Spark – an email app for your iPhone and iPad

The latest version of Spark, from Readdle (a great developer of apps, including Scanner Pro and Documents) is a substantial improvement over previous versions. In almost every way it is much better than iOS Mail. The personal version is also free.

Filing Mails

This is what got me started initially looking for a new mail app for my iPhone. Filing emails in standard iPhone Mail is a miserable task. I have accumulated tons of folders/mailboxes over the years to organize emails from work, different tasks, finances, friends, family – lots of different folders in multiple email accounts. Some of the accounts are Gmail, some are standard IMAP, and I also have an iCloud email account.

In Spark, I love the way you can file mails in folders so easily! The recommendations are very good (better than iOS Mail) plus you can start typing a folder name for filing and the folder choices quickly narrow down to the target folder you want. That is a feature completely missing from iOS Mail, and one I really wanted.  I can’t tell you how much I love this feature. In Spark it works amazingly well, and makes dealing with all my mail easy and enjoyable. My work-flow has gotten much easier since I started using Spark on my iPhone.

Search 

Search results show folders, in addition to contacts and emails, so you can get into folders more easily. That part is also true with standard iOS Mail. But with Spark’s smart search feature, you can also type certain keywords to start with. For example, “PDF” finds PDF files, or “in” limits search to just find folders, etc.

These features are all really convenient for people with lots of folders, which have accumulated over time.

That said, I have found a bug with folder search, where opening a folder spelled a certain way shows no content. I reported it to Readdle. They were able to reproduce my bug and are working on a fix. Readdle tends to be very responsive.

Useful FAQ

Reading through their FAQ you can pick up a lot of interesting tips like the keyword search. For example, it wasn’t obvious to me how to select multiple emails for actions (e.g. delete a bunch of newsletters at once). But their FAQ is really very clever, and I quickly learned how to do it. The method for triggering multiple select (long touch on any email)  is actually very nice.

The FAQ itself is very cleverly written. Unlike most FAQs it’s actually useful and useable. While reading an item you can, with a tap, switch between the answer for their Mac, Android, and iOS versions. 

Better Message Threads

Message threads also work better than in Mail. For example, my response to a thread shows up immediately, while it can take quite a long time in regular Mail. And the threads are all extremely readable, and much clearer than in iOS Mail. You even see the old content and new content clearly divided when reading a thread. And you don’t see those long “loading…” messages which drive me crazy in iOS Mail, so the caching system must be better.

And get this – you can also save an entire message thread as a PDF! Really cool!

Better Notifications

The smart notifications work better than regular Mail too, with per account settings for all emails or just contacts, so you don’t get bombarded with notifications popping up about ads and newsletters (unless you want to). 

Great Customizations

There are also nice ways of customizing options, like swipe actions, and which actions appear in the toolbar (e.g. I prefer Move rather than Archive, so was able to change that easily). These options are not available in standard iOS Mail.

Better Composing Options

Formatting is nicer too. When composing email, there are formatting options right there, which don’t even exist in iOS Mail.

HTML Signatures

You can edit per account default signatures with HTML. And it’s easy to switch between signatures when composing, or delete the current signature with one tap.  That’s also not available in iOS Mail.

Reasonable Defaults

I haven’t even barely dipped into all the options yet. And you don’t have to. The defaults are very usable. Setup is also super easy. Even with my non-Gmail accounts I didn’t need to mess with server name settings. Spark was able to find and set the needed server settings with just my address and password.

Multiple Devices Accounts Sync

I went ahead and installed the new Spark on my iPad and was pleased to see that all the accounts and settings I had set up on my iPhone synced with my iPad, so there was nothing to set up.

Note from Spark FAQ: “To provide you with the sync option, we encrypt the information about your accounts and preferences and store it on our secure servers. If you want to learn more, see the Spark Privacy Policy.”

Forwarding emails looks nice

If you look at an email you forwarded to somebody with comments added on top, it looks very nice. The forwarded contents are set off with a gray background, and it’s very easy on the eyes and clear to read. It’s another thoughtful touch.

Adding Photos to an Email

Adding inline photos has improved with this version, so you have better control over image sizes when sending email to somebody.

One Important Missing Feature

One important feature is missing though – the ability to share photos from the iOS Photos app and have them show up inline when composing a new email. Shared photos in Spark currently end up as attachments. In regular Mail they show up inline, which is really important. This would normally be a showstopper for me, if not for all the other great improvements. 

Here is one practical example of why sharing from Photos to a mail inline is important:

I teach a volunteer class on Sundays. I take photos of the participants, then I send the best ones to the member who makes a weekly newsletter. I usually send about 20 photos, with some comments. 

So being able to select the best photos, add inline comments, and change the overall size to medium is really vital. 

Spark also doesn’t have a “mail resend” feature, which exists in iOS Mail. It’s sometimes useful for resending the same email to different people, with slight differences. Or even just resending an email as a reminder.

But everything else in Spark so far is a 5 rating to me! And I haven’t even tried many of the features yet, like email templates, and all the integrations with other services.

Note: I did try quick reply. It’s cute, but unfortunately doesn’t include the message you are replying to, as regular replies do. So the recipient is likely to have no idea what you are referring to. 

Conclusion

With this version have actually switched to using Spark. Yes – it is Spark in my Dock now! I’ve been using it for a week or so, and it truly makes using Mail on my iPhone, and iPad, much easier and more enjoyable.

But… I will also keep my accounts in standard Mail for now, and share photos to Mail instead of Spark until Spark can do inline sharing from the Photos app. 

Finally, for those interested or concerned about the security of 3rd party iOS email apps (a hot topic), this article is a very good read: https://thesweetsetup.com/3-troubling-trends-we-see-in-ios-email-apps-2/

Back to Mailplane again for now

Sorry in advance for another boring tech note that probably only I care about.

Anyway, I’m back to Mailplane again for now.

I already posted the things I like better about Apple Mail so won’t repeat myself.

But… Apple Mail isn’t as reliable as Mailplane with syncing with Gmail. For example, yesterday I was waiting around for a mail I expected to arrive before 3 pm. It didn’t arrive. But I did get email at 2 pm and 3:45 pm. But then I noticed that the mail was really there on the Gmail server – Apple Mail had simply skipped over syncing it! And very often Apple Mail might be late by HOURS in syncing with Gmail. So I was able to get to the mail via Mailplane.

Also, I’m bilingual, and Gmail/Mailplane works better in Japanese. Sometimes in Apple Mail Japanese subject headers or even the entire message get corrupted. That never happens in Mailplane or Gmail.

So I’m back again to Mailplane. Because the bottom line is I want to make sure I actually see email that arrives! But it’s not easy on the eyes and I never feel relaxed using it.

These problems don’t happen in iOS. If Apple can make it work in iOS Mail, why can’t they make it work well in OS X?

Anyway, there. I am finished venting for now.

Mail vs Mailplane – email on the Mac

After 6 months of being away from Apple Mail because of the Mavericks/Gmail problems I’ve been using Mail again lately. Since the 10.9.3 and 10.9.4 OS X updates it seems to be working better with Gmail. But not all the time (see below).

Things I prefer about Apple Mail:

(1) It’s a lot easier on the eyes than Gmail via a web browser, or Mailplane (which is like Gmail, and has its own built-in browser, but added “client features”). Apple Mail just looks nicer. There is generally better use of space. I feel more relaxed using it.

(2) Image attachments are quicker and work better.

(3) You can have multiple signatures per account (useful in a multi-lingual environment).

(4) You can move messages between accounts.

(5) Editing is better. For example, in Gmail/Mailplane you can’t enter a tab character to line things up! You can in Mail.

(6) In Mail you can “send again” which is really useful. For example, re-sending an invoice later in the month, with some extra notes. In Gmail there is no send again! Or redirect. Mail has both.

(7) I think conversations are easier to read in Mail than in Gmail. And it’s easier to focus on just one message in a conversation.

(8) Even though I use IMAP, I also like having my mail actually residing on my computer as a backup rather than just relying on my connection to Gmail, and the assumption that Google won’t accidentally lose my data in some big accident.

The missing piece to me was that I got used to Gmail shortcuts for doing things quickly, like going to a folder, filing in a folder, etc.

I am happy to report I’ve been able to add “missing functionality,” like the nice Gmail hot-keys and tagging using Indev’s Mail Act-On and MailTags. Mail Act-On is particularly useful. Especially if you overwrite the default hot-keys (function keys on a MacBook Pro are not easy to use) and change them to just letters. For example, I changed F3 to just the letter V and it makes it super easy to file in a folder. Even easier than the Act-On rules I had been using.

Actually, the Mail Act-On key shortcuts work better than those in Gmail. I’m finding it faster and more accurate to use. Plus it remembers recent moves for even faster interaction. (Note: Act-On key shortcuts still don’t let you enter Japanese. I hope Indev fixes that sometime. Filing takes longer if the contact’s name is in Japanese.)

Anyway, I feel comfortable using Mail and Mail Act-On, and hope to get to use MailTags more as I get used to it. I’ve just scratched the surface on what that can do.

The support people at Indev are also super responsive and friendly. See http://indev.ca/ if you are a Mail user. 

Update 8/1/2014 and 9/2/2014 – But, I’m back with Mailplane today! Sometimes, like today, Mail just isn’t syncing well with Gmail and it can take hours for mail to come in. Very frustrating. Not to mention work critical! Also there are often Japanese encoding problems with subjects and even moji-bake with bodies. Mailplane works better with Japanese because Gmail itself doesn’t have those problems.

Note: Mail in iOS also doesn’t have the Japanese problems that OS X Mail has. I think the two Apple developer teams should get together and talk. iOS Mail also doesn’t seem to have syncing problems with Gmail.

Mail.app is generally slower though, except for stuff that is saved automatically offline, like already-downloaded attachments.

I would prefer to use Mail all the time if it consistently synced better with Gmail. I feel “edgy” when using Mailplane or Gmail directly. It just doesn’t look as nice, and too much space is wasted by web UI stuff, so I can’t see entire message widths sometime. Anyway, I find it “not relaxing.” But it is more reliable

So I’m still not sure what to use all the time. I’ll probably continue to “mainly” use Mail and switch to Mailplane as needed if I feel things are not syncing. It isn’t good to wait several hours (or more) to receive an email sitting in your Gmail inbox.

I keep coming back to Mail.app as my main app because it looks and works overall works better – when it is syncing. Of course when it’s not syncing, that’s the problem. So today I have found myself using both.