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Notes on Email Apps

Once or twice a year I end up trying out as many iPhone email apps as I can. I’m still in search of the perfect email app, but none have ever stood above the rest to any significant degree. I’m always picking the least offensive email app instead of finding one that I love.

The following is my loosely edited collection of notes, taken while testing each of the apps with my Fastmail account.

Airmail

  • There is a section in settings for configuring message actions, but that changes what is displayed through the ellipses menu in the upper-right when viewing a message. I would have expected it to change the ellipses menu at the bottom of the screen, which seems like where the app encourages you to live when dealing with emails. Honestly, I don’t even know why that upper-right ellipses menu even exists. If they want to make sure you always have access to all of the actions, list the ones I’ve checked in settings and then give me a “More Actions” button to view the rest.
  • I love that I can fully configure the Message Detail Actions, which is what the app displays at the bottom of the screen when viewing an email. For example, I hate having a visible trash button because I never move emails to the trash, I only ever archive messages.
  • I wish the “Undo Archive” banner didn’t shift the location of the Message Detail Actions. It makes it more difficult to archive messages in quick secession because you have to be conscious that the Undo button is going to be located where the Archive button was previously.
  • “Draft” is the best app icon option. By a lot.
  • I wish it was faster. It seems like, the time between tapping the archive button and the archive process completing is longer than it should be.

Big Mail

  • I love the look of “The Latest” — the inbox tab — in its empty state. No distracting graphics or abrupt text. It just displays a simple gray icon and “You’re all up to date”.
  • The app icon looks a little vulgar.
  • I have no idea what the Big Mail subscription actually does. The upgrade screen simply says “Unlock all of Big Mail”, but I can’t find what features that includes.
  • looks like the subscription allows you to actually read email. It would be nice if that was listed on the subscription page.
  • I don’t get a ton of email, so I really don’t like having my messages split into multiple buckets. That seems like where this app shines. Because of that, I doubt it will be a great option for me.
  • I hate the way emails in each of the inboxes are presented as cards by default. I prefer the list option, which provides better information density.
  • The message view is really slick, but I don’t like that the message actions (archive, reply, etc.) aren’t omnipresent. You have to tap on an ellipses menu or scroll to the bottom of the message to view them. This feels like a massive speed bump in my workflow.
  • It’s expensive. At $9.99 per month or $77.99 each year, you need to care a lot about email to justify the cost.
  • The message view on iPad is bad. There’s not enough margin at the top and bottom of the screen for message content. And the first time I opened a message on iPad, the action buttons didn’t appear at the bottom at all and the X button didn’t seem to work — I had to force quit the app to get back to the message list. Such a bad first impression.

Boxer

  • Good looking app.
  • I don’t like having calendars in my email app. I prefer to use a separate app to manage calendar events.
  • If you reply to a message, there is a notice that appears at the bottom of the screen — to notify that it was sent. The issue is that this covers up the message actions at the bottom of the screen. You have to wait for that notification to disappear before you can archive the original message.
  • There’s nothing extraordinary about it. Nothing that draws me to use it. It’s just fine.

Newton

  • The best app icon of the bunch, by far.
  • I wish there was an option to hide some of the message actions. I don’t ever want to see the delete button, for example.
  • It features tabs along the bottom for Starred, Unread, and Zenbox that I will never end up using. Ever. Like I’ve mentioned for other apps, I don’t get enough email to make these specialized inboxes worthwhile at all.
  • The app feels really fast.
  • $50 a year is steep, but not necessarily a deal breaker.
  • I’m nervous about using it long term. The app has had a rocky history — nearly shutting down twice — and although it’s easy enough to switch to a new app (thank you, IMAP), I don’t want them to end up shutting down with half a year of my subscription left or something.
  • There doesn’t seem to be a way to do quote replies in-line — no way to increase the quote level for text. I don’t do this too often, but in the rare cases when I do, it’s incredibly important to me.

Microsoft Outlook

  • Not too fond of the colored toolbar along the top. It’s just a bit too much for my taste.
  • Another app that prominently features calendar support — this one in the bottom toolbar. I’d prefer if I could just disable that. I’d rather use a separate app for managing and viewing calendar events.
  • I don’t like that the account sidebar is always visible on iPad. I only plan to use a single account, so this is just unnecessary visual clutter.
  • No customization options for the message actions buttons and there is always a delete button shown — something I never plan to use.
  • I’m not fond of message actions at the top of the screen. They’re more reachable at the bottom and it makes for a better workflow when you’re archiving messages in quick secession, since your hand isn’t obscuring the message content when the button’s at the bottom.
  • Does it even support background refresh for IMAP accounts? I was only able to get it to check for new messages manually.

Apple Mail

  • I wish they did something more creative with their empty list states. Simply displaying “No Mail” is a little lame.
  • I wish you could completely customize the message actions toolbar, but at least you can replace the trash button with one that archives.
  • It feels really fast. I can just plow through archiving a number of messages like it’s nothing.
  • On the iPad, if you open an email from another folder — Archive, for example — and then switch back to your inbox, there’s no way to close the message you were viewing. It will remain in the right-hand panel until you receive more messages and archive them. This is annoying, to say the least.
  • I really missed having a snooze feature, which has become an important part of my workflows.

Canary Mail

  • It has a weird bug where, if you are viewing the last email in your inbox and tap the archive button, the animation will display like the email is being archived, but you’ll still be viewing it. You tap archive again, the animation will display again, and then you’ll be pushed back to your inbox. As someone who tries to maintain inbox zero, this is irritating.
  • Another good app icon. Probably not as good as Newton’s, but I’m giving Newton bonus points for not having a blue icon like every other email app in the world.
  • I really like how wide the message list is on the iPad. It takes up a bit more width than the other apps, but I think it’s pretty cozy.
  • I wish I could customize the message actions when viewing an email.

Edison Mail

  • There’s some concern about user privacy. They admittedly sell aggregated user data related to online purchases. I don’t want to use an email app that engages in this type of practice, but was willing to give it a try to have a more complete picture of the iOS email app market.
  • I wish there were more options for snoozing email. You can only select specific times — you can’t snooze it for, let’s say, three hours like you can with other email apps. This limits the snooze features usability for me.
  • I didn’t have to add any of IMAP or SMTP settings, Edison saw that I was using Fastmail and just set the correct settings. I appreciate that quite a bit.
  • It offers assistant features to give you a heads up about refunds, deliveries for online orders, bills that are due, and more. I turned all of them off. I can’t imagine actually wanting them.
  • It offers a customizable message actions bar, which is fantastic.

Polymail

  • After setting up the app with my Fastmail account, the app icon was badged with a “3”, despite having no messages in my inbox at all. Not a good sign.
  • Turns out, I actually did have three messages in my inbox, but the app wasn’t displaying them anywhere other than the icon badge. I was able to see them when I logged in to Fastmail from the browser. I couldn’t even get the email to display after force quitting the app. That’s an absolutely deal breaker. I don’t know how I could confidently rely on an email app after a bug like this.
  • I got an email from Polymail after I had already deleted the app, revoked access for the app password, and moved on to the next app. I’m not even going to bother giving it another try — at least not in this current testing spree. The app gave me an unread badge, but the inbox just gave me an empty message. If there was some weird indexing/process happening, why wouldn’t there be an indication of that? Again, I just can’t trust the app after this.

Fastmail

  • I don’t use the calendar, notes, or files features, I wish I could hide those in the bottom toolbar.
  • I wish I could customize the message actions when viewing an email. It currently displays a delete icon, which I never plan to use.
  • After archiving a message, it sends you back to the inbox list. I would rather the app automatically open the next email to streamline the workflow.

Spark

  • Customizable sidebar, customizable message actions, opens the next email when archiving, and customizable swipe actions. All fantastic.
  • I wish there was a way to disable the calendar icon. I prefer using a separate app to manage my calendars, but at least it’s a small icon in the top toolbar, which isn’t too prominent.
  • There’s just nothing exciting about it.

Conclusion

I’m sticking with Spark. Although there’s nothing exceptional about it, the app supports everything I need it to and it’s just rock solid. It’s the app that has the least annoyances and doesn’t require any subscription pricing unless you need access to their premium features.

As a bit of an aside, it’s amazing that there isn’t a single iOS email app that supports Markdown — at least not that I’m aware of. That would be such a killer feature for me. Even if it only supported bold, italic, blockquotes, and unordered lists, that would cover just about everything I’d want it to.

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