Sparrow announced late last week that the company had been acquired by Google; that means that the Sparrow email clients have been put into maintenance mode, with no new features expected going forward. Many customers, like me, who enjoyed using the email client are now contemplating the task of finding an alternative.
Yes, Sparrow is useful in its current form, but even if the Mac client behaves well in OS X Mountain Lion and the iPhone client works in iOS 6, that won't necessarily hold up indefinitely -- and if there's a feature you've been waiting for, it's unlikely to ever arrive post-acquisition. Thankfully, there are several alternatives worth mentioning that can take the place of Sparrow, especially for heavy Gmail users.
Here is a short list of email clients (and some borderline cases) for OS X that you can check out; I'll cover iOS options in a separate post. If you know of any other titles, please share them in the comments.
For Gmail users, Postbox might be a good alternative. It supports labels and archiving, two features commonly used by Gmail users. It also detects appointment dates inside email messages and lets you add them to your Google calendar. A badge counter on the app's dock icon keeps track of incoming emails, and Growl can be used for notifications.
Postbox supports POP or IMAP email accounts as well as services like Yahoo!, Hotmail, iCloud, and more. Besides its email features, Postbox also ties into social networks like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and lets you update your status from within the email client.
One of the best features of Postbox is its integration with third-party services like Dropbox and Evernote. The Dropbox support lets you send large files via email as Dropbox links, while the Evernote integration lets you save your emails as a note. It's a great way to share files and organize emails without cluttering up your email client.
Interested OS X users can give Postbox a spin for free by downloading the 30-day trial. A single-user license that you can install on every computer you personally use (PC, Mac, or both) is available for US$9.95.
MailMate is an OS X IMAP email client that shows its strength in its many options. The app supports multiple accounts, offline access and dynamic signatures that'll insert a signature based on your previous emails with that person. It also supports Markdown formatting and custom keyboard shortcuts that provide access to almost everything within the app.
One strong point is MailMate's search feature that lets you find emails based on the body text, first or last names, email addresses and quoted text. If you don't like how MailMate looks, you can easily switch to an alternative layout like widescreen, three-pane, or threaded view. MailMate is not as easy to use as the default mail client of OS X, but it's a worthy upgrade for power users. Interested in Mac users can download a free demo to try it before buying it.
Several people mentioned Mailplane in the comments, so I downloaded the client and took it for a quick spin. Mailplane handles Gmail very well because it pulls the Gmail web interface into the app. Gmail users get access to their priority inbox and labels just like they would if they opened Gmail in their web browser.
It's an interesting experience as you get the familiar look and feel of Gmail inside a full-fledged app. As a result, Mailplane lets you do more with your message than the web-based version of Gmail. There are bonus features like built-in support for Evernote and a Screenshot function that lets you grab a screenshot and automatically attach it to an email. The app also uses growl for notifications. Mailplane supports multiple Gmail accounts, but there is no unified inbox like the one you have in Postbox and other clients. You have to switch between Gmail accounts to see all your email. Interested OS X users can download a 30-day free trial from Mailplane's website.
Thunderbird is an open source IMAP/POP3 email client from Mozilla that's inspired by the Firefox browser. The email client has a tabbed interface that lets you jump from one email to another quickly and a built-in search function that'll search the web. It also supports add-ons. It's not as easy on the eyes as the default Mail app in OS X, but it's functional and efficient. It's also free.
As several readers have pointed out, Thunderbird's support from the Mozilla Foundation is transitioning from full-time feature investment to support and stability, which to some degree puts it in a similar boat to Sparrow in terms of future features. The main difference is that Thunderbird is an open-source client, and can be supported, forked and improved by the developer community; Sparrow is not.
Outlook ($199 as part of the Microsoft Office bundle)
Outlook is bundled into Microsoft Office and offers a full-featured client for Microsoft Exchange 2007 (or newer) email accounts, as well as accounts from major providers such as AOL, Gmail, MobileMe, Windows Live Hotmail, and Yahoo (all POP and IMAP services are supported). For Mac users working in a Windows back-end environment, Outlook is a good choice for managing your email, contacts, calendar and other documents within the Office bundle. Of course, Apple's built-in Mail app, iCal/Calendar and Address Book/Contacts all interoperate with Exchange too.
Apple's Mail.app (Free)
For users who need a basic email client, the default Mail app for OS X will fit the bill. It's free with OS X and supports POP3, IMAP, modern versions of Exchange and other popular email services like Gmail and Yahoo! Mail. Mail has a pleasing interface that includes a widescreen view and threaded messages so you can see all the emails exchanged in a conversation. The upcoming Mountain Lion version of Mail will also include VIP contacts (flag and sort mail from specific high-priority senders) and granular support for the new systems Notification Center alerts.
MailTab for Gmail (Free, or $1.99 Pro Version)
MailTab for Gmail isn't an email client per se. It sits in your menu bar and alerts you (via Growl if it's installed) when you receive a new email. You can view your Gmail emails by tapping on the icon in the menu bar. There's a compose button so you can quickly write an email without opening a web browser or any other client.
If you want to manage your emails in greater detail, the app will open the web version of Gmail in a new tab. For OS X users who have one Gmail account and receive a manageable amount of email, MailTab may fit the bill for checking and responding to incoming messages. I sometimes use it to check on two Gmail accounts at once. One account is open in the web browser, while the other is open in MailTab.
Fluid (Free, or $4.99)
Fluid also serves as more (or less) than an email client, but it does provide a handy way to keep Gmail access going without managing a tab in your primary browser. Fluid creates single-site browsers (SSBs) with their very own application icon and space in the Dock. If you want to have a Fluid SSB for your webmail session, it's a matter of a few clicks to set it up. You'll get all the functionality, keyboard shortcuts and capabilities of the web client in a standalone app.
Fluid is free to use, and the $4.99 optional feature upgrade adds several handy tools; for mailreading, the split cookie storage in the upgrade means that you can manage a different Gmail account in Fluid from the one you're logged into in the regular browser.
If you've got a favorite email client that we didn't touch on, please do let us know in the comments!