Of all the web apps that threaten to replace their desktop brethren, Gmail is the grandaddy of them all. A web-based email app that has enough functionality to compete with the likes of Apple’s Mail or Mozilla’s Thunderbird, Gmail is used by many people around the world as their primary email service. But if you’re like me, sometimes you really wish it had some of the features common to its desktop counterparts, like the ability to drag and drop images into a message, or integration with Address Book.
Mailplane steps in to bridge the gap, bringing the functionality of your desktop mail applications to the comfort and familiarity of Gmail.
Mailplane is a site specific browser (SSB), similar to Fluid or Mozilla’s Prizm, built on the Webkit rendering engine. While other SSBs have generic functionality, Mailplane has features tailored to make your Gmail experience feel more “desktop-like”, like drag-and-drop capability, iPhoto and Address Book integration, and Growl notification.
The killer feature for me, however, is the ability to access and manage multiple Gmail accounts from a single application. Be it a standard Gmail or Google Apps for Domain account, Mailplane handles them all seamlessly, with no need to log in and out constantly to check different accounts.
At first glance, you don’t even notice the interface. Why should you? The main interface is Gmail itself, the same as if you opened it in any other browser. It’s only when you take a second look at the browser chrome do you realize that this isn’t your grandma’s Gmail. This is in fact, a full application dedicated to controlling one thing.
The toolbar provides the same type of features that any regular mail application has, such as the New, Reply, Forward, Send, and Discard buttons. While those are great, they duplicate functionality that is already provided by the Gmail interface, so they go largely unused by me. The toolbar buttons that do catch my attention are on the top right corner of the application, each one representing functionality exclusive to Mailplane.
I use the built-in screen capture in OS X for quick grabs, or LittleSnapper, so the screenshot ability of Mailplane isn’t all that special. It is useful if you’d like to send a quick screencap to someone while composing an email. If you click the Screenshot button while composing a message, Mailplane allows you to take a screenshot and automatically attach it to the message. Handy!
This button connects to Apple’s built-in Address Book, allowing you to compose a message to, or insert into the current message, the email address of someone in your contacts list. While this is a nice feature if your contact list is managed in Address Book, if your contacts are all managed by Google already then the feature is slightly lacking. If Mailplane were to also sync your Gmail contacts with your Address Book contacts, then we’d really be talking.
The media button opens up a media browser window that lets you scan through your computer easily to find photos, audio, or movies that you want to attach to your message. All of your iPhoto libraries, your iTunes music collection, and any movies/videos on your machine are available to drag and drop as attachments. It isn’t immediately apparent that I was supposed to drag them into my message, but once you figure it out it works fairly painlessly.
Given that this is a browser, it makes sense that it has a downloads manager. You sometimes wonder where your attachments go? I sure do. The default Mail Downloads folder of Mail.app hidden deep in your user library is a nightmare, so it’s nice that Mailplane puts the information in front of you. A small feature, but appreciated.
I have at least 3 Gmail accounts that I have to check daily. The process for each account? Log in, check email, log out. Wash, rinse, repeat. In my opinion, this is the main killer feature of Mailplane. You can set up any number of accounts to seamlessly switch between them without having to log in and out – a huge boost in productivity.
There are some hidden niceties to Mailplane that make using Gmail an enjoyable affair. For instance, getting Growl notifications of new emails is simply great, and something that I never realized I was missing from my switch from Mail.app to Gmail.
As a true desktop replacement app, you can set Mailplane to act as your primary email client, so clicking any “mailto:” links will automatically start a new message.
There is more on the way toward desktop replacement as the Mailplane beta version also offers support for Google Gears, enabling you to use Gmail while offline. Also in beta is a HTML signatures feature that makes it much easier to have complete customization of your signature line.
Mailplane could be better. There are some features that almost feel like they were thrown in because of a need to differentiate the app in the marketplace. That said, I feel that it does offer a good productivity-increasing solution for anyone who uses Gmail.
The desktop integration brought by Mailplane, in my opinion, certainly justifies the $24.95 price of this Gmail extending application. But don’t take my word for it, download the Mailplane demo and try it out. I’m sure you’ll like it!