Mailbox review: an email app that thinks different

By , Feb 12, 2013

Mailbox Review

Email on iOS is a mess, or that’s at least what many app developers with the next big thing want us to believe. For me, it’s not just that email is a mess on iOS, it’s that email is a mess in general, regardless of the platform.

My philosophy has always been to just manage the email situation well enough, so that I’m not overtaken by its voracious appetite for more of my time. I’ve never been a so-called “inbox zero” ninja, and never really thought I was capable of doing so…until now.

Indeed, I was fortunate enough to get in a bit early on the Mailbox waiting list. The question is, if you’re still waiting, is your pining over access to the app warranted, or will your wait turn into fermented disappointment? Full review, inside.

Full Video Review

What’s Mailbox?

Mailbox is a highly anticipated email app from Orchestra whose key functions are performed using swipe gestures. Think of it as a mix between the popular Clear to-do app, and the now defunct Sparrow email client. It’s so popular that there’s a waiting list with literally hundreds of thousands of users anticipating their turn with the app.

Let’s set the record straight, Mailbox isn’t an app that’s going to magically warp your email problem into sudden non-existence, however, it can definitely help as I’ve come to learn over the past week or so. For the time being, Mailbox is Gmail only. That means that if you’re a Hotmail, or Yahoo email user, then you can’t use Mailbox now. The basic premise of Mailbox revolves around assigning your email to five different zones: Tasks, Later, Inbox, Archive, and Trash.

As you would expect, the majority of your time will likely be spent within Mailbox’s Inbox zone. This is basically the “landing pad” for all incoming email, regardless of the Gmail account. If it ever hits your standard Gmail inbox, then it will land here. And don’t worry, email that you’ve already setup filters for will continue to behave as normal. In Mailbox, those emails will venture directly to the Archive zone without so much as sniffing your inbox.

The cool thing about Mailbox is that all of your Gmail accounts are more or less merged into one. No, not literally; they’re still technically separated, but within Mailbox, the barriers are much more transparent. Mailbox wants you to manage your email fast and efficiently, and creating unnecessary walls between each account is a surefire way to slow one down.

Mailbox Accounts

Adopting such a methodology does have a few drawbacks, such as the inability to look at archived messages for one specific email account. You can look at messages on an account by account basis, but only unarchived messages sitting in the Inbox zone. Not a big deal for nouveau email users, but old-school users may cry foul.

Once all of your desired Gmail accounts are configured, you can begin on your quest to the elusive inbox zero. I found it best to start fresh and archive every piece of mail I had lingering in my inbox from the get-go.

Putting Mailbox to work

If you’ve ever used the Clear to-do app, then you have a good idea as to how Mailbox works. The app incorporates basic swiping gestures to get things done. A short swipe to the left will set an email to read later, a short swipe to the right will archive said email. Long swipes to the left or right will create a task, or delete the item in question respectively. You can even perform each of the aforementioned gestures on multiple items at once, courtesy of the handy batch swipe bar which resides at the bottom of your inbox.

Mailbox Later

The goal here is to address your email as soon as it comes into your Inbox zone. No more waiting around and deciding what to do with a particular piece of mail — now you have the power to decide immediately, and if you can’t decide now, assign it to the Task or Later zone. If you’ve ever used one of the many “Getting Things Done” apps, then you probably have a good idea as to what I mean.

Chances are that most of the emails that land in your inbox can be immediately dealt with — in the majority of cases, replying and/or then archiving it or trashing it will do the job. If neither of those actions are warranted, you can save it for a later date — there are several preconfigured “Later” times set within Mailbox, or you can opt to set your own specific time and date.

If neither of those scenarios fit the bill, and the email will require some definite action, then you can assign it to a task instead. Tasks are essentially glorified mail labels setup within Gmail to store the items. These tasks are then handled like any other to-do list, and you can easily create your own lists within the app to suit your specific needs.

For any lingering emails that happen to remain within the inbox, Mailbox allows you to rearrange the order of those emails regardless of the date they arrived. A simple tap and hold gesture will allow you to rearrange the order of any mail items residing in this zone. Again, if you’ve ever used the Clear to-do app, it works very much the same way.

Push notifications

Regardless of how promising an email client might seem, if it can’t get the bare essentials right, then it’s probably not going to remain on your Home screen for long. Thankfully, Mailbox gets most of it right.

For starters, there’s push notifications. From my experience, the push notifications worked almost exactly as I would expect, and most importantly, they were almost always immediate. That being said, the push notifications didn’t always works as expected. On one particular occasion, new emails were delayed up to five minutes, and that’s after I verified their appearance on my desktop client. All the while, Mailbox was reporting the standard “Mailbox in sync” message in the status bar.

Mailbox Notifications

It must also be mentioned that those with a keen eye on security might not feel very comfortable using Mailbox’s push notification methods. That’s because Mailbox must check your email from its own cloud server in order to send out accurate and reliable push notifications. That essentially means that your email is cached — albeit securely — on Mailbox’s servers. Although I trust that Orchestra takes customer privacy as seriously as it states on its website, it is still a valid concern in an age where more and more companies are seeing user data compromised.

The more you use Mailbox, the more you’ll notice little features that would probably go unnoticed to the average user. For example, if you send an email to yourself, it’ll automatically be labeled as a note to self. Not only that, but Mailbox won’t send a banner notification for emails that you send to yourself. Those are just a few of the little details that express the amount of thought that Orchestra has put into its flagship app.

Sending mail

Sending mail is generally a pleasant experience within Mailbox. Tapping the new mail icon results in a small popup box dedicated to the essentials — to address, subject, and body. Mailbox can, of course, access the contacts you have configured on your iPhone, so no matter how they’re configured, via Google, iCloud, etc., you can send email to any of those contacts.

Tapping the disclosure triangle to the right of the to address field yields areas for cc, bcc, and from address. Yes, the from address can be changed to any of the other email accounts you have configured on the fly just by tapping it. If there’s a particular email address that you send the bulk of your emails through, you can set the default address within Mailbox’s settings.

Mailbox Sending

One glaring omission that I found was the lack of the ability to alter the from address on an email reply. The from address is hardcoded to the email address used to receive the message, and there’s currently no way to change that.

Draft messages are another interesting omission that I’ve noticed in Mailbox. As of now, if you decide that you don’t feel like sending the message you’re in the middle of composing, you have one option — delete draft. There’s no draft repository for work in progress messages. You either send it now, or you delete the draft. The more I thought about this, the more I was sure that this was done by design. However, after reaching out to the Mailbox team via Twitter, they assured me that the ability to save drafts is a feature that’s coming in a future update.

Despite these couple of concerns, the sending mail experience is largely a positive one. It’s a minimalistic affair that suites the overall theme of the app — getting things done.

Searching

If there is one feature within Mailbox that could be a deal breaker for users, it’s definitely search. Don’t get me wrong, search is fast, efficient, and it works from anywhere across all email accounts. The problem is that search is very limited as to how far back you can actually search.

To test this out I logged into my Gmail account on my desktop, and found the first message ever archived there. While I could almost immediately find this on the desktop via search, Mailbox reports no results. That’s because Mailbox is only able to sync a very limited amount of messages in its current form.

Mailbox Searching

If you keep scrolling to the bottom of your archive and tap the “Load More Messages” option, you’ll eventually be presented with a dialogue box stating Mailbox’s syncing limitations. This might not be a very big issue for users living in the present, but for someone like me who often refers to older email, this is a most disappointing revelation.

The verdict

If you’re someone who still uses email to write out long-form messages — think letters to family, friends, corporate collaboration — then Mailbox will probably prove to be too little on the composition end of things, and too big of a departure from the status quo. Mailbox relegates email to a task driven methodology, and I just don’t see that translating very well for the aforementioned demographic.

If you are, however, a part of the growing trend of socially engaged users who loathe email, someone who only uses email because that’s what other people prefer to use, then Mailbox is right up your alley. If you’re someone who lives only in the present, with no need for the ability to search a long history of previous emails, then Mailbox may be for you.

Mailbox is the first email app that felt totally frictionless, or at least as frictionless as email can get. I felt confident knowing that I wasn’t overlooking anything, or forgetting anything important due to the different zones established with Mailbox. I could easily filter out the important stuff that required action on my part, from the daily influx of emails I receive on a regular basis.

No, it’s definitely not for everyone, and to be honest, the lack of a decent search function makes it difficult for me to recommend as a primary email app. If you believe you can live with its shortcomings, then Mailbox may work for you. It’s a worthy email alternative for those living totally in the present, those who hate the idea of traditional email, and for those who just need to get stuff done. For everyone else, keep waiting until they iron out all of the bugs.

You can download Mailbox free of charge from the App Store. Keep in mind that there’s still a pretty massive waiting list for access.

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  • smtp25

    Why does MS Exchange mail get no love from Developers?

    • JoblessGuy2

      Mailbox isn’t dropping Outlook. They have said that future versions will support more platforms (including a web app) and services.

  • http://www.facebook.com/musicc.mann.3 Musicc Mann

    I restored my iPhone 4S because Apple dropped 6.1.1 but when I re-installed Mailbox, I went back down on the queue. What gives? I sent them a twit but they didn’t even bother to respond.

    • iphone4sgamer

      You could have avoided that by backing up with either icould or itunes
      with your place in line entered in the mailbox app, thats what I did.

    • http://www.facebook.com/DjSkyXII Manuel Pedregal Ballesteros

      Dude send them an email.
      It happened the same to me but i send an email to customer service and i ended up in the same spot as before re-installation.

      Twitter is for comunicating important thing, when it come to personal stuff with people go to the customer email they made it for a reason.

      • http://www.facebook.com/musicc.mann.3 Musicc Mann

        Nice! So there’s hope after all. An email will be on its way to their “Mailbox” today.

        Thanks, mate!

    • rosssimpson

      Send them an email explaining this. this happened to me and they reset my reservation back to where it was before

    • Blaqheart

      I emailed them after restoring for the jailbreak….more than a week later, no response.

    • http://twitter.com/oneBurge Burge

      Just retype you code and password in.. I did

    • http://twitter.com/burlow burlow

      jailbreak, install flex, get instant access. ; )

      • SKATE4FREE

        Is that possible? it’s an option or i have to do it manualy?

      • http://twitter.com/burlow burlow

        it’s a option once you install flex

  • Guest

    just sayin: there’s a way to bypass the

  • ImBakedAf

    I’m still waiting for my reservation. I’m already getting over this app. I wish there was a way around it

  • http://www.facebook.com/Makavelli.1 Joseph A. Ahmad

    I installed the app about 6 days ago and I’m positioned at: 357,450 … I mean really??? I just keep trying to be patient but it just looks like such a great email client!

    • Damian W

      i am like you except i am at 120,345

  • Damian W

    definitely this mail app is worth trying. Jeff you expressed your dissatisfaction that this app is not great for lengthy/official emails. But my question is which email app on iOS was ever good for this? Sure sparrow looks awesome, but it is not even on ipad. I think only ipad app would be good for lengthy emails. iPhone not really. In general, checking email on iPhone is more of a task like to do list. If i want to do more with my email i simply go to my laptop.

  • http://twitter.com/mrmberman Marc

    I’ve just deleted it, after 3 days I have decided it’s not for me, it looks all jazzy and funky but I don’t have any problem with the native iOS email app and there is no need for having two apps doing the same job.

    • http://www.facebook.com/aQuEtIaS Shrey Gupta

      yep, same with me..!!!!

    • rain111

      I totally agree with you there

      • Joe Ace

        The native mail app is a joke, terrible.. Sparrow ftw, Sparrow+ (from cydia) for the push notifications, and your set :)

    • ourjim

      Me too. I gave it a fair go but it just added extra work for me. I try to keep a “Mailbox Zero” account anyway. All my emails are actioned and then labelled and archived. Mailbox does not use any of my labels, so I ended up creating a “For Filing” list where I would put emails, then later, on my computer, label and archive them. Ended up taking more time for me than just using stock email.

      Really nice and swish app, just doesn’t work for me. And the poor search history is an absolute deal breaker – especially as they say we should rely on search rather than labels!

      If the stock iOS mailbox had a “Later” feature…

    • Eric Morgan

      Exactly.

    • Fraz Someone

      I dont know if its because i’m pretty far away from the servers or what but mailbox was atleast 300% faster for me in sending,receiving and managing emails.

  • http://twitter.com/bentolmachoff Ben Tolmachoff

    I understand why people wouldn’t like the app, but I love the “Later” function. I’d love to see a way to make this the default mail app on my iPhone via an app in Cydia (like Sparrow+ did).

  • http://twitter.com/JethwaniDeepak Deepak Jethwani

    Dear Jeff,
    I follow your videos on upcoming tweaks and reviews of launched tweaks.
    I have JB my iPhone 4 on iOS 6.1 and started downloading applications from appstore. i noticed an issue with the icons (keep on showing waiting / loading / installing) even when they are already installed. The icon becomes ok when i tap once on one of these icons. The same reappears to be W/L/Installing once i respring my mobile. I deleted the apps and resprung my device only to find the icons with W/L/Installing mode, they disappear when i tap once on the icons.
    To resolve this issue, I restored my iPhone and JB again. Things were ok until this morning.
    I ended up with same issue when i start to install more then 1 app from app store at a time and if i loose connections. It seems it gets stuck in some loop upon breaking of net connection.

    Please advice

    • Nashafa

      This isn’t a jailbreak issue. I’ve had this problem with my iPhone 5 a while back. I’m not sure how to fix it besides trying not to touch the app while it’s downloading.

    • http://twitter.com/klwong99 klWong

      Just uninstall a cydia app call “Bridge”. It should be resolve the problem.

  • http://twitter.com/altrejo Atrejo

    Just marketing, for me the stock app for email makes very well their job

  • http://www.facebook.com/colby.kirchner Colby Kirchner

    I think the app is rad! Checking my email is a breeze. Thats the best way of describing it.

  • Damani Brown

    Stock iOS Mail can do better than this crap. And it doesn’t have a half million line to use it, AND it supports more than just gmail. What idiots make a mail app that only supports gmail? I guess they forgot there are other email providers out there?

    • Fraz Someone

      Dont worry they’ll be added. Lol i Only use Google email so I guess I’m okay with it

  • Chuck Finley

    Honestly I don’t see what everybody has against the stock Mail app. It’s not like I barely use it either, I’m a PhD student so I have to check my email/reply/send stuff throughout the day and I’ve never had any gripes with it.

    • http://twitter.com/rohanshad Rohan Shad

      Gmail lables dont work right, sync is sometimes annoying, miserable gesture support. I’ve been using mailbox for a week now. It’s epic. (medical student here so I’m using email pretty heavy too).

  • http://twitter.com/inquilinofodido Isaac Ferreira

    188 989

  • http://twitter.com/mattbrown87 Matt Brown

    I have to say, after 3 days of testing, I am really do love this app, and to be honest, it has improved my productivity at work. Previously when I would get an email I wasn’t ready to handle, I would save it as unread or star it, and hopefully remember to come back to it, but this system is smooth and seamless, and allows me not to get distracted or interrupted. I also appreciate the native push notifications, that Sparrow never provided (without a battery-draining jb tweak). I’ve never been an inbox-zero guy either, but this app has completely changed that. It makes it easy and appealing. I too am troubled by the search issue, but to me the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, by far. For those of you still in line, keep waiting. I agree with Jeff–this app isn’t necessarily for everyone, but if you’re like me, it’s exactly what you need.

  • http://twitter.com/The_Malik Malik Davis

    I’ve been waiting a good while just to try this app. It better live up to the hype.

  • Lisa Michael-Hall

    ah too bad i don’t have a gmail acc, only yahoo and hotmail!

    although, have been using a nifty little app called altamail its brilliant for push notifications on the ipad/iphone and its also got a really good search function

    the Mail that comes with iOS is ok, but its limited and cant really handle numerous email accounts like altamail can

  • Felicia Gordon

    Not for me at all…..installed it for the fancy associated with it but realised that my labels are not automatically moved in, implying i’d have to spend more time trying to use it and all. Plus therez nothing wrong with the ios mail provided you are not flooded with spams. I do organise it in Microsoft Outlook, so the dates and timelines are automatically synced…….not for me at all………

  • Eric Morgan

    Email is a mess. What a crap statement. Unified inbox. Read them. Mark them. Move them. Delete them. What is such a mess about ios email? This is gmail only so it’s worthless. No professional uses gmail. They read your emails to target your ads. Stay away from all google services. If you’re not paying for it you are not the customer, you’re the product.

    • Jeff

      I guess myself and about a billion others aren’t professional then. It’s the best email service around. The whole “you are the product” statement is overused, and most people who use such services don’t care enough to stop.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=558812483 Gustavo Adolfo Mirabal

        BURNED lol

    • Vijit Coomara

      Email is a mess true, but the gmail mobile app is superb . I believe we are professionals at our company and we use the Google apps paid service for our business. Best decision we ever made. Gmail in the only email client worth using on iOS as well as Android. Blackberry of course always did email very well and still does with the hub on their new product.

  • Guest

    I am 679575th person in the queue to use the app!!! I think I will use it 3 months later!!! Probably I will install iOS several times in that period, of course Jailbreak, and sure that I will loss some of the data when restoring etc. So I think I will forget to re-download the app and I will never use it.

  • http://archinect.com/ Paul P

    I love this app, it’s exactly the email app I’ve been looking for. It doesn’t replace the desktop experience, and I still need to keep a copy of Gmail on my iPhone to send out emails with different alias’, but the Mailbox app is totally brilliant in terms of UI.

    Probably my favorite feature of Mailbox is the ability to quickly reschedule the delivery of emails. This is the feature that makes it such a good mobile email app.

  • http://twitter.com/Jackzzz99 Jack Wong

    I will stick with the apple original mail.app, I check all my email and reply them right away, if not I will mark them as unread so I know I have to get back to them *later*.

  • Matthias R.

    Is there a jailbreak tweak to mailbox set as default mail?

    • Fraz Someone

      I’d like to know as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.cc.7 Joe CC

    Hi…is there any way I can sync my ‘labels’ in my gmail acc with the app??

  • http://www.twitter.com/forgus João Arêas

    I think dropbox should create a new e-mail service, something like random@dropbox.com and user the mailbox for it.

  • Charles Rees

    Needs Outlook Support.