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It’s not very often that I would replace a built-in OS application with one developed by a third party. When it happens it is usually out sheer frustration or repugnance (eg. Internet Explorer), and rarely it comes about due to an application being so remarkable that installing it is the only logical choice.

Apple’s Mail application for OS X Lion has come a long way since version 1.0, and has been a pleasure to use particularly in the full-screen mode which Lion supports. It functions well, with no major annoyances to push me to look for any alternative. However Mail’s days are limited on my Macs, now that Sparrow has arrived with a simple mission – “Get mail done”.

Sparrow started out as a desktop Gmail client, offering full support for Gmail’s archive, labels, keyboard shortcuts, and threading. It has grown to offer full IMAP support, and a new update has just introduced POP support. Setup for Gmail and iCloud accounts was automatic, and Sparrow will automatically detect the settings of most IMAP and POP services when you enter your email address and password to add accounts.

There’s no denying it – Sparrow’s interface looks gorgeous. Those familiar with the official Twitter client for Mac will instantly feel at home as the style of the basic window borrows heavily from that application. There was controversy when Sparrow was first released as the initial impression was that this was blatantly ripped off, but in fact Sparrow’s founder Dominique Leca requested permission from Loren Brichter (creator of Tweetie, as it was known before Twitter acquired it). I’m a sucker for minimalist designs, and Sparrow has the balance just right – important elements are emphasised without being overbearing; simple, compact, and readily recognisable icons make it easy to switch between accounts and email groups.

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Similar to Apple Mail there are three columns in the default layout – the leftmost allows switching between multiple mail accounts and folders (with unified inbox support), the middle column shows incoming mail with a 2-line preview, and the rightmost containing the body of the email selected from the middle column. Sparrow offers a beautiful full screen view for users of OS X Lion. Fans of the pull-to-refresh gesture will love the springy middle column as they check for new mail, but other than that, nothing particularly special so far.

The first feature that strongly appealed as I journeyed toward “Inbox Zero” was the the icon that appeared next to a sender’s name. The icon displayed is drawn from your Mac’s Address Book app where this has been added to a contact, or Sparrow can also link to Gmail and FaceBook to automatically pull icons/profile pictures from contacts you email. While not everyone had an icon associated with them, I was quick to add them for as many frequently emailed contacts as possible because emails from these contacts would immediately stick out as being important (or unimportant) in my inbox, increasing the ease which which I could work through my email.

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Another useful tool for prioritising email is the Gmail “starred” toggle, which allows you to essentially “flag” emails and unflag them with a single click. Flags are supported in iCloud, and other services, but Sparrow’s implementation trumps Apple Mail but having the toggle switch right there in the email preview pane itself, rather than hidden away in a contextual menu or menu bar icon. Along with a unified inbox, Sparrow has introduced support for unified starred email (and unified trash), meaning important emails can be quickly filtered and actioned across all your mailboxes. Sparrow’s Gmail roots are preserved, with partial support for priority inbox – allowing messages to be marked as “Important” or unimportant. Also harking back to its Gmail client origins is the one click “Archive mail” rather than Mail’s option being hidden away in a contextual menu (a button can be manually added to the toolbar), as well as the default option being to archive mail instead of deleting (an option allows “delete” to move mail to the trash instead).

Apple Mail does support email threading, but there is a lot of wasted space when displaying a threaded conversation in the email pane as emails are stacked atop one another complete with a header. Your responses are collapsed so it requires a click to open up and see what it was your contact was replying to. Sparrow uses valuable screen real estate a lot smarter, and the layout will be familiar for all Gmail web app users. Both the sent and received emails are displayed, with colour coding to indicate which were sent or received. Older emails in the thread are collapsed by default but individual emails can be expanded or collapsed with a single click. It works well with Gmail and it works well in Sparrow.

Replying to emails is a breeze with the quick reply function like that used in internet forums and Gmail’s quick reply. A simple plain text box opens up which encourages both speed and brevity, further cutting down the time you spend dealing with an overflowing inbox. When composing new email, Sparrow draws from Apple Address Book to auto-complete addresses for known or recent contacts.

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All of the above features and the design of the interface are already enough for me to strongly recommend Sparrow to readers, but there is an additional extra that experts will appreciate. Sparrow offers Dropbox and CloudApp integration for attachments, which means that instead of attaching files you can instead send a link to your contact for them to directly download the files from a cloud based service. Once set up, users have the option to either attach files in the traditional fashion, or using a cloud service which can bypass problems that might be associated with file size or prohibited file types. Both options support simple drag and drop into a new email window. You can also drop a file directly onto the Sparrow dock icon to open a compose email window with the file attached.

Sparrow is a truly impressive desktop email client that is far more powerful than its deceptively simple design suggests at first glance. It is a smart application that is a pleasure to use and genuinely able to cut down the time you spend getting through your email clutter. Supporting all major formats, it is no longer just a great desktop Gmail client – it’s the perfect Mac client for all of your email. An ad-supported version is available for free download from the Sparrow website, but once you’ve given it a whirl the ads can be removed for a bargain $9.99 USD. Sparrow is also available on the Mac App Store for the same price if you’d rather give away 30% of the purchase price to Apple.

 

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