Spark: the innovative way to fly through your email

You’ve just finished a brutal day of back-to-back meetings, only to find a burgeoning inbox that you’ll need a machete to hack through. That was an all-too-common scenario for me. Mailbox was my preferred tool for thinning out the backlog. But Mailbox is no more.

Spark icon

photo credit: Readdle

It’s the latest in a growing list of popular but ultimately unprofitable applications to be killed off by their creators. Since the February 26 shutdown was announced I’ve test-driven various iOS mail clients in the search for a suitable replacement.

What I liked about Mailbox: swipes and snoozes

Mailbox may not have been the first application to offer swipe gestures and snoozing, but it had a lot to do with their mainstream adoption. Almost all mobile email applications pay homage to Mailbox by implementing these ideas in some form.

I gravitated to Mailbox because the swipe interactions made triage easy. It helped to quickly chop through my inbox while I was away from the desk. I considered this an essential feature in a replacement email client.

Spark lets you configure swipe and snooze actions to suit your needs

Spark lets you configure swipe and snooze actions to suit your needs (photo credit: John Scullen)

Some people in productivity circles claim snoozing messages is a bad idea — that it’s too easy to avoid concrete decisions about the message, that it encourages bad habits or that it’s cheating. I contend that snooze is a useful tool when intelligently applied. It can cause problems if abused but that’s also true of alcohol and coffee1.

There are many times when I can’t (or won’t2) respond to a message on my iPhone. Why not blow the message off until I have the tools, information or state of mind I need to respond appropriately? The message is out of my face and no longer tugging at my psyche, I can find it if needed, and I know it will come back at a more appropriate time. I view the snooze feature as a specialized tickler file for email. I can live without snooze, but I’d rather it were available in the toolbox.

My Criteria

I started looking for an app that:

  • employed swipe gestures to quickly act on messages (extra points for configurable swipe gestures);
  • supported snooze to push a message off to a future date and time;
  • made it easy to move an email message into my task manager; and
  • was reasonably priced.

When it comes to iOS email clients, we’re spoiled for choice. I tried several including Inbox for Gmail, Could Magic, and Outlook. Any of these email clients can do the job but none of them clicked with me. I had others on my shortlist, but I didn’t make it that far.

My search ended when I found Spark.

Spark by Readdle has one of the most creative and functional user interfaces I’ve seen in a mail application. The effort the Readdle team have put into the design has paid off. They have created a powerful, customizable application without sacrificing simplicity.

Best Features

There are many more features than I have space to cover, but here are a few of my favorites.

Smart Inbox

The smart inbox emphasizes the most relevant correspondence by using cards to group similar messages. Cards include new mail (from people), notifications (automated updates like parcel tracking) and newsletters. Pinned messages appear in a separate card for quick access and you can rearrange and remove cards.

Smart inbox cards on iPhone and iPad

The smart inbox groups related messages on cards (photo credit: Readdle)

The card view is much like Inbox’s bundle idea but is simpler and easier to work with. You can switch between the smart inbox and traditional list view with a single tap. I mainly use the smart inbox, but there are times when a more conventional list works better. Having this flexibility in a single application is most welcome.

Spark can unify several accounts into a single inbox or separate them across different cards.

Personalization

Everyone has a different approach to email, so flexibility is important. There’s not much that you can’t configure in Spark. Examples include:

  • Sidebar entries for fast access to the folders you use most often.
  • Short and long swipes to the left or right can be configured to perform any action you want. Spark doesn’t stop with the obvious actions like delete, archive, and snooze. You can also configure swipes to pin a message, move it, mark it as spam, or save it to a cloud service like Evernote or Dropbox.
  • The widget section lets you quickly access up to four different views. Folders, saved searches, attachments or your calendar can all live in the widget area. There is a long list of other options in the configuration screen showing “coming soon”. It looks like Readdle will deliver even more flexibility in a future release. You can display the widget area either at the top of the screen or as an overlay in the bottom right corner. I have configured my widget area to open my Waiting For folder, the folder I send all my newsletter subscriptions to, snoozed messages, and recently viewed messages. The ability to quickly switch between my most used folders without navigating through a folder hierarchy is fantastic.
Customizing swipe gestures

Spark offers extensive personalization options (photo credit: Readdle)

Signatures

Signature handling is another area where Spark demonstrates innovative thinking. Spark analyzes your messages and finds signatures you’ve used before. When you’re composing a new message you can swipe the signature block to display the one you want to use. You can set the preferred signature and change the display order in the Settings. It’s so simple and effective I’m left wondering why no one had thought of it before.

Quick replies

You can use a single tap to reply to a message using a prewritten response from the quick reply library. Naturally, you can edit library entries to suit your needs.

Quick reply

One tap quick replies (photo credit: Readdle)

Smart search

Spark uses natural language search to make finding messages easy. You can use phrases like pdf attachments from Luke sent in the last week. Searches can be saved for reuse and even pinned to the Widgets area.

Shortcomings

I called out two major issues when I drafted this post, but these were addressed in a new release last week. Version 1.6 now works on an iPad and supports landscape mode which makes reading messages easier on smaller screens.

The only other minor quibble is that Spark’s extensive customizability may cause excessive fiddling. While the personalization aspect lets you control almost every element of the application, there is a steeper learning curve than with many iOS mail clients. I spent too much time fiddling with the different options for the first couple of days to see how they all worked.

This is offset by Readdle’s excellent help videos and documentation. They also send periodic emails about key features which can help you fine tune your setup.

Bottom line

If you’re not satisfied with your current iOS email application, give Spark a try. Last week’s release smoothed out the few wrinkles in what was already a great app. What’s even more amazing is that Spark is free. Frederico Viticci from MacStories has detailed reviews of both the iPhone and iPad versions if you want more information.

Download Spark from the App Store.

Question: What’s your favorite email application for iOS? Leave a comment below.


  1. I’d much rather keep these in my life and have some sensible boundaries around their use. The same goes for snooze. 
  2. I rarely compose messages longer than a few sentences on my iPhone. I’d rather respond when I can use a real keyboard than deal with the clumsy on-screen keyboard. I know others successfully dictate responses through Siri, but each time I’ve tried, my words were mangled beyond recognition. 

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3 Responses

  1. Simon says:

    Hi John,

    I like the look of this, but how do you know that a 3rd party email reader is reputable? The first thing you have to do is provide your email and password, so how do you know they arent going to use that to pose as you?

    • John Scullen says:

      Hi Simon

      Being a little cautious and skeptical about new services is wise. I’ve used some of Readdle’s other products for a few years so I already knew of them and had a degree of trust in the company.

      It’s in the best interests of all companies to protect the privacy of their customers and to act ethically in handling this information. Customer data is handled confidentially for the most part according to Readdle’s privacy policy. Reputations take a long time to build and customer data mishaps can spell the end for businesses.

      Service providers should not need to store user credentials. Standards like OAuth make it possible for these services to operate without disclosing passwords. Unfortunately, several major mail service providers have been slow to support these standards.

      I’ve done some research to help answer your question and have turned up a few useful sources.

      An article on the Readdle blog explains how Spark handles user information. If you’re using a Gmail or Outlook account the news is good. Spark uses OAuth tokens which are specific to the application. This token allows Spark to access your account without storing your username or password. You can revoke the token at any time which immediately removes Spark’s access to your data.

      For Yahoo, AOL and Exchange accounts the situation is not so good. These platforms do not support OAuth, so Spark uses the username and password for access. This is a risk but there doesn’t appear to be an alternative if you want push notifications, read receipts and Apple Watch support in the product.

      Readdle appear to be applying good security practices. Information in transit, data stores, and passwords are all encrypted. Use of Amazon Web Services (AWS) infrastructure is also positive. In my day job, we are beginning a process to comply with Australian Signals Directorate security principles. We selected AWS as our hosting service since their infrastructure and management practices are already compliant.

      I also found a couple of other useful articles:

      • A Productivity Ninja article discusses some reasons software companies store user information. If you want push notifications you immediately buy into the stored credentials problem. The article recommends Dispatch which does not, and has no intention to support push notifications. Dispatch is still on my list of apps to explore.
      • This article compares iOS and MacOS mail clients. One of the features it compares is whether the application stores user data on servers. I’m not sure how accurate it is, but it’s worth looking into.
      • I experimented with Outlook for a while and was using it on my iPad until the most recent Spark update. Outlook may have even bigger issues than Spark according to this article.

      So in summary:

      • Take a good look at the privacy policy and any other information disclosed about how the email client you’re thinking of using works.
      • Use an email provider with OAuth support.
      • Do not use push notifications. I advise people to turn these off because constant interruption prevents you from focusing on your work. It turns out they are a security risk too.
      • Dispatch might be a good option if security is a prime consideration for you.

      Hope this helps.

      Cheers

      John

  1. March 9, 2016

    […] Agreed, there is certainly scope for customisation so, however for me, it is also just an attractive, functional app that suits how I deal with email: Spark: The Innovative Way To Fly Through Your Email […]

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