Originally released for the Mac and recently made available on the iPhone, Sparrow is the first fully featured third-party email app for the iPhone and the first truly viable alternative mail client. You get a unified inbox, the ability to see profile pictures along with incoming messages, and all sorts of neat gestures for power users. But do the extra offerings merit a swapping-out of that prime dock spot on your iPhone's homepage?
Since Sparrow for iOS supports multiple accounts, the app works with almost every popular type of email, including Gmail, Yahoo, AOL and iCloud. It lacks POP3 support, so if you're a Hotmail, Live or MSN user, you're out of luck.
Setup was simple. After we installed Sparrow and added our Gmail account, we were invited to link the app to our Facebook account -- but not because it needs any of your personal information. Sparrow simply grabs your friends' profile pictures and adds them to your email messages, so you can have faces to go along with the names in your inbox. In order to test the multiple accounts feature, we added our work email (Microsoft Exchange), which also proved to be painless.
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If you've ever used Facebook or Tweetbot on the iPhone, you'll find that Sparrow employs some familiar UI elements. The most apparent similarity is the use of overlapping panes, which you navigate by swiping.
The topmost layer - our Inbox - listed all our messages, with the sender, his picture and a short preview of each email. By swiping on a message from right to left, Sparrow displayed icons for various functions without having to jump into the message: Reply, Star, Label, Archive and Trash. However, we could only apply labels while we remained within this level of the app; there was no way for us to apply a label while we were viewing a particular email or message thread.
To access the other panes, you swipe left to right or tap on the button on the upper left corner of each screen to get to the layers underneath. On the first layer, we chose which inbox we wanted to view, or whether we wanted to view all our inboxes at once (via the category labeled Unified Inbox). Here, we could also access Settings via a gear on the bottom left corner, and use the plus sign (+) to add accounts.
The next layer displayed the different sections of our email including Inbox, Starred, Priority and Sent Mail, as well as Drafts, Trash and Spam. We could also drill into various the various labels we created within our Gmail account.
When we tapped on the Edit button in the top right corner, we quickly accessed options to bulk move, archive and delete messages, or mark them all as read. We could also apply the standard pull-to-refresh gesture within any list of messages, a virtually universal feature that has curiously never been adopted by Apple's own Mail.
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Sparrow proudly touts its Unified Inbox, and we certainly appreciate how the feature had been implemented. After getting multiple accounts set up within the app, we noted that it wasn't just our inbox that had been consolidated. Even other sections -- Starred, Sent and Drafts -- listed messages from all our accounts. This came in handy particularly for the Starred folder, since it eliminated the need for us to have to sign out of one account and into another just to pull an important email.
Sparrow also includes a thoughtful way of handling message threads. We could simply swipe up to see a previous response, or down to jump back to a more recent email. A title bar at the top also showed us the number of messages we'd already exchanged in the thread.
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Overall, composing messages within Sparrow tended was a little clunky. After tapping on the Compose button on the lower right corner of our Inbox, we were brought to a full-screen view of our contacts, above which is a field that says "Who are you writing to?" Here, we could either select one of our contacts, or type an email address. Although we liked the convenient buttons beside our contacts' names to mark them as "Cc" or "Bcc" recipients in this first screen, we wish there was the option to write the text of the email before deciding to whom we wanted to send it.
Once inside the Compose screen, we tapped the title bar to shuffle through our accounts and pick the email address we wanted to use to send our message. Here, we also liked that we could attach photos directly to emails without having to go through the Photo app first. This is a feature that Apple's Mail app lacks.
Our biggest quibble with Sparrow is that it can't do push email. This means that the app doesn't support the ability to let you know if you just received a new message. This is a big deal if you're a professional who needs an always-on alert method for monitoring incoming email, something that Apple's Mail app handles with ease.
It's not exactly Sparrow's fault -- the first iteration of the app was push-enabled and subsequently rejected by Apple -- but it's still an essential feature that we sorely missed. One possible workaround, however, is enabling push on Apple's Mail app for alerts (since there's no way to delete it from your smartphone anyway), and using Sparrow as your main app to manage your email accounts.
You're allowed a cache of up to 1,000 recent messages on Sparrow, but in our experience, search never worked as well as on native Gmail products. For instance, we searched for the keyword "Longreads" within Sparrow, and the app returned one result from an email in our inbox, with the option to continue the search on the server. We did the same search on Gmail, and it returned 183 messages. Still, the stock Mail app on our iPhone only showed the same single result from the same Sparrow search.
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Generally, Sparrow's performance was satisfyingly responsive. Whether we were archiving, labeling or composing new messages, the combination of gestures and navigation features included within Sparrow helped us plow through our inbox faster and more efficiently than any other client we've tried.
Those who have been yearning for a way out of Apple's lockdown on its stock Mail app with find Sparrow a refreshing alternative. If you're a strong adherent of routinely clearing out your Inbox, Sparrow should prove to be a powerful organizational tool. The search could be better and there's no push delivery, but if what you're looking for is an app that addresses the current inadequacies of Apple's Mail -- including a unified inbox, handy Gmail features and efficient sorting tools -- Sparrow delivers.