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Sparrow Flies but Doesn't Quite Sing

By Paul Hartsock MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Mar 20, 2012 5:00 AM PT

Sparrow Flies but Doesn't Quite Sing

Sparrow, an app from the company of the same name, is available for US$2.99 at the App Store.

Sparrow for iPhone
Sparrow for iPhone

How awful is the iPhone's native Mail app? My opinion: It's not awful at all.

It isn't exactly a bright and shining paragon of mobile app awesomeness either, I suppose, and it hasn't changed a great deal since I first started using iOS regularly nearly four years ago. But it's a workhorse. It's simple, it does its job, there are no astoundingly bad design decisions (none that frequently come up, anyway), and I'm just accustomed to using it, warts and all.

But for the last week or so a new email app has been running up the charts in the App Store, promising "an efficient and pleasant mailing experience." Well, that does sound pretty good, doesn't it?

So I gave Sparrow a run. And yes, its features really do improve the flow of messages and give you a smoother, less mechanical-feeling email experience than the native Mail app. And it does that without being such a big departure from Mail that it's hard to figure out.

However, there are a few missing functionalities in Sparrow that some users may regard as deal-breakers.

Taking Flight

You'll start out by giving Sparrow access to one of your existing email accounts -- your full name, your email address and the password. This can be a Gmail, Google Apps, iCloud, Yahoo, AOL, MobileMe or custom IMAP account. Sorry, Hotmail users, you aren't on the list.

Then you're offered a way to associate your contacts with their Facebook profile images. It's optional. I've heard nothing about Sparrow in particular doing anything shady, but given all the bluster surrounding the general issue of mobile apps and user privacy lately, I declined.

Or am I being stupid for worrying about this when I've already willingly handed over my email address and password? Either way, I decided not to let Sparrow touch my Facebook account. So none of my contacts in Sparrow have an actual photo next to the name; instead, each is represented by an anonymous silhouette image. Personally, I'd rather not see any images at all than regard everyone I know as gray blobs with identical haircuts.

Once you're through with the initial setup, you're free to add more email accounts.

The Mighty Sparrow

Navigating your email is where Sparrow shines. The setup will be very familiar to users of Twitter's and Facebook's mobile apps. It's arranged like a stack of cards. The bottom card lists your connected email accounts, along with an option for a unified inbox.

Select an account or swipe toward the left, and the next card will slide in on top. This lists options for the account you've selected -- your Sent folder, Starred folder, Trash, Spam, Inbox, etc.

One more swipe toward the left and your messages list comes up. This screen behaves much like the native Mail app -- you just get more options at your disposal. For example, swiping a message doesn't just give you the chance to "archive" it. Instead, you can trash it, store it, tag it, star it or reply without opening it. You'll need to swipe right to left, though -- left to right will take you back to your options screen.

One benefit of Sparrow reminded me about a common Mail annoyance: attachments. Ever start writing an email with Mail, then decide you'd like to attach a photo? Well, tough. You're going to have to back out of the email you're writing, open Photos, and start over from there. Sparrow, however, has thought the process through a little better -- you can attach a photo directly from the email composition screen.

Reading a threaded message is easier on Sparrow also. When you open an email that's part of a chain, just start swiping up and down to cycle through the messages. This makes for very easy maneuvering around your inbox, and for people who deal with a lot of these kinds of complex correspondence chains on their iPhones, Sparrow might be worth the three bucks -- if you can let its shortcomings slide.

Missing Functions

With iOS 5, Apple finally gave users the ability to select a custom email ringtone with its native Mail app. Until then, that universal iPhone email ding had half of the people in a given room checking their phones each time one person happened to get a message. The madness had gone on far too long. But with Sparrow, you're stuck with the app's built-in email ring. It's different than Mail's default ring, but I couldn't find a way to customize it.

Also, Sparrow users are going to have to do without a handful of services. There's no POP support, so Hotmailers should pass this by. Also, Sparrow does not support Exchange, and it isn't Push-enabled, so it won't give you a notification the moment a new message hits your inbox. As a workaround for that and the matter of ringtone customization, perhaps stuff Mail into a far-flung subfolder, but leave its push and ringtone functions turned on. That's far from an elegant solution, though.

Bottom Line

Sparrow left me a little disappointed. Here's this email app that does a lot of things so much better than native Mail. In some ways, it even makes me wonder how Mail could have missed certain features and functions after a full five versions.

Unfortunately, I've come to depend on a few key Mail components -- push notifications and Exchange support, specifically. Until these arrive, I can't quite see Sparrow dethroning Mail from the coveted bottom row, at least not on my phone. Maybe soon Sparrow will develop those features for itself. Or Apple will swipe some control ideas from Sparrow. Either way, a combination of the two could make the perfect email app.

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