The State of Alternative iPad Email Clients

Just over a year ago, I wrote a feature on Mac.AppStorm entitled The Future of Email on OS X. I wrote it as millions of loyal Sparrow users around the world were expressing their discontent at Google buying out their favourite product — understandable, really — as development on the product stopped save for critical bug updates. And it shows — the “latest” version for OS X was released 10 months ago and we never did see the rumoured iPad client, which was a real disappointment.

So this got me thinking: both the Mac and iPhone have seen their share of “alternative email clients”, as I like to dub them, but the iPad has been strangely neglected. The iPhone has seen its fair share of alternative clients, from Dispatch to Triage, but none of these have manifested themselves (yet) into an iPad version. iPad users certainly want an alternative to Mail.app — in a weekly poll we conducted back in March, 73% of you felt that the iPad deserved a better client.

So, in short, what’s the state of alternative iPad email clients?

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The Possibilities

In short, there are a few options worth looking at if you’re considering shifting away from Mail.app. The first (and perhaps the most widely publicised) is Mailbox, which allows you to work towards that magic nirvana of “inbox zero”. When an e-mail arrives in your inbox, Mailbox allows you to quickly archive or trash it, or be reminded to look at it later on.

Mailbox on the iPad.

Mailbox on the iPad.

The principle sounds great (and Mailbox received a commendable 9 out of 10 rating in our review) but there are a couple of limitations to the service. Firstly, the service only works with Gmail (though support for other email providers is in the works) and secondly, all you can do within Mailbox is snooze, archive or trash messages. There’s no support for custom folders within Gmail (which I use a lot for iPad.AppStorm) and I feel this is something that needs to be implemented before I can switch to it fully.

The second is Mail Pilot which, although it received a favourable 8 out of 10 score in our review from a few months back, many users have complained about the app’s stability (which I can back up — it does crash quite often), the complicated interface and the high price tag. The 1.5 stars rating on the App Store really does speak for itself and it’s a tad disappointing to read that the developers are going full steam ahead with a Mac version without even rectifying the issues on the iPad — the latest version, 1.2, was released back in May.

Mail Pilot

Mail Pilot, showing the user’s inbox

I find this a complete shame, as Mail Pilot actually shows some real promise. It started out life as a Kickstarter project and raised over $54,000 in just over a month — a impressive figure when you consider that its goal was a mere $35,000. It’s certainly the most feature-rich of all the alternative e-mail clients out there and what’s more, it supports a wide range of different email providers, including iCloud and AOL (in fact, all IMAP-enabled email will work with Mail Pilot). Let’s just hope that the developers will read their users’ cries and sort out those bugs — and drop the price tag at the same time. $15, in my opinion, is way too expensive for an email client.

Then, there’s Birdseye Mail, which we reviewed back in March. Unlike other e-mail clients, which present your emails to you in a list, Birdseye shows you a set of email “cards”, which you can swipe through. This is certainly a novel way of working through your inbox, but I think it works much better if you receive a couple of e-mails a day. Having to swipe through hundreds of cards every single day can, I envision, start to get quite irritating after a short while.

Birdseye Mail displays your messages as individual cards.

Birdseye Mail displays your messages as individual cards.

There are a couple of others which I’ve yet to mention. Persona Mail, which is arriving on the iPad “this summer”, focuses your email experience on people, not inboxes or folders, and certainly looks to be an interesting take on the traditional messaging experience. We will, of course, have a full review of the iPad version once it’s released to the public (there’s currently no word as of yet on the release date).

Another contender is Evomail, which has possibly earned the unofficial title of the “sexiest iPad email client”. There’s no doubt about it — the interface is beautiful and it’s clear the developers have put a lot of work into the product. Unfortunately, there are far too many bugs in it for me to use it as my default email client — and I also feel that the developers aren’t committed to one cause. Although Evomail started out life on the iPad, the developers have since released an iPhone version and are planning an Android version — but all this is going on whilst they are ignoring the requests from users to fix all the little bugs in the app (and that’s the reason we haven’t reviewed it yet on iPad.AppStorm).

Why Change?

This is where I will probably divide opinions greatly, so bear with me. In short, I don’t get excited when a new iPad e-mail client gets released. I’ll download it to have a look at it, but every single time I’ve done so I’ve always switched back to Mail.app — as it’s the best option for working through your e-mail on your iPad. At the moment, no single developer has managed to get it just right and every single alternative email client involves, I believe, some sort of feature compromise.

The developers of .Mail — an alternative e-mail client for OS X which has been in development for quite a long time now — say that e-mail has remained the same pretty much since the 1970s. You receive an e-mail, you reply to it, then you can either leave it in your inbox or you can choose to file it away. The reason why it has remained like this is because this is the best way to sort out your e-mail. Any developer that believes he or she can change e-mail the way we see it now is reinventing the wheel — trying to bring a change around to something that already works.

Sure, nobody likes sifting through that mountain of e-mails first thing on a Monday morning when they fire up their computer, but this is just the harsh reality of living in today’s technological world. Nobody knows the exact number sent a day, but in 2013, Radicati estimates that around 155 billion will be sent daily — with around 65% of those from business users. That sure is a lot of e-mails, and trying to swing everyone to an alternative method is, unfortunately, nearly impossible. People stick to what they know — and what they know is the tried-and-tested way of dealing with emails.

But, Choice is Great

Of course, I’m not trying to put down entrepreneurship and I commend developers for trying to reengineer such a mundane process. Nobody likes dealing with email and almost everyone will jump at the opportunity to deal with it a different way. But, at the moment anyway, I don’t believe that anyone has found a cure for e-mail. Every single method and app (including the ones we’ve mentioned here) has some sort of tradeoff involved with it — and they are tradeoffs that I’m unfortunately not prepared to accept.

I feel that the only “alternative” iOS email client that showed any promise was Sparrow, but its development was mothballed after Google bought it out. We never saw the iPad version and there hasn’t been any updates to the app since December. Despite the fact that Sparrow didn’t have push notifications (you can thank Apple for that), it was still an incredibly slick and easy-to-use email client. One good thing could emerge from the acquisition though: we may see Sparrow’s features replicated in the Gmail iOS app, which sucks at the moment.

It’s entirely up to you what you make of alternative email clients on the iPad. At the moment, I feel that nothing can replicate the features found in Mail.app, despite the fact it’s receiving no major updates in iOS 7 — apart from a substantial facelift. Though the increasing popularity of applications such as Mailbox, plus the hype that surrounds upcoming ones such as Persona, shows that people are wanting another way to deal with their emails, and my hat will go off to the developer who comes up with that concept.

For now, though, alternative email clients will remain a niche market — one that will, however, always have a massive interest and hype surrounding it.