It was a fateful Thursday late last July when Sparrow announced they’d been bought out by Google. The indie email app that’d taken the Mac by storm, Sparrow was a fast favorite of anyone who wanted a more modern email experience — one that was fast, minimalist, and integrated with cloud services. It hit all the right spots, soared in popularity, then nearly as quickly was taken from us. Sparrow still works, but it’s a zombie without much, if any, of a future.
The Sparrow-shaped gap on the App Store has yet to be filled. There’s tons of promises of new email apps, but few have made it onto the scene yet — at least on the Mac. There’s the old standby alternates like Outlook and Postbox, but they don’t replace the minimalist approach to email that Sparrow embraced. The iPhone can claim Mailbox, Triage, and numerous other new email apps, but on the Mac, most Sparrow fans have stuck with the aging app, while others have taken a look back at Apple’s admittedly nice Mail.app.
That’s changed this week, though, as Airmail was released to the App Store. We’d taken a look at it months back when it was still in beta, but now that it’s fully released, can it replace Sparrow for diehard fans?
A Slick, Custom-Designed Email App
Airmail, at first glance, seems incredibly similar to Sparrow. Depending on how you have it setup, it’ll look almost exactly like Sparrow. You’ve got large icons on the left for your inbox, starred messages, and to switch between accounts, a middle column with your messages, and your email on the right. Each column can be turned on or off as needed. There’s scroll-down-to-refresh, Tweetie-like, search, conversation view with the older emails stacked in a thin row under the main message. It’s slick and modern, and would definitely seem to be the closest Sparrow copy we’ve seen yet.
It doesn’t stop there, though. Airmail offers far more customization than Sparrow. You can see all of your folders/tags on the expanded sidebar, and in a very nice touch, you can even see all of the folders on all of your accounts when you’re in the Unified Inbox view. You can browse through emails either with your arrow keys or with Gmail keyboard shortcuts, and can choose if you want to delete or archive with the delete key. Right-click, and you’ll get options to add tags to a message or file it away in a folder — slightly confusing since it shows both tags and folders on Gmail accounts, despite the fact that Gmail doesn’t support folders and other email services don’t support tags.
Sparrow fans will be glad to see that there is a Quick Reply option, albeit one that works as a pop-over and is opened by pressing CMD-E. It works fine for sending quick replies, but frustratingly there’s no way to expand the quick reply box into the full reply view to add more info.
Speaking of the compose view, there’s everything you’d expect there, from formatting options to drag-and-drop attachment support. Airmail supports sending attachments via Dropbox and soon Droplr in an upcoming update, so you can that from the settings if you prefer to not send attachments directly through email.
And speaking of settings, Airmail has plenty of them. You’ll find settings to change the app’s theme, set how often it checks for mail, add signatures (and remove the default Sent from Airmail signature), and more. One of its nicest touches is in the mail account settings, where you can set it to only download emails from the past year, 2 years, 3 years, or forever — something that might make switching a tad easier if you don’t need everything downloaded from your full Gmail account.
It Still Feels Pre-Release
Airmail’s combination of style and features would actually be nearly perfect if you’re willing to tweak things a bit and deal with a plethora of settings. The only problem is, everything doesn’t work quite right. Airmail works great when it works, but it failed far too often in our tests to make the cut. It’ll often take 10+ seconds to show emails when you first open the app, even those that are already downloaded and were visible the last time the app was opened. Sending an email was hit or miss, some taking minutes after hitting send to get actually sent, when Sparrow and Mail.app were sending messages nearly instantly on the same internet connection. Incoming messages, as well, would at times show up instantly, while other times show up long after Mail.app and Sparrow had received the messages. Push notifications alerting us of said messages came in even later.
Then, there’s a number of smaller oddities in the app. Buttons often don’t register a tap at first, and folders take several seconds to show their contents. Worst of all is the animation when you open a new message. It’s jarring and frustrating, though thankfully the developer has mentioned on Twitter that this should be changed in the future.
Airmail has many nice things. It follows Sparrow and other modern Mac app’s style, and includes enough unique features like the option to only download messages sent within the last year that set it apart. It’s customizable to a degree that few apps are, has Gmail keyboard shortcuts and a Quick Reply option. Go down the list of what makes Sparrow great, and you’d almost think it could be the perfect replacement for it, if it could just get its bugs and performance problems squashed.
That’s not the only problem, though. The main problem with Airmail is that it tries too hard to be too many things. It’s so close to Sparrow’s style, it was quite obviously built to fill the gap Sparrow left in the market. But Sparrow thrived on being simple and making it easy to get a first-class Gmail experience on the Mac. Airmail, with its myriad preferences and unwieldily menus, falls far short of that. It offers no clear advantage over the current version of Sparrow — one that still works faster than Airmail today — and would give you little reason to choose it over Apple’s own Mail.app if you want to tweak an email app to your preferences.
Airmail could be great, but it needs to find its identity. Sparrow’s great, but we need someone to push email forward and take it beyond what we’d expect today. On the Mac, there’s still no app doing that. Airmail could do that, but it needs far more than it has today. It looks nice, but it need more than that.