Sparrow: Minimal, Functional, and Elegant Email

I’ve been a Gmail user for better than five years now. Throughout that time period I’ve been in search of an email application for my desktop, and have continually been disappointed. As my frustration grew, and the Gmail interface improved, I all but conceeded that I would just use the web interface forever.

Then, the Sparrow beta was released. I was intrigued. It looked like something very different and it was geared towards Gmail users. The buzz around the Web sucked me in, so I decided to give it a try and really enjoyed the experience. There were a few bugs, but overall it was a refreshing way to manage email.

Their first official release – Sparrow 1.0 – popped up on the App Store recently, and I decided to give it a go. I was excited to see the final product of something I thought had a ton of promise, but could it become my new email application?

Getting Started

Sparrow has been recently deployed to the App Store, so installation is a breeze. Setting up your Gmail accounts is also very easy. Simply enter your Gmail address and password and you’re done. A simple IMAP connection has been set up. You can add multiple accounts as well, and the development team is also planning to expand compatible services (general IMAP) in the next release.

Design

The first thing you’ll notice about the design of Sparrow is that it is extremely close to looking like a Twitter client. More specifically, the official Twitter client (formerly Tweetie). You may think that sounds a bit odd or even bad. I thought the same thing, but was honestly quite refreshed with this different layout and I’ve really grown to love it. It just doesn’t feel like I’m sifting through my email which can be really great.

Mail for the iPad was also a heavy influence for the application and it is noticeable as well.

The overall look and feel of the app is excellent. It fits in as a native Mac application and is flat out the most beautiful email application I’ve ever used.

Sparrow full view

Sparrow full application view

Details

The attention to detail invested in the design of the application is certainly worth noting. The subtleties are everywhere and I just keep seeing new ones the longer I use it.

Things like how a message looks when it is selected, the animation you see when a message opens or closes, or the way the icons glow when hovering are things that aren’t necessarily crucial to the app, but they really add to the experience.

The beta version was good, but this release is completely polished.

Interface

It’s difficult to design a mail application that does everything it needs to do and doesn’t feel cluttered. It seems like you always end up with one or the other. The Swiss Army knife or the butter knife. I’d say Sparrow nearly hits the nail on the head.

A minimalist design is obviously the primary approach. The layout is very clean and doesn’t feel cluttered at all. A nice balance between functionality and design has been struck. After using the application for a while I can say that I’m not missing any functionality I typically use within the Gmail interface.

As I mentioned, Sparrow does have a bit of a Twitter app feel to it. In fact, with the reading pane completely minimized it is almost a dead ringer. I was a bit skeptical about this, as it isn’t necessarily a common view for an email interface.

It did take a little getting used to, but I have to say, it’s really growing on me. I’m a sucker for minimal, yet still functional, design and this interface covers both of those and just seems to work great.

Functionality

Managing email isn’t always the most pleasant task, so any help our email handling application can give us is always welcomed. Sparrow provides a functional interface for accomplishing this task.

It feels like they’ve removed a lot of the clutter that can be normal with an email application and just held on to the useful functionality.

Navigation

The main menu of Sparrow is seated on the left-hand side of the Inbox window. An image (which can be customized) will show each mailbox you have configured with Sparrow. Clicking on the mailbox (image) will expand to show the core options for the mailbox.

You will be able to view your starred and sent messages, along with drafts and trashed messages. There is also a live search function available as well (also located on the top of the message pane). This area essentially allows you to filter your messages in different ways. Pretty similar functionality to what you would expect of an email client.

Sparrow inbox

Sparrow inbox view (message pane minimized)

Menu Bar

Sparrow will display a menu bar icon that will update depending on whether or not you have new messages in your inbox. It is also possible to miminize the window completely into the menu bar by clicking the icon itself. Kind of a cool feature to clean up your desktop, but still receive a notice if you receive new messages.

Sparrow menubar icon

Sparrow menubar icon

Inbox

The application can be split into two views; the inbox and the message pane. The reading pane can be minimized to only display the inbox. The inbox will display who is involved in the email conversation, along with the subject and a couple of lines from the message.

Other pieces of information about the message are also displayed. You’ll see the time or day the message was last acted upon, a star indicator, a number to show how many messages are in the thread, and an indication to show whether a label has been applied.

That seems like a lot of information to display, but it is laid out in a fashion that isn’t cluttered. In fact you can get a great view of what’s going on in your inbox with a quick view.

Labels

Labels are a really useful organizational tool, and I would argue a very important feature to have available. Sparrow does sync with your Gmail labels. You can view your labels by clicking on an icon at the bottom left-hand corner of the inbox window. It should also be noted that this is also where you’re able to view your spam messages.

Message Pane

A message can be viewed by either opening the message entirely or by expanding the reading pane. You’ll essentially have the same functionality available, but the reading pane is simply connected to the inbox. In this area you’ll find all of the common email functionality easily accessable.

Sparrow condenses the header information just like the Gmail web client does. It is easily expandable by pressing the i button.

Sparrow info

Sparrow message info expanded

An attachment can be added to an email with a simple drag and drop over the message. You can also use a standard attach button within the email composition window to attach a file in the standard way.

Sparrow attachment

Sparrow attachment in message

New Message

Composing a new message is initiated with the click of an icon at the top of the inbox window. A new window will appear. It has a pretty sparse look to it, but it does have everything you need. You are able to choose which inbox you would like to send the message from here as well.

Sparrow new message

Sparrow new message

Threads

Message threading is nothing new, but Sparrow handles this in an especially elegant manner. The message headers will basically just stack on top of each other as the message thread progresses.

You see the direction of the email (i.e. Bob to Jan) and the date and time of the message. Each header is expandable and collapsable to either view or hide the message within the thread.

Sparrow message thread

Sparrow message thread

Quick Reply

This is one of those little features that is incredibly handy. The Gmail interface does have a similar feature. There is a quick reply button at the top of the message within the message pane. This expands a small text box where you’re able to enter your quick reply and send it off. It’s a really handy feature and something I’d have trouble living without.

Sparrow quick reply

Sparrow quick reply

Conclusion

After trying many email applications over the years I can honestly say that I think I’ve finally found one I can stick with. I love the overall minimialist feel of Sparrow. The fact that this was pulled off without losing any essential functionality is quite amazing.

The slightly unconventional layout and structure has been refreshing to me so far. The inspiration being taken from iPad applications is an indication of how our application interaction expectations have changed – like with other software categories, we’ve become accustomed to almost standard design and functionality.

Sparrow is at the forefront of this change and I’m guessing we’ll continue to see more desktop applications take their inspiration from their iPad bretheren.

Sparrow is out of beta and now runs at a cost of $9.99 which is a completely justifiable price. If you’re looking for a new, better email experience give Sparrow a try. Even if you’re not, check it out anyway to see where the future of email applications is heading.


Summary

A new elegant, minimal way to manage email. We're incredibly impressed by the full release of this app, and can't recommend it highly enough!

10
  • Schellman

    Good review and a very well deserved 10/10!
    Kudos to the developers of this fine app!

  • Johannes

    Great App – but a 98% UI copy of the TwitterApp…

    • Tim

      That’s because the Sparrow developers talked with the developers of the Twitter app about using the same UI concept for email.

      • Johannes

        If this is the case it’s OK… :)

    • Jose Reyes

      The email list/main nav bar is basically a total copy. But they did ask permission of the Twitter app (originally Tweetie) dev. So it wasn’t just like they ripped it maliciously. They saw something really great, asked permission, got it, and made something we love.

      • Dilbert Ascended

        this.

  • http://raffle.it Pascal Wheeler

    Great review Matt, couldn’t agree more. Have really enjoyed the beta ride and didn’t wait a second to pay for the App Store version. Would be nice to create Things tasks from emails but I’m just using Stars for the time being and that works well enough.

    • http://raffle.it Pascal

      Forgot to mention too that dragging attachments into the text area works just like Mail but you can also properly attach by dragging to the bottom of the message. Not entirely sure what the difference is to the recipient but I know people sometimes had issues when I previously added attachments in Mail.

  • IMAMO

    Great small app but it have way to high CPU and memory usage. Over 200MB of memory after 1 hour (3 gmail accounts) of usage and over 80% of CPU when using app (scrolling, opening mail etc.) They will have to fix that and then will be a great app!

    • http://mkasu.org mkasu

      Thats only while syncing with your accounts.
      After that, I’ve got 0% CPU usage and appox. 140 MB after using it for weeks (5 Gmail Accounts, 40-60k mails).

    • http://mattreich.net Matt Reich

      They do recommend turning off the Advanced IMAP Controls Lab in Gmail as well. Evidently that can cause CPU problems.

      I noticed the CPU spike during that initial sync, but after that it seems to be running pretty lean.

  • Josh

    This was a really great app- until it started forcing me to pay for it’s 10$ version for the App Store that I can’t even run on Leopard. :\ I wouldn’t mind so much buying the 10$ version (it’s one of the few apps that deserve its price XD), but it stinks I can no longer use a program that worked flawlessly on Leopard just because the Snow Leopard version is out (that I can’t even buy).

    • Franklin

      there’s an ad-supported version now if you want to try it out again. but it only handles one account. it’s helping me decide whether i want to pay the $10 or not. even after the beta i can’t decide. after the gmail issue recently, if this offered everything locally, it’d be a great backup option but i don’t think it downloads attachments locally.

  • Peter Erikstrup

    Awesome app.
    Will definitely buy once it supports other mails

    Great review btw :)

  • Marius Masalar

    It’s the email client I’ve been waiting for. Switched over as soon as I could get my hands on the beta and haven’t been able to touch anything else ever since.

    Major kudos to the team. My only issue with it is that I think I prefer the beta logo to the official one.

  • LaToya

    I have loved Sparrow ever since I had the beta. I can’t wait until they have IMAP support. That will make my world complete!

  • Immanuel Jungheim

    Thanks for the good review. I agree with you on most things and I have to say that this is the best way (for me) to use GMail on a Mac.

    I also love the shortcut you can set up to just quickly write a mail. Hit the shortcut key combination and the write-a-message-window pops up immediately. Great. I tried the same with the native mail app on my mac and a global shortcut/key and it always took some seconds to pop up.

    Still, there’s room for improvement. I’d love to have some items to choose from when clicking on the dock icon like apple mail has: create new message, check for new messages. Just a couple of them.
    Also, the sending speed needs to be faster.

    But all in all, just as I said, best thing for GMail on a mac. As far as I’m concerned ^^

    I.T.J.

    • Immanuel Jungheim

      “when clicking on the dock icon like apple mail has”

      Sorry…I meant a right click ^^

  • Orca

    I think Sparrow is great too, never liked Mail – couldn’t offer me the Labels feature, tried Postbox – reminded me of Outlook in its layout. Sparrow just works, adding the Labels button at the bottom is useful now, but they removed the search from the top – but no biggy can just go to the Edit menu to search.

    People said about not having a Unified Inbox, use a Unified on my iPhone and think its great, but really not that fussed on having it on a desktop client (I use 4 different GMail App Accounts for different websites). The only thing I have to use GMail for is for the filtering, if they can get this working in Sparrow it would be perfect. I dont use Mobile Me or Yahoo for eMail, so not bothered about other IMAP services.

  • Thiago

    Really liked this application, but have one doubt: it works with other mail – providers (non-GMail) ?

    • Okan Esen

      Not in this version. But it’s planned for 1.1 ;)

  • Lucas

    Alright, seems like a great little app, one question though:

    Since I’m on the move 9 times out of 10 with my Macbook Pro, the question comes to mind about battery life.

    If Sparrow syncs with gmail, does it use alot of CPU usage, meaning it will drain my battery faster?
    That’s the least thing I need when I’m on the move, is my battery draining faster because my mail client is checking for my mail!

    Thanks in advance,
    Lucas

    • David

      From my experience, once the initial full Gmail sync is complete (open the Activity window to see), Sparrow sits using a nice 0% CPU utilization when idle. I’ve actually begun using it more instead of Mailplane, as Mailplane always uses some CPU cycles (likely the fact that it’s browser-based and may use some Flash somewhere).

  • T. Cremer

    Looks promising :) I dislike, however, that after reading messages in the inbox, they are still marked unread under “All Mail”. Is there anyway to fix that?

    • Loïc

      Do you have Advanced IMAP Labs enabled? If so, disable it, then it should be working flawlessly.

      • tcremer

        Just checked, it’s already disabled. Not sure why it’s not working.

  • http://generonquillo.com Gene Ronquillo

    Can’t wait for the next version. I need to try this even though Mail.app does the job for me.

  • ai

    Should there be calendar support, that would be great addition.

  • http://cynicdesign.com cynicdesign

    Great review.
    Is it only for gmail?

    Couldn’t help but notice the giant red BUY button on the site that reads “gmail only”

    • http://davidappleyard.net David Appleyard

      The next version is going to have support for IMAP in general. It’s Gmail only just for the moment.

  • http://www.postbox-inc.com/ Jacques

    Nice and slick, but I prefer Postbox, which is by far the best mail client out there for Mac.

  • http://www.maximetoulliou.com Maxime

    Is it now possible to use the normal Gmail shortcuts with it ?

  • Rocky Vega

    It seems to be a great app, but in the application support folder it makes a mess. How does it do when backing up to time machine?

  • http://oreius.tumblr.com Tanner

    I was using sparrow since the beta and it is the best app for gmail ever in my opinion. I am glad to see it reviewed here.

  • http://dallaspetersdesign.com Dallas Peters

    No “move to label” is a deal breaker for me. I try to use InBox Zero methodology (or at least it what works best for me right now) and if I can’t clear and file messages then it can’t be my main client. Bummer.

  • Kyle

    Dallas, isn’t Archive and Label what you’re looking for? It has that. Maybe I misunderstood your comment.

  • Aquaman_Tom

    I love this app I’m just one of the few who wasn’t born in the gmail age so It’s currently in the dock waiting for that 1.1 update in March.

  • Phil

    I have actually deleted Mail.app

    Sparrow is the best

  • markokaup

    yea… Sparrows is way cool app but why double review? (http://mac.appstorm.net/reviews/internet-reviews/sparrow-a-gorgeous-gmail-client-for-mac/)

    Anyway, thanks for this review! :)

  • Theron Burger

    Anyone else having issues with sparrow loosing the account passwords every time you start it up?

    • joe

      Yes i do too. i contacted the support and of course, silence is what you will get. Don’t expect anything better then that with this software company. Totally bad support! All the simple problems aren’t listed in the knowledge base which i find very strange.

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  • Iris

    I like this app, but I’m wondering how to add other IMAP account. Right now, the sparrow said the version only supports Gmail account. The version I am using right now is 1.2.1 (but it is for OSX 10.5 Leopard).

  • joe

    Bad support is the first word in my head using Sparrow! No support no answer whatsoever! Lots of issues! Even with stupid easy task like connecting to Gmail.

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