For some people, the stock Mail app on iPad is old-school. It can be difficult to fully integrate with a Gmail account and it doesn’t seem as swipe-intuitive as some of the other options that are available for iPhone. On that note, the iPhone has more email options than I can count but admittedly, the iPad feels really left out.
But I’m staunchly in love with Mail.app. It handles all of my email perfectly well in a beautiful, easy-to-read and easy-to-navigate interface. That makes me the perfect candidate to review Birdseye Mail, the first third-party email app for Google users I’ve ever seen that tries to take full advantage of the iPad’s large 10″ display. If an app like Birdseye can win me over, you know it’s good.
Redesigning Email for iPad
A lot has been said about getting to Inbox Zero and about how horribly inefficient most traditional email clients are. It’s hard to say what the problem is. It could be the email habits that many of us have developed over the years. Regardless, the Birdseye developers have taken a close look at what they think makes email unenjoyable on a tablet and attempted to make it, dare I say, fun again. Of course, for every strong visual element of the app, there is also a compromise.
Birdseye Mail places emails in a row like playing cards. You swipe across the screen to see what emails are sitting in your inbox. Swiping up on an email allows you to archive it. Tapping the arrow beneath an email allows you to choose from some quick email actions like replying, deleting, starring or forwarding an email. For subscription emails, there’s also a handy Unsubscribe button. It’s well thought out and actually pretty quick if you just need to delete your emails in the morning.
You compose an email by tapping the button on the top right of the screen. That’s also where the Settings button is. There aren’t really any settings buttons to speak of, but you can view the tutorial or log out if need be. The tutorial is pretty spartan and doesn’t include really important details (like the ability to swipe up on an email card to access the Archive button), so I’m not sure how useful this Settings button actually is. It also doesn’t allow for multiple email accounts at once, which is a big shame and rules the app out for a lot of enterprise users.
Hitting the Back button in the top left will bring you to your folders. They’ve also been re-imagined by the Birdseye team: Instead of a list, they too appear in a row of what look like binders, which is really classy. Each binder is given a different colour and scrolling through them is visually appealing.
Describing the app to you is a little bit of a faux-pas, because it’s much prettier than my words could do justice to. They did a bang-up job making email look good. Swiping through emails like playing cards is an intuitive experience that really is unlike any other email client available for the iPad. But in designing the app like this, the developer has unfortunately made a few compromises.
The first big issue is search, which simply doesn’t exist in Birdseye. Gmail’s archive feature seems relatively pointless without it, and it’s unfortunate that the developer didn’t think to include it. Obviously, browsing through All Mail to find something from even a week ago takes forever. This is a huge oversight and I’m hoping to see it change in a future update.
Another big oversight, particularly thanks to the iPad mini, is the lack of portrait mode. Birdseye Mail makes landscape orientation a necessity. It works on the iPad, and I never felt myself clamouring for portrait orientation, but on my iPad mini, it felt like a mistake. The iPad mini is designed to be held like a poster; even typing in portrait is easy on the mini. The developer has assured me that an update including portrait orientation is on their roadmap.
Birdseye Mail is also a new app, which means it has all of the usual bugs and room for improvement of a 1.0 release. The app occasionally crashed on me if I was moving too quickly for it. It has no notification support, which means you’ll have to rely on Mail.app’s notification system to see when you get email before opening the app. And sometimes, Birdseye moved a little slowly and had trouble keeping up with me. That’s a big problem. I’ll take a fast app like Mail any day, even if the design is “boring,” over an occasionally-slow app like Birdseye.
Who Should Use This?
This is the question I have to ask myself at the end of every review. In all honesty, I’m not sure who Birdseye is for. It’s missing enough features that it couldn’t possibly act as a full replacement for Mail. In all honesty, I can’t see Birdseye becoming anybody’s primary email service unless email simply isn’t a priority for them. If the developer were to update the app to include portrait orientation and push notification support, we could be looking at a winner, but even then, some users will be annoyed by the occasional slowdowns currently present within the app. Of course, the developer could fix all these issues, but who wants to extensively use an app based on a promise?
That being said, Birdseye is a pretty app. It does make good use of the iPad’s larger screen and it is easy on the eyes. Using it to read through email is nice, but using it to manage email is not. In fact, using it in conjunction with Mail is a necessity right now. I can see this changing in the future. The developer is forward-thinking and has even uploaded a GitHub repository to make advancing email itself easier for web developers. These guys care about email, and I suspect that many of my issues are going to get looked at.
So as to who should use Birdseye Mail right now, my answer is that everybody should give it a shot. It’s a unique way to look at your email and it’s free. But I’m not sure it solves any of the problems of email — not just yet. I have high hopes for this app’s future and I think the developer can deliver the goods, but because Birdseye doesn’t have enough features to replace the stock Mail app yet, I can only give it a fleeting recommendation. For now, Birdseye Mail is the email equivalent of reading on a Saturday afternoon: It’s enjoyable and practically relaxing — a combination all too rare in the email world.