I’m still lamenting the death of Sparrow, a fantastic mail app that was acquired by Google and thrown into the recycle bin. I’m not over it yet. Since Sparrow’s untimely demise, I’ve tried a number of alternatives to find the best way to use Gmail on a Mac.
A few specific things are important in my search. My highest priorities are support for Gmail labels and stars, multiple-account support, sorting options, and, if possible, a pleasing interface. Of these, strong support for Gmail labelling is the most important, as I use it to manage an overwhelming amount of communication.
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, Thunderbird, and MailPilot weren’t included because they don’t have label support. To be fair, some of the apps below aren’t great with labels either. But they have some cool features that seem worth including. MailPlane and Kiwi are just the browser interface taken out of your browser. Boxy is the same, but for Inbox.
I’m sure there are others out there. If you’re foaming at the mouth because I missed something, let me know in the comments.
Although all of the apps listed here are purported to work well with Gmail, Airmail was clearly designed from the ground up with it in mind. For example, it’s easy to label and archive messages. And it’s possible to label messages without archiving them. This is a rare feature outside of the browser interface, and can be extremely useful.
It’s easy to switch from a unified inbox to a label view from a single account, making this a good option for people with multiple accounts. It also works well with non-Gmail accounts, making it very flexible. Stars work the same way they do in Gmail, so you don’t have to worry about them getting messed up during a sync. And Gmail shortcuts mean you can continue flying through email with your keyboard.
Because this app integrates so well with Gmail, you can use the Gmail or Inbox mobile apps without messing up labels, stars, or archiving. Airmail also has an iOS app, available for $5, but the desktop app’s perfect sync capabilities mean you don’t need to buy it if you’re happy with one of Gmail’s native options. I’m currently using Airmail on my Mac and Inbox on my phone, and it works very well.
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. You can still view your email conversations if you need to, though. While I found this method of organization difficult to get used to, some will find it natural.
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 uses folders instead of labels. When you select “Move To,” the message is archived with a specific label. So my system of labeling items in the inbox isn’t supported.
That being said, anyone looking for a client that organizes mail by contacts should check out Unibox. The interface is very minimal and stays out of your way, it’s easy to set up, and does its job.
Postbox provides solutions to most of the problems Gmail users will be looking for. The interface is fairly minimal, and provides a lot of shortcuts for getting to specific sets of emails. The focus pane lets you get to specific tags (not labels) quickly, as well as filters by things like “has attachment” and “subscription.”
Unfortunately, there’s no support for labels. As with most desktop clients, they’re simply treated as folders, and when you assign a folder, the email is archived. You can add Topics, which function sort of like labels, but you’ll need to customize the list; it’s not imported from your labels in Gmail. And they aren’t displayed especially well.
Beyond the lack of good label support, this is a good option that will let you work through your email quickly. You can also use Gmail keyboard shortcuts, which will help longtime Gmail users adjust. Is it worth $40? Unless you really love the tagging and focus pane, probably not.
This is billed as an email client for power users; customizable keyboard shortcuts, Markdown capability, advanced search and smart mailboxes, encryption, and a host of other features make this one of the most capable email clients out there. It’s not especially intuitive, but once you learn it, it can be a very powerful way to manage your communications.
Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get it to connect to my Gmail account, so I can’t tell you a whole lot about it. Many of our readers recommend MailMate, and say that it’s worth the hefty price tag. Like Postbox, you can’t directly use your Gmail labels, but you can tag your messages and deal with them that way.
If you’re comfortable with the more technical side of importing accounts (like IMAP and SMTP) and you’re not afraid of a steep learning curve, this may be a great option.
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 absolutely worth $10.
Do you use a desktop client for Gmail, or do you prefer webmail? Which clients have you tried? Share your experiences in the comments below!