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/

Tech Talk: iPadOS / iOS 13.1 First Impressions

This is just from playing with iOS 13.1 for about an hour on my iPad 5th Generation and iPhone X. You can find lots of articles online with in-depth details. So these are just my own first impressions. I hope you find them useful.

The best update for me – video editing!

First what I think is the the best new feature in iPadOS and iOS 13, and what makes it worthwhile updating right away for. Photo and video editing has been incredibly improved! Now you can crop and rotate videos directly! And you can edit video brightness, etc., directly from within the Photos app. Finally! This is a huge convenience. Think about it.

Photos Gallery

The Photos view itself is also greatly improved. If you are scrolling through your photos, you can do it by day, months, years, and all photos. The cool thing is that photos are scaled nicely, and you can see the live photos and videos move as you are scrolling through. It brings your photos more “to life” as you are looking through them. 

Some iPadOS Notes

From 13 onward, iOS is for iPhones and iPadOS is for iPads. I only touch on some of the new features here. There are apparently some cool things you can do between your iPad and Mac as well.

Handoff

I’ve always like the fact that you can copy on one device (iPhone, iPad, Mac) and paste to another. I use that all the time, and it’s one thing that keeps me in the Apple ecosystem.

Handoff is quite cool too. For example, after updating my iPad to iPadOS13, I noticed right away that if I have a Chrome window open on my Mac, there’s a little icon at the bottom right on my iPad which lets me open that same page in Safari. Interesting. Similarly, if you are composing an email, or writing a memo on one device, you can just switch to another device and continue.

Widgets on the Home Screen

The iPad now allows widgets on the home screen, which makes better use of the home screen space. So I can, for example, see the weather and upcoming calendar appointments right there on the home screen to the left of app icons. That’s pretty cool.

Multitasking Enhancements

On the iPad, you can now have multiple versions of the same app open at the same time and other multitasking features. For example, you can have Files open twice in split view and drag files around to different folders that way. It works great, but the UI takes some getting used to. I suspect unless you are using your iPad every day for school or actual work you probably won’t be doing this much. Maybe I’ll feel different about that once I get the hang of the UI better. It does work as advertised though.

Desktop-like Safari on the iPad

In iPadOS the Safari browser is more like the desktop browser now, with tabs and other desktop-like experiences. You can even drag browser tabs to the side and have two pages open at once in split view mode (see multitasking, above). That’s pretty cool. Apple are clearly trying to make iPad more useful as a computer substitute for certain people.

Dark Mode

Another thing I noticed right away is that I don’t really care for dark mode. It clashes in ordinary Mail, because the bodies of a mail are not dark and yet the listings themselves are dark, so it looks weird. Instead of being easy on the eyes, it becomes confusing. I’m sticking with regular window colors.

Slide to Type – and the small keyboard on the iPad

The new slide-to-type, where you run your fingers over the keys instead of typing each letter separately, works flawlessly on my iPhone. In a situation where you can’t dictate I can see this being a big time saver.

Meanwhile on the iPad you can shrink the gigantic on-screen keyboard to iPhone size now. Just pinch in on the keyboard (like you’re shrinking a photo) and you have a much less intrusive keyboard which you can use with one hand. When you do this, slide-to-type also works on the iPad.

Some Mail UI improvements

When you touch the reply icon in Mail, you see lots of options at once: reply all, forward, trash, flag, mark as unread, move to a suggested mailbox, or move to another mailbox – all right there. Also archive, junk, mute, notify me and more are right there. Interesting!

Message Searching 

Searching in Messages is greatly improved, and you can instantly find photos and attachments. Also, some attachments that didn’t open previously now do open, like a sound attachment of birdsongs a friend sent me recently.

Memo Improvements

The Memo app, which I use every day (I no longer use Evernote) gets new features too, like a gallery view (easy to find images and sketches. Another big improvement in Memo is shared folders for collaboration (before you could only share individual notes).

Long Screenshots Doesn’t Work

A feature that looks convenient, but doesn’t work for me right now is long screenshots. In Safari, Mail and other Apple Maps you supposedly can now take a long screenshot without doing it in parts and then using an app like Stitch-It to piece it back together again. It’s supposed to save it as a PDF in Files. I tried this, and it saves it as a PDF in Files, but it’s just the selection as before. I’m checking into this.

iOS 13 / iPadOS 13 are also noticeably faster. I recommend updating if your device supports it.

Tech note: Google Drive and Apps vs DropBox vs Microsoft OneDrive and Office

I found this article interesting and useful (https://www.cloudwards.net/dropbox-vs-google-drive-vs-onedrive).

One error was that the author says the free 15 GB of Google Drive space is also used by Mail and Google Photos. If you use the default high-quality optimized photos option then Google Photos is unlimited and doesn’t eat up your Google Drive space.

I did finally buy a yearly 100 GB Google Drive subscription recently, because decades of email had finally reached 15 GB. That’s only $20/year.

Currently I pay for that, $100/year for 1 TB of DropBox space and $70/year for Office365, which includes 1 TB of OneDrive space.

I don’t find the OneDrive space that useful because of file size limits and things break when folder or filenames are in Japanese. That doesn’t happen with DropBox. So I find I’m not really taking advantage of the included OneDrive space.

I find the DropBox syncing speeds generally faster, and find it easy to use and share different DropBox folder with different friends and clients. It has been very reliable. I would hate to give that up. DropBox doesn’t really have “apps” so DropBox is just my go-to solution for file syncing and sharing.

I’ve been playing more with Google apps the last few days and have been impressed with how well they work for a browser-based solution. It’s pretty cool. I can actually watch myself select text on my Mac and see it selected at the same time on my iPad. It’s eerily fast considering that it does this via the cloud. I can move lines around on my Mac and see them move at the exact same time on my iPad. And vice versa. Same with my iPhone. My impression was that this is faster than with Office apps.

Of course with Office365 you get the actual desktop clients to work with. It seems those are generally easier to use on my Mac than doing things in the Chrome browser interface. While I’m impressed with how well the web interface does work, there are also web-based limitations and awkwardness in the UI that you don’t see in the Office apps on your desktop. Still, the web-based apps work surprising well.

So right now I’m paying a total of $190/year for 1 TB of DropBox, 100 GB of Google Drive and 1 TB of OneDrive bundled with Office365.

Note: I have an old “grandfathered-in” Google Suite account for my personal domain and company domain, so those accounts remain free for up to 50 users in each domain.

It’s not bad in total, but I feel I get the least use out of OneDrive.

I have a question I’m pondering right now. I teach a volunteer class in computer skills for seniors and disabled people on Sundays. I’d like a free solution for them. I am debating whether to start the students with Google Drive plus Google Apps, or OneDrive plus Office.com. I’m leaning towards Google because (1) there is more free space; (2) many people already have a Google account for email, YouTube, and Google Photos; and (3) it’s completely free.

I think Office.com is free for most iOS and Android devices, but not for the iPad Pro. I guess that would be the deal breaker for Office.com right there. Plus the limitations on free disk space.

 

iOS catches up with Android on some essential features

When I commented in the past that Android had a handful of features that were superior to iOS, these were them.

https://gigaom.com/2014/09/15/6-great-ios-8-features-iphone-6-plus/

While Apple is clearly borrowing from Android, I’m glad these new features will be part of iOS. It makes it even more attractive to stick with the iPhone.

Still, in this case, it should be remembered who is borrowing from whom.