When it hit the news that Google acquired Sparrow, a very popular third-party email app at the time, there was a harsh outcry by tech blogs and social media. Users were saddened by the notion that their beloved app would essentially be abandoned and stripped for parts. Unlike most app developers, the team at Sparrow was very good about collaborating with users in order to continually improve the app, which users really admired; so, the outcry was understandable.
At this point you may be wondering if I’ve forgotten that I’m reviewing an iPad app, since Sparrow is only available for the iPhone. Rest assured, I haven’t. If you’ve ever used Sparrow on the iPhone you know that the development team behind the app is obviously very talented, but when they shifted gears to work on the Gmail app, post buyout, I began to wait anxiously as I wanted to see if they’d be up to the challenge of fixing Google’s all but failed first attempt at developing a native Gmail app. Now that version 2.0 of Gmail has been released, maybe now I can find out.
The biggest update in version 2.0 is the simple and minimalistic interface redesign that’s become a staple of Google’s mobile apps like Google+, Google Search and Google Currents (the design is more heavily used in Google’s websites). For those of you that don’t enjoy Apple’s skeuomorphic designed apps, Google is certainly taking the right approach to win you over. Accompanying the design are some really subtle, but enjoyable animations that are sprinkled into the user experience. From a design standpoint I love this app, but a well designed app is nothing without well developed functionality.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Gmail app in general, let me run down a few of the features the app has sported from day one. First and foremost, Gmail offers true push notifications. So if you’re currently fetching your emails with the Mail app, Gmail will instead alert you the moment an email reaches your inbox. The app also includes threaded conversations (a feature that’s also included in the Mail app), which works well enough except for the fact that name of the original sender remains static, even if multiple people respond to an email chain. Another nice Gmail feature provided in the app are the Important and Starred folders (I don’t use them myself, but I know they’re very important to some users).
In version 2.0, the development team has brought a lot of new features to the table. The feature that’s bound to make a lot of users happy is the ability to manage multiple accounts. To add an account tap the menu button in the upper-left corner (or swipe right) to reveal Gmail’s menu, tap the button with your profile picture, tap the “Add account” button and then enter your credentials. Another nice addition is the infinitely scrolling inbox, which as the name implies, allows you to continuously navigate down your list of emails with minimal effort.
With Google being pretty decent at search (oh, sarcasm), Gmail’s search functionality now includes predictive text; so, as you’re typing, the app will scan through all of your emails to find possible matches. A peculiar addition is the ability to create and attach scribbles in your email, which is done by tapping the attachment icon in the Compose window, and then tapping the scribble button. When scribbling, you can select either a pencil or spray paint option (remind anyone of Paint?), and a small variant of colors are available for use.
For those of you that use Google Calendar to keep tabs on their schedule, you’ll appreciate the ability to accept calendar invites in Gmail. The ability to simply accept invites would be good enough for me, but I really love that the invite includes a list of events that are scheduled at the time of the proposed invite, as well as any earlier or later events. If you’re a Google+ user, you now have the ability to reply to Google+ email notifications directly within Gmail.
The big issue that plagues Gmail is that it doesn’t feel like a native iOS app; instead, it’s more or less a web app with an iOS app UI wrapper. When I check my email using the Mail app, everything loads instantly, which can’t be said for Gmail. Each time I opened Gmail, I had to wait for more than a few seconds for my email to load; and, if the app had been in the background for too long, I also had to wait for the splash screen to reload as well (total load time lasted around ten seconds).
With the addition of multiple account support, it seems like a no-brainer that a unified inbox would be included as well, but sadly that is not the case (seeing as it’s not a feature in the Android Gmail app, it’s not like it should have been expected). A few other issues I came across that soured my experience a bit include the inability to swipe and delete an email (you can only swipe to archive) and the lack of a “select all” function (a feature that’s also lacking in the Mail app).
Is version 2.0 of Gmail better than the previous version? Undoubtedly so. The new design coupled with some great new features (e.g. multiple account support) have brought Gmail up a few pegs. However, the fact that the app still feels more like a web app than a native app really hampers the overall experience. In the scheme of things waiting five to ten seconds for email to load isn’t a big deal, but it’s not an issue I encounter while using the Mail app.
So, if you’re trying to decide which app is right for you, it becomes a game of pros and cons. The Mail app may not provide the greatest email experience, but over the course of iOS updates it’s received a lot of features you’ll find in Gmail (threaded conversations, ability to easily attach photos, multiple account support) and features that aren’t yet available in Gmail such as a unified inbox. For these reasons, I’m sticking with the Mail app, but I’ll certainly keep my eye out for future updates to Gmail.