Sparrow: I Almost Liked You

My Mac at NYU-TV still runs Snow Leopard so I can’t run Mac OS Mail, partly because it doesn’t support iCloud but also because the user interface is so different from Lion’s Mail application, which I use on my own computers, that it was simply unusable for me. For the last few months, I was using Thunderbird. That worked fine until I rearranged some of my IMAP folders, and Thunderbird didn’t respond well to that change: I wasn’t able to delete any message from my iCloud email account.

I began to look for an alternative, even if I had to pay for one. I prefer to use an application to read email because I need a unified inbox, and reading mail on the web doesn’t allow me to do that.

Enter Sparrow. I read a lot about this app in recent weeks, especially the iPhone version and its inability to push alerts, which I actually consider an advantage since it will keep me from checking email incessantly. The desktop version, which has a lot of the same features, seemed intriguing enough for me to buy it from the Mac App Store.

The app caters to Gmail users, which I never was until I added Google Apps for my professional domain, and I appreciate some of those features. It is really easy to either archive or deleting a message. The Delete key archives the message, and Command-Delete moves it to the Trash. It is also easy to reply to a message. There’s a quick reply function that makes it really easy to reply to messages. My favorite feature is the send and archive. As the name indicates, it allows you to reply to message and, with one keystroke (Command-D), your message and the original message is archived and out of your inbox. You can also add cute features like having your friend’s Facebook profile photo appear next to his/her message.

There are however a couple of serious flaws disrupting my email workflow. For example, I like seeing my messages listed with the oldest messages at the top. I think that’s a remnant from my days of reading email with Pine, which listed the messages in chronological order. (Did I mention I’m old?) There’s no way of customizing this in Sparrow like you can in Thunderbird or Mac OS Mail. For some reason, this doesn’t bother me in the iOS client for instance, but it does on a desktop app. The other challenge is that when I archive, delete, or file a message, it navigates to an older message not to a newer one. I like reading email in chronologic order, and Sparrow doesn’t allow me to do that. Sadly, it was this drawback that made me ultimately abandon Sparrow on my home machines and return to Lion’s Mail.

Because Lion’s Mail is part of the Mac operating system, it integrates really well with the other apps, such as adding events or contacts from a message. No third-party app can do that.

I really enjoyed using Sparrow for a few days. You read email with it, and that’s it. I love that. It makes it really easy to deal with individual messages, such as reading, replying, forward, archiving, deleting, or filing, but it is not conducive to my workflow when my inbox explodes. I realized this when, after teaching a four-hour class last week, my inbox swelled to over forty messages. I like having as close to a zero-message inbox as possible, and I found myself fighting Sparrow more than conquering my email. Every time I processed a message, I kept going to an older message instead of taking me to a newer one. I couldn’t retrain my brain to read email in reverse.

With Sparrow, I couldn’t tame my messages efficiently. Part of this might be due to the Gmail mentality for email. Gmail lets you manage your email by just letting it sit there in a capacious inbox. If you want to find something, just search. I can’t work like that, and I can’t work with Sparrow…at least not now.

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