Airmail makes e-mail convenient and effective

Following a month of testing and real-world use, I decided earlier this week to rope Airmail into my workflow as my main (and only) e-mail programme across all my devices. Airmail is a sharp and powerful app from Italian design and development studio, Bloop. For anyone who maintains a certain manner of working with tools that they use regularly, it is understandable that adding new tools — or replacing old ones around which your habits have long since formed — can be too huge a step. This new tool, whatever it is, has to offer something compelling to justify its use because, while it may offer a fun new feature, what is important is to recognise that it demands from the user, more than anything, is a certain level of dedication and investment — particularly of our time and our patience as we develop new habits around new tools.

In this light, Airmail (for iOS and Mac) is a tool that has won me over and so well that I have initiated it into my daily workflow. In other words, I will start out by recommending that the app is worth trying out, and my conclusion is that it is wonderful. The rest of this review, therefore, is meant to tell you why.

The troubles of multiple inboxes

As I have stated several times in the past, Apple’s stock Mail.app is good enough for most people — including me until a couple of years. Having moved to a completely different e-mail management now involving four addresses, I found the stock app limiting. For example, there is no quick way to tell which address an e-mail arrived at while looking through the unified inbox. Also, folder management is obsolete at best. My workflow invovlves three folders: references, to-do, and archival. While unwanted e-mails go to the bin, a majority of read e-mails almost always end up in the archival — or what Google calls the “All mail” lable. This is possible because my IMAP addresses with paltry 500MB storages are set up to forward to corresponding, dedicated Gmail accounts for ease of use and the 15GB space that comes free with every Google account. Some e-mails I may need for reference in the future are filed under “References” and those on which I need to take action are filed under “To-do”.

This is great for a single account, but when you have multiple accounts involved the only way to maintain this workflow is with three such folders in each account, which means, in my case, I end up referencing eight folders every time, especially if I do not recall which address an e-mail came to. Unlike a lot of people, I dislike smart folders and smart e-mail sorting; I prefer to manually handle things myself. And this is where Airmail comes in, tying in fully and vigorously with the idea of manually controlling your inbox. That means you have zero smart features but near-infinite, close control over every nook and cranny instead.

Airmail helps get things done

Airmail has inbuilt “To-do” and “Memo” lists. (I found that the Mac app inconsistently calls the latter as a “Note” list.) But the most important part of this is that the app allows folder mapping. This is one of a horde of customisation options Airmail offers, which I will address presently. By mapping Airmail’s “To-do” list to my existing “To-do” folders in each account, I end up with a single list where actionable e-mails from across all my accounts are filed for me to attend to. The same goes for memos. And the app offers to accent e-mails from each account with a different user-selectable colour in a manner remarkably similar to Cloudmagic — another excellent e-mail app — which means I can tell which address a particular e-mail arrived at just by looking at the swatch of colour.

Unless you are in search of smart inbox features, Airmail is hands down the best e-mail app you can find.

There are also Mailbox-inspired swipe gestures on Airmail, except where Mailbox and other current alternatives offer two, Airmail offers three swipe options on each side, or six quick actions in all. The app also integrates with a handful of services including Clear, Evernote, Wunderlist, Google Tasks, Github, Omnifocus, Fantastical, Asana, Trello, Dropbox and more. Bloop also promises that they encrypt “all communication to and from” the app. Airmail also offers to save smart folders, which can be a bunch of e-mails it filters out based on preset rules (with each set of rules being a folder). Consider this to be akin to saving your searches.

Besides all this functionality, Airmail goes further to offer granular control over almost all aspects of the app — account-wise notifications, display styles, tracking, sidebar ordering (complete with spacers), conversation re-ordering, ways of handling attachments and remote images, several signatures per account and so on. And it syncs all these settings and account details (except passwords) via iCloud across all your devices, so you only ever have to install the app and sign into your accounts and Airmail makes sure they work alike on all devices you access them from. The only apps faster than Airmail at pushing mails was Email by EasilyDo, and that too not every single time. But, frankly, it often does not matter to me too much if I read an e-mail a couple of minutes — or half a day — late.The only downside to Airmail is its 5 price tag on iOS and10 on Mac. In my opinion, they are both worth it for a product I use daily, and, while payment does not alone ensure an app will last, you can be sure that Airmail will last long enough because, unlike most free apps, they have a business model that is not entirely reliant on investors or long winded plans of getting acquired (which sometimes means getting shut down à la Mailbox).

Some things could be better

On the iOS apps that came relatively recently when compared to their years-old Mac counterpart, the app used to feel a little less polished than one would hope. But things got sorted out with a month of active development. Polymail, another slick e-mail programme whose story is taking similar roads as Airmail, is a lot rougher, being only in its alpha stages, but their development seems faster and sometimes I wish Airmail got updates that frequently. However, development is active and right now that is what matters.

Right off the bat the first thing that bothered me was that swiping was not as smooth as I had expected. Spark does it better, and Polymail, even in its alpha, seems to have nailed it. To be precise, swiping gestures on Airmail start late and end soon, so your swiping has to be incredibly precise or considerably slow, both of which go against the reason why swiping gestures exist — convenience and speed. I find myself deleting e-mails I intended to archive and flagging e-mails instead of marking them as tasks, all on a daily basis. Thankfully, Airmail has a contextual undo button that works perfectly.

I found some account profile pictures getting messed up while setting up Airmail on my Mac, but that was easily solved with a restart of the programme and has not occurred since. Also, Airmail (magically) fetches profile pictures/icons to display for everyone who sends you an e-mail, and it has worked for me every single time, happily doing away with the boring, coloured initial letter logos that Gmail and other services stamp next to an e-mail. Lastly, and more important than profile pictures, is that notifications simply do not sync. This means my iPad, iPhone and two notebooks often all blast out the same notification for the same e-mail all at once but the notification itself remains on all other devices even after I respond to it on one, so I often have to manually dismiss it from the other two. Rectifying this should probably be Bloop’s first order of business.

All said and done, Airmail works great, and, unless you are in search of smart inbox features, it is hands down the best e-mail app you can find and is available across all Apple devices, including the Watch. Grab the iOS version supporting both iPhone and iPad, as well as the Mac version today. If you like control over your e-mail experience and consistency across your devices, you cannot go wrong with Airmail. The app is constantly being updated and improved as well, especially since the playground for e-mail programmes is getting competitive, so your $15 will be worth it without a doubt.

The best third-party replacements for stock iOS apps

Having previously written about the positive side of stock iOS apps, I think it is only fair to highlight third-party applications in much the same manner. After all the App Store plays a huge part in the iOS experience and stock, or default, apps — those which are bundled with every Apple device and, much to our chagrin, cannot be uninstalled — may not be powerful enough to meet everyone’s requirements, especially in niche areas.

Not only do third-party apps then become a necessity, they also work towards enriching the user experience of those who do not necessarily need all the features of third-party apps. Stock apps should undoubtedly be bundled with newly bought devices (or set to appear on factory resetting) but should, additionally, come with an option to be uninstalled just like any other app. Apple CEO, Tim Cook, hinted at this in an interview with Buzzfeed and I hope to see it in iOS 10 coming out later this year.

I also hope to see the option to choose third-party apps as defaults, but this is harder said than done since a lot of iOS’s fluid integration comes from the manner in which Apple’s apps talk to one another. However, in several countries outside the US, some services do not work: the biggest culprit is the Maps app which does not seem to know ninety-percent of the places I search whereas Google Maps simply blows it out of the water, but I digress. (All this is part of my iOS 10 wishlist, if you are interested.)

There are some obvious exclusions: Phone, Messages, Settings, Health, Find my iPhone and the like, which are all not exactly replaceable apps. Of the ones that are replaceable, I will cover as many as possible: Browser, Calendar, Camera, Podcast, Calculator, Weather, Notes and Reminders. For everyone’s benefit we will go over two possible alternatives to each. And, as of now, these are, in my humble opinion, the best third-party apps to replace each of the stock/default iOS applications that came along with your phone. Following this is a short note on alternate services to those offered by Apple: iCloud, Photostream, Music and photo editing.

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The CloudMagic of e-mail

It is almost ironic that I should write about (and recommend) a third-party e-mail app exactly one month to the date after I write about how stock apps are good enough on iOS. I still think Apple’s apps are enough for most users, but the beauty of an app-driven ecosystem is that for those of us looking for a little more — and more need not necessarily be better — there are alternatives.

I had a valid reason for looking for third-party apps in the first place (which I will explain presently), and having tried Spark and Outlook, among others, I picked CloudMagic. With the CloudMagic app as your e-mail client, there is more and it certainly is better. I am yet to look at the desktop application, mostly because three-quarters of my e-mail is handled on my iPhone, so at all points of this review I will restrict myself to the iOS app, and, by extension, the Android app.

Replacing Apple mail

This section is about why I moved to a third-party e-mail app, as well as what I was looking for and the apps I tried. You may jump to my review of CloudMagic by skipping this section if it does not interest you.

 

My readers and subscribers are aware of my belief in the capability of stock apps — not a belief readily supported by most — which means I have some explaining to do when recommending a replacement for Apple Mail. For years I used Mail (on iOS and Mac) but have, of late, found it bulky, for lack of a better term.

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iOS apps more than sufficient? — Part II">Are stock iOS apps more than sufficient? — Part II

Exactly one year ago I wrote an article on using stock apps on iOS. Specifically, the case I was making was that for most people, stock apps will do just fine and our seemingly natural gravitation towards third-party apps exists, not always as a consequence of their being better, but as a result of us not giving stock apps enough time to show us their worth. Once again this is mostly because we are used to encountering shoddy bundled apps elsewhere and the trend that stock apps are all bad just sticks.

Now, having spent an entire year with my iPhone, I decided to return to address the same issue (naturally with the same title), and with considerably more experience backing me. One particularly useful trend I noticed through the year as I switched to third-party alternatives was that I found myself returning to stock apps. At the end of the day, this stands as an opinion piece, but one that is worthwhile to everyone contemplating this issue — and especially to those who discard stock Apple apps just by habit.

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Hard tasks and three months with iPhone 6S

There are several, longer articles I have written that I will publish over the coming weeks, but for now, thanks to certain events, I want to take a moment to write about the marvel that is my new iPhone 6S.

They say technology comes and goes, and it is true for the most part, but what impressions these technologies leave on us is something worth pondering over: take my new iPhone 6S, for example. Since I last wrote about it a couple of months ago, I have put it to the test. I used it to assist on the set of a short film, made several photographs using it as my primary camera on a recent trip, used it to plan and photograph for a brochure, all while (over)using it as my daily driver. How did the iPhone fare?

In one word, marvellous. I currently run iOS 9.3, beta 2 and it feels — to my non-developer eyes anyway — good enough to be a public release version. The new Night Shift feature, Apple’s version of f.lux — an app that tweaks display temperature to avoid excess blue light being emitted from phones — is arguably the biggest, and certainly my favourite1.

However, I digress, because there are plenty of others covering whatever is new in iOS 9.3. While using my iPhone to plan and photograph for a brochure we were working on, I found it held its fort against all eighteen-million pixels of the (raging but capable) Canon 7D. And I was not the only one blown away: it was only photographs made with the 6S that made it into the final draft of the brochure. What I always felt, and still feel, could be better, is the battery. A regular day’s use as a PDA gives the phone daylong battery life2. Take it out and film something for a few minutes, or make some fifty photographs and it gasps for breath. On a good day I get back home with 40-60% battery, and with heavy use, the low power mode comes on by the time I return.

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