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.
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.
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.
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.
There are many more features than I have space to cover, but here are a few of my favorites.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- I’d much rather keep these in my life and have some sensible boundaries around their use. The same goes for snooze. ↩
- 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. ↩