After a long wait, Sparrow for iOS made its debut in the App Store on Wednesday. Similar to the desktop version, the iOS mail client promises to provide you with an efficient and pleasant mailing experience, and the app mostly delivers on this promise.
Sparrow supports Gmail, iCloud and IMAP, but not POP email accounts. When you launch the app for the first time, you are prompted to setup your first email account. The app will try to auto-configure your settings using your email and password. If it fails, you can enter the server details manually. During the setup process, you can also link to Facebook and pull down your contacts' images.
The first thing you notice about Sparrow is the user interface, which is clean, efficient and intuitive. Unlike the native mail client which uses tapping to navigate through the app, Sparrow relies heavily on swiping. You can swipe left and right to move between your account settings, mailbox and individual messages. When you're reading an email, you can swipe up and down to move through other messages in the conversation. You can also swipe on any message to reply, star, label, archive or delete a conversation.
Sparrow is not only easy on the eyes, it also supports advanced features like Google labels and identities. I've used lots of email clients, and many struggle with the management and usage of identities. Sparrow, however, is just perfect. Identities are easy to setup and even easier to select when you are going to send an email. Just tap the "From" at the top of the email composition window and a list of email accounts will appear. The app also tracks which account received an email and will automatically select the correct identity when you reply.
Like any good email client, Sparrow has a search function that lets you search up to 1000 messages on your phone. You can filter by "From", "To" and "Subject". Search on the phone is great in a pinch, but I found it easier to search on the desktop which is faster and extends to all your messages.
Message composition is straightforward. You are prompted right away to select a contact and assign them to either the main recipient, the CC or BCC. As noted above, you can easily select the account from which the email is sent. Writing the email is as simple as typing in text or using the voice-to-text feature. There is no text markup so you can't bold or underline parts of your message. Sparrow also lets you add an image from within the app. When you click on the paperclip icon, you are presented with the option to pick an image from your library or take a new one. Images can be resized when you hit the send button.
All this simplicity, however, is overshadowed by one missing key feature: push email. For most people, email is time sensitive. You need to know when an email hits your inbox so you can respond (or at least read it) right away. That's why you need push notification and why Sparrow for iOS is disappointing in that regard.
The beta version of Sparrow had push notification, and it worked wonderfully. Unfortunately, Apple rejected the app. According to developer Dom Leca, Apple said no to Sparrow because it used an API, the same one used by VoIP apps, that allows an app to be woken up in case of a network event. This lets Sparrow stay virtually connected to the mail server so it can receive push emails. This always-on type of connection is not allowed by Apple.
Even though the solution worked flawlessly in the beta, Sparrow had to remove it for the public release. As it works now, Sparrow will sync your email when you open the app or manually pull down to refresh. You can read Sparrow's statement about push notifications on its website.
Without push notification is Sparrow really worth the US$2.99? It depends. If you can't miss an email and your response time is critical, then you should stick with the native mail app. On the other hand, if you're looking for a fresh UI and an efficient way to manage your emails, then you should buy Sparrow without hesitation. You will quickly learn to live without push email or find ways to work around it. It's not elegant, but one work around is to keep notifications in the native Mail app active and then use Sparrow to read and respond to your mail. As noted by Think iOS, you can also use Boxcar notifications to alert you of an incoming email. You can follow the setup instructions on Think iOS's website to get Boxcar up and running.
Sparrow for the iPhone is available in the App Store for $2.99.