Mobile email made better
There’s a Jonathan Coulton song that I like called “You Ruined Everything”. It’s a tongue-in-cheek lament about how a comfortable routine can be disrupted by something “in the nicest way”.
It was perfect, guys; my email system was sleek, effective, and consistent across all my devices. Spark ruined everything. In the nicest way.
What is a mobile email client for? This question has different answers depending on who you ask. For some, it’s nothing but a triage point. Others use their phones as their primary email device.
It’s hard to make “an app for that” when you can’t pin down what exactly that even means. Readdle is no stranger to tackling difficult problems. They are among the pioneering contributors to the App Store, with a catalogue that spans back to the very first days of the market’s existence (literally).
It’s that deep familiarity with the platform that allowed them to look at the problem of mobile email and develop what is in many ways the best of all possible worlds.
The Nicest Way
Spark offers the effortless triage options of Mailbox, paired with some of the smarts of Google’s Inbox for Gmail, the natural language prowess of Fantastical, and the inter-app connectivity of CloudMagic.
This magic cocktail would have been satisfying on its own, but Readdle took a step further and built in a deep customization system, a unique card view, and the best email display and composition interface I’ve ever used—on any device.
Unfortunately for me, this means that Spark is inevitably taking over for Mailbox and Inbox. There’s just no contest—Spark is the best email client for mobile that I’ve ever encountered. The downside is that (for now) it’s only available for iPhone, which means my happy cross-platform workflow needs adjusting.
But Spark isn’t just exciting for what it can do today, it’s exciting for the potential that’s brimming just beneath the surface.
Let’s dig in.
A Smart Inbox
My email workflow in Spark is very similar to what I do in Mailbox. New emails arrive, I act upon or defer them, and I swipe them into the archive once I’ve finished with them. My inbox only contains messages I still have to do something with.
I’ve set up swipes to perform common tasks: archive, snooze, move, and delete. For basic email processing, this makes Spark as quick as Mailbox, and the interface manages to hide complexity well enough that it feels just as lean.
One area where Spark categorically trounces Mailbox is in its search capabilities. Rivalled only by the native search in Gmail/Inbox, Spark’s search system uses natural language processing to allow for nuanced and complicated searches.
You can search for attachments, links, people, recipients, time ranges, or any combination thereof to craft complex queries that can then be saved as smart folders if you need to use them frequently.
Thanks to its seamless compatibility with Google, Exchange, iCloud, Yahoo, and Outlook.com accounts, you can benefit from the deep search capabilities across all your accounts simultaneously, no matter what provider you use, which is something that Gmail or Inbox can’t offer.
Snoozing is unfortunately limited to time-based options, which is fine for most cases but breaks my favourite snooze option from Mailbox: snooze to desktop. It’s also missing Inbox’s location-based snoozing, but my hope is that future versions will include both these options, especially as Spark makes the jump from iPhone to iPad and Mac.
On a technical level, snoozing works the same way it does in Mailbox, establishing a separate IMAP folder where snoozed messages go until you need them again. This is a good approach as it maintains compatibility with desktop email clients.
One other update I would love to see is the ability to receive notifications for snoozed messages when they come back to the inbox.
Beyond these basic mobile email capabilities, Spark has two unique features that are somewhat controversial. The first and most contentious is the read receipt functionality. This is not a new concept—newsletters have been doing it for ages—but it’s the first time I’ve encountered it in a personal email context.
The way it works is that Spark injects a small, neutral bit of tracking code into your email that reports back when your recipient first opens the message. Knowing when your messages actually get read (or not) can be very helpful, but if you’re not a fan of read receipts on iMessage and the like, you’re probably going to dislike them here as well.
Personally I’ve never had an issue with them because I don’t feel as though they change the conversation. I don’t suddenly feel more pressure to reply faster just because they know I’ve read something. Everyone knows that sometimes you have time to read a message but not answer it immediately.
The functionality is, of course, entirely optional, so if it doesn’t sit right with you for any reason you can disable it from the settings (it’s enabled by default).
The second fresh feature is the Quick Reply system. This cute little bar sits at the bottom of received messages and allows you to send either a “Like”, “Thanks”, or “Smile” with a single tap. These appear as a brief message+emoji combo to your recipient, along with a small plug that you’re using Spark.
I can’t wait for them to become customizable (coming in an update), and I wish that we could opt to omit the Spark/Readdle plug, but really those are small quibbles for a system that’s explicitly designed to give you a way to quickly respond without having to type. It’s like a brief acknowledgement system and I find myself using it more and more.
The big question, of course, is how others feel about receiving these brief acknowledgements, and so far it seems as though people have a positive reaction. They think it’s cute, or are curious about how I sent them. I haven’t yet run into a problem of a friend or client finding them disruptive or disrespectful, though to be fair I wouldn’t send one until I’ve established a certain level of familiarity and rapport with the recipient.
Cards Against Email
For my needs, one of Inbox’s greatest features is the ability to be very selective about what kinds of messages trigger a notification. I set most of the categories to just ping me once per day—there’s no need to react immediately to a newsletter.
Spark doesn’t yet have the diversity of email categories that Inbox does, but it has something similar that has the potential to be even more powerful: cards.
Not unlike CloudMagic, Spark uses the card metaphor to describe views in the app. There are basic message cards (Inbox, Archive, Pins, Snoozed, Folder, etc.) as well as content-based cards like the Attachments view, and non-message cards like a Read Receipt repository and a Calendar view that functions a lot like a built in scheduling widget.
The result is a very flexible system that makes it very easy to filter your email view in intelligent ways. The interface even teases some exciting additional cards types arriving in future updates:
- Package Tracking
- Contacts We can get a pretty good sense of how these cards will operate based on the way existing ones do. The message cards are simple views, while cards like Calendar offer quick access to your schedule so you can quickly see your availability and even add new events.
One of my favourite cards is “Recently Seen”, which surfaces emails that you looked at recently. This is by far the fastest way of retrieving such emails since it pulls them in from any account and any folder.
In a future update, I’d love to see Readdle offer deeper app integrations via cards. For instance, having a dedicated Todoist (or Wunderlist) card would be fantastic for those of us who use that, as we’re stuck with the basic extension for now.
In an ideal world, I’d be able to send an email to Todoist as a task, with a note that deep links back to the email in Spark, or have snoozed emails sent to Todoist with a due date.
For now, the best I can do is send the email to Todoist via the standard iOS 8 extension, but since it populates the task title with the full content of the email message, this approach is more of a hassle than it’s worth.
The card system represents views, but Spark also categorizes emails into one of three types: Personal, Notifications, and Newsletter.
Despite being the closest analog that Spark has to Inbox’s categories, these message types are a lot less sophisticated. For one thing, there are only three of them, and you can’t selectively adjust notifications per message type.
Not only that, but for some reason you can’t set up a card view to show only one message type—a bizarre omission.
Emails can be re-categorized if Spark gets it wrong, but since you can’t filter the view by message type, you might be wondering why they even exist. At this stage their only functional advantage seems to be informing Spark’s “Smart Notifications” system.
Enabled on a per-account basis in settings, this somewhat nebulous option appeals to Spark’s algorithms to decide which emails deserve a notification and which do not. In general it notifies about all Personal emails and most Notifications, while disregarding Newsletters.
The system ostensibly learns about what email is most important to you and adjusts its notifications accordingly, and by and large I found its judgement to be reliably correct. That being said, I do wish there was a way to explicitly tell Spark that it’s made a mistake—there’s no way to manually designate an email as notification-worthy or not.
The customizable notifications are part of a clear focus on user choice in the design of the app. Much of the interface and functionality can be customized, and the options are more than just cosmetic adjustments.
The sidebar can have all your usual message cards (Inbox, Snoozed, Archive, etc.) while also allowing you to add specific folders or, more usefully, custom Smart Folders you’ve set up with intelligent search queries.
Besides the sidebar, you can also configure a “widgets” area. I have mine set up to include the Calendar card, the Recently Seen card, and the Snoozed and Archive emails view. Depending on your interface preferences, you can opt to have these widgets appear either in the nav bar or in a Material Design floating action button. I prefer the latter as it keeps the interface cleaner and leaves the nav bar dedicated to search and the useless switch that flips between Smart and normal inbox views.
There’s still room for improvement on the customization front though; I’d love the ability to set custom sounds on a per-account basis, change the interface colour, and disable the splash screen that appears when you open the app. It would also be nice to have a choice of browser when opening links from within the app.
No matter what you prefer in terms of interface, most of your time in any email client is going to be spent actually interacting with messages. Whether you’re reading, replying, or writing a new message, Spark provides the most elegant message viewing interface I’ve ever used.
When reading an email, the content is presented cleanly with proper responsive email support, and conversations are threaded in a visually pleasing way that makes it easy to show and hide messages within a thread.
At the top, you can choose to expand a detail view that displays the raw email addresses of sender and recipient, along with the subject and the ability to view and change the message type if Spark has mis-categorized it.
The bottom action bar offers the ability to toggle a message’s read state, as well as the expected reply, archive, and forward buttons. The reply button will intelligently prompt you to choose between a single reply and reply all if there are multiple addresses in the message.
Everything else is housed in a Share button, including the ability to delete, move, mark as spam, print, and save the email in various ways. You can quickly save as a PDF, which is very cool, and emails can be seamlessly delivered to Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, OneDrive, iCloud Drive, or Evernote. If you have something else in mind, you can also access the native iOS 8 extensions from here.
Composing an Email
Where Spark really shines is in the message composition interface.
It begins with the To field. You can type email addresses or names as you’d expect, but you can also write something like “cc hannah” and Spark intelligently parses the text to put Hannah’s address in a CC field instead, without you having to tap anywhere else.
If you have to pause your writing to check on a new email that’s arrived, you can minimize the message you’re working on and return to it with a tap, saving you a trip to the Drafts folder.
The attachments system is flexible enough to handle most of what you’d expect, allowing you to access your local photos along with Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, OneDrive, and iCloud Drive and attach files from any of them.
My favourite feature is the intelligent signature system. When you add email addresses, Spark automatically extracts signatures that you’ve used in previous messages and offers to add them to its own settings. This saves you the step of having to set them up manually. Naturally, you can discard the ones you’re not interested in using and add new ones as needed.
Using the signatures is even more fun, as you can simply swipe across the signature while you’re composing a message to cycle though any of the ones you have set up (regardless of which account you’re sending the message from). This is such a delightful and obvious gesture that I immediately found myself missing it in every other email app.
My New Email Client of Choice
Congratulations, Readdle, you’ve ruined everything. Now I have to put up with a fragmented email system between my iPad and Mac while I wait for Spark to arrive on those systems!
Meanwhile, my experience of handling email on the iPhone has improved drastically. The presence of an Apple Watch app in conjunction with the Smart Notifications system has finally given me the email setup of my dreams—minimal disruption, easy processing, and plenty of power available when I need it.
Readdle has clearly spent a lot of time and effort examining what mobile email requires and how to cover the majority of use cases with the least amount of friction. Instead of publishing an email app early, they waited until they had the insight to provide features that truly improve the process of handling email on the go, and the result speaks for itself.
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