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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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 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


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


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.


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!