just want to simply write the message. There is also a lack of POP support, so Hotmail and any other POP accounts won’t currently work (although support is apparently on its way). My last concern, and perhaps I am among the minority here, is the lack of being able to quickly jump from one email to another when viewing. In the default Mail app, there are two navigation buttons in the top right and they allow you to move from one email to another, regardless of whether they are in a thread or not.

Conclusion

Ultimately, Sparrow for iPhone is a great app that is beautifully designed with deep thought for how the user will interact with it, making for a superb experience when addressing your emails on your phone. Yes, the lack of push support is inconvenient, and may even be a deal breaker for some. Despite its minor flaws, Sparrow is definitively the best email client for iOS and I would highly recommend it to anyone.

Now, we are just left with one question hanging over our heads: when can I get Sparrow on my iPad?


Summary

A great alternative Mail client for the iPhone.

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