Following in the footsteps of excellent Sparrow for Mac which we reviewed earlier, Sparrow for iPhone seeks to bring the same superb minimalist email to the iOS platform. The challenges go beyond adapting Sparrow to the smaller screen of the iPhone/iPod touch however, with Apple restrictions meaning compromises needed to be made, with certain much desired features reluctantly omitted.
Sparrow for iPhone currently only supports IMAP mail, so it is not an option for users of Hotmail and other POP accounts. Setting up accounts is relatively straight-forward, and completed you land in a unified inbox that looks on the surface much the same as any other mail app.
Sparrow has some clever differences though, and these combine to make Sparrow a truly unique mail experience on touch screens. Similar to Sparrow for Mac, avatars for contacts can be set up to appear on the left hand side of each email preview in the inbox. This makes it easy to identify important emails from frequent contacts with instant identification. Threaded conversations are supported, and a preview of the first 2 lines of each email are shown similar to the default iOS Mail app.
Tapping on an email opens up the message view, and I was pleased to see that Sparrow compresses email headers very tightly at the top of the screen such that screen real estate is not wasted and you get to see more of what is really important – the body of your email. Currently the default iOS Mail uses almost half the vertical screen height with the email header which is an illogical waste of space.
In keeping with its minimalist principles, Sparrow hides action buttons (compose, forward, star/flag, archive, delete) within a small toolbar which can be activated by tapping an icon at the bottom right of the screen. This scrolls out the toolbar, but it is kept out of the way when not required. Replying to emails is accessed easily via the reply button at the top right, with the unique ability to attach photos (including multiple photos) from your photo library. No more annoying and cumbersome copy and paste from the Photos app. Landscape keyboard is available for email composition which will delight those with fat thumbs.
Composing emails is also notable for a novel and superb interface for adding recipients. Frequently emailed contacts appear at the top of a list of your Address Book contacts, and adding each is as simple as tapping on the contact, or the “Cc” or “Bcc” field next to their name. Adding multiple recipients takes a matter of seconds.
Threaded emails are handled much better by Sparrow than iOS Mail. While iOS Mail presents threaded emails as individual emails grouped by subject, Sparrow simply opens the most recent email in a thread and allows you to scroll down to open an earlier email in the thread if required. Using this mechanic to scroll between threaded emails is logical and time saving.
The inbox view of Sparrow is also smart, allowing you to scroll between different inbox views with a simple swipe. It is an easy swipe to switch between viewing only unread emails in your inbox, starred/flagged emails, or all emails in the unified inbox. The swipe gesture can also be performed on individual emails, allowing you to quickly access the functions of reply, star/flag, move to folder, archive, or delete.
Sparrow for iPhone is a great app and has now replaced the default iOS Mail app for my day-to-day usage. It’s beautiful and functional, and a delight to use. However it does have some serious restrictions (essentially imposed by Apple) which will unfortunately be deal breakers for some users.
Firstly it doesn’t support Push. It’s a long story but in order to implement Push, Sparrow would need to either store your login credentials on their servers (something they aren’t prepared to take the responsibility for since that’s not their field of expertise), or to use the API that allow VoIP apps (like Viber) to wake a sleeping App on demand (Apple have rejected Sparrow’s submissions using the API in this fashion).
What this basically means is that there is no Push, and email needs to be checked manually within the App. Sparrow also can’t be selected as the default mail app so when you want to email a link from Mobile Safari, or email someone from within another app, it will always use iOS Mail to send that email (likely another Apple restriction).
Sparrow is looking to offer an upcoming Push service but the bad news for those who have bought the App in anticipation of a Push update is that it would be a subscription based service due to costs that would be incurred by Sparrow. Unfortunately this will be the sticking point for many when they decide if Sparrow for iPhone is right for them. Sparrow for iPhone is a beautiful iOS mail client which is sadly held back by Apple restrictions. If Push isn’t essential and you appreciate smart apps then Sparrow for iPhone deserves a place on your Springboard. It is available now on the iOS App Store for $4.19.