Sparrow Mail: the most elegant, powerful and minimalist Mac email client

 9th February, 2011

Sparrow Mail, which I am certain will soon establish itself as the best email client for the Mac, launches today on the Mac App Store.

Creating an email client from scratch is very difficult: this explains more than anything else why so few genuinely new email clients are available for the Mac, outside of Apple Mail which comes bundled in with OS X. So the launch of Sparrow Mail 1 is actually a major event, since only a few competitors to Apple Mail are available. The main ones are Mailplane and Postbox, both of which I’ve tried but not found any compelling reason to prefer to Apple Mail.

I’ve never had any major issues with Apple Mail, which I’ve been using pretty much continuously in combination with my initial Exchange server and my current Google Apps setup, ever since I switched in 2003; but as I’m of a curious disposition, I have tried out a number of the few alternatives that occasionally became available. None have ever come close to tempting me into using them as my default mail application. Perhaps the best-known of these Mac mail clients is Mailplane, actually not so much a fully-fledged application as a frame within which you can access Gmail (it only works with Gmail, which I’ll call Gmail Classic in this post, and Google Apps, which allows you to map your own domain name to your Google Mail account) from your desktop.

Because of the way email works, you need to host it on a server accessible from the Internet: in practice, this means you have to choose an email provider on whose servers your email reside 2. In 2006, I switched my email provider to Google Apps, which combines the power of Gmail with the flexibility of using your own domain name. Four years later, I’m still using it and it’s still the best email solution by far. Google have worked hard to make Google Apps for your domain converge with Gmail, to the point that they are now effectively interchangeable.

While it’s possible to set up an email server and only access it online, using a web browser (and a surprising number of people never go further than this, probably because they are unclear about the distinction between server and client), in practice most people will gain from using a client application to access their email server and act as an interface: this brings benefits such as more intuitive interface, storage of a local copy of part or all of your emails, offline access, and better integration with your other desktop applications.

Apple Mail isn’t a gross package of proprietary bloat such as Microsoft’s Outlook (which I used before I switched to Mac and has become available for Mac OS X in the recently-released Office 2011) and the now-defunct Entourage. It’s a powerful client based on open standards for practically any email setup and works reasonably well with Google Mail, although it needs a lot of tweaking to run optimally 3. It does still, however, have a lot of features I don’t need and while not unhappy with it, I was always open to the idea of a superlightweight email client specifically targeted at Google Mail users. And ever since beautifully-designed applications like Twitter for Mac and Weet have become available as desktop Twitter clients, Apple Mail has seemed correspondingly more dated and bloated, and I have yearned for something leaner and, ideally, designed from scratch for Gmail.

I’ve been in regular touch with Dominique Leca, one of Sparrow’s developers, over the past three months or so while it was still in beta, and made a number of suggestions, all of which were carefully reviewed and several of which were implemented in the final version. I started using the beta version of Sparrow as my default Mail client in November, and have not once been tempted to switch back to Apple Mail.

Unlike Apple Mail, which requires careful and rather painstaking configuration to work optimally with Gmail, Sparrow, being currently a Gmail-only app, will only requires your user name and password for each of the Gmail accounts (classic or Google Apps) you want to access to be up and running. As it uses IMAP, everything you do locally will instantly be replicated on the server,

The most attractive aspect if Sparrow, as hinted above, is its elegant simplicity: unlike Mailplane or Postbox, and far more than Apple Mail itself, we have here an application built from the ground up with elegant, simple design in mind. The attention to detail in the user interface is stunning.

In a very compact square that is about as unobtrusive as you can get, you can display all the mail in your inbox. Controls in the left-hand column give quick access to your starred, sent, draft and trash folders, as well as a search function. While for anything more involved, such as changing a setting or adding a label, you would have to access your web interface, this is hardly inconvenient, since you don’t need to do this very often: the whole point of Sparrow is keeping your interface uncluttered and simple, which it does very well without compromising on what you need on a daily basis.

Support for labels is excellent. Unlike Apple Mail, where plugins are required, combined with workarounds, to add a label to a message, Sparrow supports them out of the box, via a small unobtrusive icon at the bottom right of the inbox.

You can also add or remove labels from a control at the top of each individual message.

Sparrow also fully supports aliases: I prefer using just one email Google Apps account with two domains and several aliases, so this means I can send and reply to all my mail using a dropdown list. One of those aliases can be designated as the default.

The app is designed for use either with the mouse or with keyboard shortcuts: if you prefer the latter, you have a choice between Sparrow’s own shortcuts, or revert to the original Gmail shortcuts which is my preferred option. Similarly to the native Gmail webmail interface, a Quick Reply box will open at the top of the message window.

A system-wide hotkey (I use F1) can in addition be set to trigger a new email, and another to bring Sparrow to the foreground and back.

You can set fonts, or choose to stick to plain text if you prefer. At my suggestion, the Sparrow Mail developers have included the ⌘K shortcut to apply a link, similarly to Apple Mail, which is a great time saver.

The company has stated that Sparrow 1.1 will provide you with a general IMAP support (MobileMe, Yahoo, AOL and custom IMAP mail servers). It should be available at the end of March 2011. I personally have no use for this at present, as I can’t see the point of using anything other than Gmail — classic or Google Apps — but of course, for people who are stuck with other email systems, perhaps for professional reasons, that they can only access using IMAP, this may perhaps be a welcome improvement.

  1. Sparrow is based on the EtPan open-source project created and managed by Hoa Dinh Viet, one of Sparrow’s founders, who was also an actor in John Gruber’s subsequently abandoned Letters project to replace Mail app in 2010. ↩︎

  2. It’s theoretically possible to set up email on a your own server, of course, but this really provides no added value over third-party hosting, at least for private individuals. ↩︎

  3. If you use Gmail labels extensively, you’ll find they don’t run totally smoothly with Apple Mail’s more traditional folder-based structure, for instance. ↩︎