Spark vs Apple Mail on the Mac (back with Apple Mail for now)

Spark is a viable alternative to the standard Apple Mail app on the Mac, and also for the iPhone and iPad. I’ve previously written about Spark on iOS/iPadOS (https://lerner.net/spark-an-email-app-for-your-iphone-and-ipad/) and it was my main email app there until recently. 

After a problem with Spark,  I’m back with Apple Mail on the Mac. And until that issue gets settled, I’m using Outlook on my iPhone and iPad.

Spark remains intriguing though. And I hope things get fixed up enough to move back to it at some point.

All the things I mentioned in my previous article apply to the Mac app as well: Spark has better mail filing, better searching, useful FAQs, HTML signatures, and more. Spark, importantly, also lets you resend a message, as does standard Mail. There are a surprisingly large number of email clients without that basic feature.

On the downside, Spark has severe limitations in handling inline images, so that is something to consider, and what has always kept me from using Spark exclusively.

Why I Initially Started Using Spark on my Mac

I initially started looking at Spark as a replacement for standard Mac Mail because of some problems with the standard Mail app.  Spark seemed more responsive than Apple Mail, which often got bogged down with “loading” for the content of messages. And Apple Mail  was often out of synch with the Gmail server. Spark seemed to stay in synch much better for some reason. But, as I said, there are important feature limitations with image handling (see below).

I have 6 main email accounts: three are Gmail (with custom domains), two are standard IMAP accounts on a hosted server, and one is my iCloud email. Spark works well regardless of the account type, and it’s easy to set up new accounts.

Labels and Filing Messages

For Gmail, Spark goes the extra mile. Unlike standard Mac Mail, Spark handles Gmail multi-labeling naturally and easily. That’s definitely a big plus. 

Filing messages in folders, which I do to keep things organized, is by far easiest in Spark. The ability to file in folders is a top priority for me when choosing an email client. Even the standard Gmail app in iOS doesn’t have a way to do that with shortcuts, as you can do in Gmail via a web browser. 

The standard Apple Mail app is very weak in how it occasionally might recommend a folder for filing, but that’s it (unless you buy third party add-ons for that). When I do use Apple Mail on my Mac, I also use the MsgFiler plugin for shortcut filing into different mailboxes, and also to open different mailboxes. 

Note on Filing and Shortcuts

With Mac standard Mail and the MsgFiler plugin you can use keyboard shortcuts to file messages, and also to open mail folders. Spark doesn’t have a feature to open a mailbox folder with a shortcut. Another issue with Spark message filing is that you are presented choices from all accounts. MsgFiler gives you an option to see all accounts or limit selections to just the current account. It would be nice to have the same option in Spark to limit mailbox destination choices to the current account.

Search

Search in Spark is more is more comprehensive. Usually. Mostly I find things more easily in Spark. I can search, for example, “in mailbox-name from sender-name keywords” and things pop up quickly.  However, there is one drawback – there is no easy way to “open” (jump to) a folder you’ve created. That sometimes make the searches a bit cumbersome, with varied results. I hope Spark adds a shortcut to jump to a folder.

Spark’s Main Downside – Images (inline image handling, images in replies, and no annotation)

Spark still doesn’t handle inline images nearly as well as regular Mail. For that reason I have always needed to use Apple Mail when I need to share images – especially if they need annotating or resizing.

In Spark, you can paste or drag images into a mail draft to see them inline, but that’s about it. 

Spark doesn’t let you annotate images directly like you can with Apple Mail (add arrows, explanatory text, etc.). You also can’t resize them in the draft. 

If you’re happy with just the image and how it appears when you paste it in or drag it in then it works fine though. Note that when pasting screenshots sometimes they look overly large in the draft for some reason, even though they look the correct size in the sent email. Images really should look the same in the draft so you know what the recipient will see.

Also, Spark doesn’t have an option, like regular Mail does, to include a sent attachment in a reply. What that means is you can’t easily comment on images people send you. They simply don’t appear in replies.

So if I’m adding images and then want to annotate them or resize them, or if I need to talk about images somebody sent me, I would still do that in regular Mail, even while using Spark. I hope Spark deals with these deficiencies.

Also in one case I sent an embedded video from my WordPress blog. The video showed up fine in standard Mail but doesn’t show up in Spark. Readdle examined the message data for that one, confirmed a bug, and put it on their list to fix. So Readdle is responsive.

Anyway, the bottom line is there are numerous issues related to images in Spark. 

But Spark is Quite Interesting 

All the other features kept drawing me back to Spark to test and try things. And Readdle’s support is always very responsive, helpful, and friendly. You get the feeling that they really do listen. So I hope they do better with inline images in a future version. They seem a bit overwhelmed right now though.

Anyway, I had been using it as my main Mac mail client since August for the positive reasons mentioned above. But I also needed to use Mail as well. This complicated my daily use.

There are lots more features in Spark too, which I don’t make use of (at least yet), such as Smart Mailboxes, quick replies, queuing emails to send later (including scheduling resends as reminders), and much more under the hood. There are different features which appeal to different people. I’m sure I’m overlooking some important ones here that others will love. I look forward in trying more as time goes by.

Update –  12/4/2020

Back with Apple Mail on my Mac.

  1. A bad problem with Spark occurred, where it started resending the same large message over and over again until I got blocked at a site. I’m afraid to open Spark on my Mac right now. I sent email to support, but haven’t heard back yet.
  2. The issues with images were getting to me.
  3. It’s quite difficult to create new folders. You have to do it via Settings and navigate through your current folder system to add a new one.
  4. Other bugs have crept in lately: slowness in updating mailbox badges, some formatting issue after entering a link and then hitting return to continue editing on the next line, when replying to multiple people the first person listed is often not the sender, some search issues.
  5. Also, when replying inline and you hit return, an empty space doesn’t open up. You continue entering quoted/indented.

So I’m using Mail on my Mac again, along with the MsgFiler plugin for filing. MsgFiler also makes it easy to open a folder with a shortcut, which is not a feature in Spark yet. I’m not sure what to do on my iPhone and iPad at the moment. I’m a bit afraid to use Spark in case the resending issue happens there, so I’m using Outlook for iOS/iPadOS, even though it doesn’t have a message resend feature. At least it provides a means to easily file incoming messages in my folder hierarchy (which standard Apple Mail does not), and the messages look very nice. 

On my Mac, with standard Apple Mail,  I’m feeling that message filing is quicker and easier with MsgFiler than it was with Spark. In fact, I’m feeling more at-ease with my email since coming back.

In an ideal situation, Apple Mail on the Mac, iPhone, and iPad would offer an easy way to file messages. Spark is great at this.  On the Mac, at least, there are plugins to help with that. And ideally Spark will upgrade its image handling ability (and solve the issue with resending I experienced) so I can try it again. It has so many other interesting features I look forward to trying it again some day.

I’m interested in hearing from people who (1) deal with images in mails and (2) do lots of message filing in their mailbox folder hierarchies, not just in Gmail, but with other accounts as well, about what their favorite Mac, iPhone, and iPad mail clients are.

An extremely annoying Japanese input bug just since iOS 13

This is a demonstration of an extremely annoying Japanese input bug that just surfaced since iOS 13.

It doesn’t matter what app you’re using, if you are dictating in Japanese, and you have the Japanese keyboard set, it starts receiving your Japanese characters and then switches to nonsense English words.

It doesn’t happen all the time. But it happens multiple times a day.

You just have to keep on trying over and over again until it realizes that you’re inputting Japanese.

It doesn’t matter if your primary iOS language is English or Japanese. 

I reported this to Apple feedback when version 13.1, 13.2, and 13.3 came out. No response.

It never happened even once in previous versions prior to iOS 13.

And it doesn’t happen just to me. In my Sunday volunteer teaching class, I have seen the problem and other people have seen the problem on multiple iPhones and iPads.

In this screen recording I am speaking ほうこくですまる (houkoku desu maru) which should convert to 報告です。

You can see the Japanese initially getting input, and then the nonsense English words it turns into with each attempt. 

If I try over and over and over again it will eventually work.

It’s extremely annoying, and I wish Apple would take the problem seriously and fix it.

If you are experiencing the problem, I urge you report it to Apple feedback. The more people who report it, maybe the better chances there are that somebody will actually fix it.

Here’s the screen recording:

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.