With smartphones, we have more access to our email than ever before, yet keeping up with the inbox can still feel like an impossible task. Unfortunately, current email apps are little more than mobile versions of their desktop counterparts, and don’t provide the right tools to handle email on the go.
But the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company Orchestra is hoping to change that with a new iOS email app called Mailbox. It aims to be more of a triage center for your inbox, and is designed to help you get your inbox down to zero. As such, it lets you use simple swipe gestures to organize messages in four main categories — archive, delete, snooze (for response later) and lists.
For the past week, I’ve been using Mailbox as my primary mobile email app for both my work and personal accounts, which are both Gmail. It has its limitations. Namely, it only works with Gmail accounts, and it doesn’t automatically sync labels. But I found the ability to set aside messages with reminders to respond later to be extremely useful. The app’s gesture-based system also makes it easier to manage messages.
Mailbox is free, but you can’t just download it and start using it right away. Instead, the company is using a reservation system to gradually roll out the app to everybody, and to prevent system crashes. You’ll receive a reservation number once you download the app, and there’s a counter that constantly shows your place in line. My wait was about three days.
You can add multiple Gmail accounts. Orchestra says it’s working to add support for other email accounts and operating systems. After entering my login IDs and passwords for my work and personal email accounts, all my messages were displayed in a unified inbox. To view each account separately, you can tap the list icon in the upper left-hand corner to view different folders.
There are four main gestures you’ll need to know in order to effectively use Mailbox. A quick swipe to the right archives an email (archiving allows you to clean up your inbox by moving messages from your inbox to Gmail’s All Mail folder, so you don’t have to delete them). A longer swipe to the right deletes a message. A quick swipe to the left lets you “snooze” a message, while a longer swipe to the left allows you to file emails in different folders.
You’ll have to play around with the gestures a bit to figure out how fast or slow to swipe, but Mailbox also displays a different color for each move (for example, red for delete, yellow for snooze) as a visual confirmation, which I thought was smart.
I’ll admit that it took me a day or two to get used to Mailbox’s gestures system. But I came to appreciate the ease with which I could categorize emails right from the inbox. I receive a lot of emails throughout the day, and there’s an obsessive-compulsive part of me that hates it when I have unread messages in my inbox.
Mailbox allowed me to quickly bring that number down to zero using simple swipes. By comparison, the Gmail app for iOS allows you to archive a message with a swipe, but deleting an email requires a couple of clicks. (On the Android operating system, you can delete or archive an email with one swipe.) Similarly, you can delete a message with a swipe in Apple’s native email app, but other actions require extra taps.
That said, the most useful feature of Mailbox is the snooze control. Many times, when I’m on the go, I don’t have time to respond to an email right then and there. In those cases, I usually “star” a message or place it in a Follow Up folder, so I can address it when I get back to my computer. But, as we all know, life gets hectic, and sometimes I forget to do that.
With Mailbox, you get reminders to take action on an email. When you snooze a message, a pop-up screen presents you with eight different options on when you want to address the email. Your choices include Later Today, Tomorrow and Next Week, among others.
From the settings menu, you can also specify timing. For example, for Later Today, you can choose to receive a reminder anywhere from one to 24 hours after the original email arrived in your inbox.
The app will then send you a push notification (make sure to enable this feature when first setting up the app) at the specified time, to remind you to respond. Mailbox creates its own label in the desktop Gmail client, and you can find snoozed messages in the Later subfolder. I used Snooze a lot at the end of a workday, and on the weekend when I wanted to unplug for a while.
But, in its goal to be minimalistic, Mailbox hinders or omits some useful features found in the Gmail and Apple email apps, the most important being labels.
In Gmail, I rely on labels (or folders) to sort emails from specific people, by event and more, but none of these labels were automatically synced over to Mailbox. Instead, you have to manually move them to your Mailbox folder on the desktop Gmail client, which I only found out was possible after asking the company. It’s not very intuitive, and takes extra time.
Once you’ve moved them over, you’ll find all your labels under the Lists part of the app, along with Mailbox’s default lists: To Read, To Buy, and To Watch. You can create new lists, as well. For an app that looks to simplify mobile email, this process was a bit complicated.
Mailbox also doesn’t support Priority inbox, though Orchestra said they might add it in the future if there’s user demand. I also missed smaller features from the Gmail mobile app, like the ability to mark a message as spam, and selecting multiple emails to delete at once.
Despite these minor quibbles, there’s a lot to like about Mailbox. The easy management tools and response reminders are some of the highlights. It’s worth a try, especially since it’s free. You’ll just have to get in line.