Lately, I’ve been trying to find the desktop email client that works best with Gmail. I’ve been a long-time user of Sparrow, a fantastic mail app that was acquired by Google and thrown into the recycle bin. Since then I’ve been looking into a number of alternatives — many of which are still under active development.
I need support for Gmail labels and stars; the ability to handle multiple accounts, both Gmail and non-Gmail; multiple ways of sorting and dealing with email; and, if possible, a pleasing interface. Of these, support for Gmail labelling and non-Gmail accounts were of highest importance.
Here’s what I found.
Apps That Didn’t Make the Cut
First, let’s take a quick look at which desktop clients aren’t in this review. There are a few notable ones here, and I’ll address them quickly. I didn’t include Apple Mail, because it just doesn’t work all that well with Gmail. You can copy emails to folders to mimic the labelling functionality, but there’s no way to label an email and leave it in your inbox. It works, but it’s not great.
Inky and Thunderbird weren’t included because they don’t have label support. MailPilot, though it’s a great app, was left off the list for the same reason (Mailbox, however, was included, because I felt like one of the task-based clients should get a full review, and Mailbox is a solid free option). MailMate, at $50, is just way too expensive. MailPlane wasn’t included because it has no offline capabilities.
I’m sure there are others out there, but the six that I left off of the list and the four that made it are ten of the most popular clients. If you’re foaming at the mouth because I totally missed something, let me know in the comments.
This “people-centric” app places a strong emphasis on the idea of natural conversation in email. In order to do this, your emails are grouped by person, instead of by conversation — though you can still view your email conversations when you need to. While I found this method of organization to be difficult to get used to, I can imagine that some people will find it very natural and useful in their email correspondence.
Emails are presented as chat-like bubbles, following the trend toward unified messaging apps. The compose field appears in the same window, without opening a pop-up, which is nice. Other than that, the interface is relatively unremarkable and stays out of the way — there aren’t many distractions.
I ran into a couple small snags while testing Unibox. For example, some emails that I had previously archived were showing up in my unified inbox. I also found that the app worked better with folders than it did labels—you need to select “Move To” and then the label you want to archive your emails with that label.
That being said, Unibox is a nice app that functions well with Google’s email service, especially if you think you’d like the contact-focused setup.
There’s been a huge amount of interest in Google’s new Gmail app, Inbox — it treats your inbox like a to-do list, and lets you mark emails as done, “snooze” them so they show up in your inbox at a later time, and organize them into categories so you can more easily deal with a number of them at a time.
Sounds revolutionary, right? Mailbox beat Gmail to the punch with this one. Dropbox released Mailbox for the iPhone last year, and it does almost all of the same things. It’s still in beta, but the desktop app is nicely put together, and does just about everything you could hope for, except for one thing.
The big drawback for me in using Mailbox is that it doesn’t work with Gmail’s labels or stars; you could recreate all of your labels as lists, and create a high-priority list, but this seems like quite a bit of work. On the other hand, there is a Mailbox mobile app, so that lets you work in the same manner at your computer or on the go.
Another concern that some people may have is privacy; Condoleezza Rice, a former member of the Bush cabinet, is on the Dropbox board. The Bush administration wasn’t exactly known for being big on internet privacy, and the fact that she’s closely connected with the cloud storage company has some people a bit nervous.
Although all of the apps listed in this review are purported to work well with Gmail, Airmail does a notably good job with this integration. The first thing that stood out to me is that it’s very easy to label and archive messages. And, maybe most importantly, it’s possible to label messages without archiving them, something that I do a lot.
Overall, the app behaves a lot like the Gmail web app. The fact that you can go from a unified mailbox to a view of one of the labels from a single account is really useful, and means you can continue to work in the unified view more easily than you can in the alternative apps. Stars also work exactly the same way as they do in Gmail, which is nice.
The interface overall is pleasing — it has a minimalist vibe, with lots of black, white and grey; and few big logos or symbols. You can choose from a number of different views that increase or decrease the size of the snippets that you see and include or don’t include photos that indicate which account an email has been received in.
The inclusion of a number of services that you can hook into the app (Evernote, Dropbox, Google Drive, and a few others) is a nice addition, as well.
Postbox is a no-frills take on a desktop Gmail client. It has a very unexciting interface; it reminds me of Lotus Notes from five years or so ago. And while that’s not a huge drawback, it doesn’t fit in very well with the aesthetics used in Apple’s latest operating system.
However, it does have what I was looking for: support for multiple accounts and the ability to work with labels. It also lets you use Gravatar to download images, Dropbox to transfer files, and Evernote to store emails. Despite the bland interface, messages do display in a nice manner, making threads easy to follow.
There aren’t many drawbacks to Postbox other than its interface—but there are few things that make it really stand out from the crowd. For $10, it’s a very good deal, but it may not be the best deal.
After this search and a lot of testing, Airmail is the app I’ll be using on my own desktop. The fact that it works so seamlessly with Gmail sets it clearly above the other options. If you want a desktop client for Gmail, it’s worth the $10 it costs to download. Other apps do have merits that are worth mentioning, though.
Mailbox’s productivity-focused setup is great if you’re working toward inbox zero or using a productivity system like Getting Things Done (check out MailPilot, too). And if you often have to reference emails from a specific sender, and you’re less likely to need whole threads of conversations, Unibox provides a cool and innovative approach to email.
I’m leaving Sparrow for the more developmentally active Airmail. It won’t be easy, but it’s for the best.
Do you use a desktop client for Gmail, or do you prefer webmail?