Walt Mossberg

Cut Clutter: Two Ways to Put Your Inbox on a Diet

Lots of people feel they’re drowning in email, with swollen inboxes that make it hard to pinpoint important messages in a sea of annoying marketing mail and unwanted newsletters.

Some major email players have tried to improve the situation. Google’s Gmail now has a “Priority Inbox” feature that uses algorithms to help highlight important messages. Apple’s Mail program lets you designate important senders as “VIPs” with their own folder. And Microsoft’s Outlook.com (formerly Hotmail) has a “Sweep” feature for easier deletion of unwanted emails.

Some new programs try a more brute-force approach, analyzing inboxes from many email services and letting you delete large batches of unwanted messages with a single click. They also make it easy to unsubscribe from mailing lists. This week, I tested two, both free and from startups: Mailstrom and Swizzle.

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Swizzle searches for marketing emails and will unsubscribe to them for the user.

Neither are email programs, like Outlook or Apple Mail, designed as your primary way to receive and send email. They are complementary tools, meant to be used periodically to chop down the size of an inbox. Both are Web-based though Swizzle plans a mobile version soon.

Even though both make mass deletion and unsubscribing simple, they do take some effort and time to use. You have to study their analysis of what’s in your inbox and choose which senders or topics merit mass deletion or unsubscribing. I found the effort was worth it. Right away, I used Mailstrom to get rid of around 22,000 emails in about half an hour. The feeling of satisfaction was huge.

The two programs are quite different. Mailstrom attacks all your email, including messages from individuals, businesses and list blasters. Swizzle is tuned to just highlight marketing email, like offers for goods and services. Swizzle also suggests other marketing email you might want to start receiving. It offers to send these to you in a less annoying way, bundled into a “Daily Digest.”

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Mailstrom has a detailed three-panel dashboard with ways to group emails on the left, then the groupings and the actual emails on the right.

Mailstrom says it only downloads the subject line and metadata of emails. Swizzle says it only analyzes the bodies of emails to detect if they’re marketing messages.

I much preferred Mailstrom because it gave me a more comprehensive, detailed analysis of my inbox and because my mission was to reduce all email clutter. Swizzle’s offers to send me new email — even compressed into a Daily Digest — would add to the inbox.

Both programs share some disappointing downsides. For technical reasons, neither works with most company email systems, which typically use Microsoft’s Exchange service. Neither works with Microsoft’s online email service, Outlook.com, still usually called Hotmail. Nor do they work with email services that use a back-end system called “POP” or “POP3,” used by services like EarthLink, that don’t synchronize what’s deleted among devices.

Instead, both are limited to services that use a fully synchronized system called “IMAP.” Among the biggest services, that means Gmail, AOL.com and Apple’s iCloud mail service, the one with addresses that end in mac.com or me.com. Both technically work with Yahoo Mail, though in my tests, neither worked properly with Yahoo and both companies say they are having problems with Yahoo. I tested both with Gmail.

Mailstrom, at mailstrom.co (not .com), first analyzes your inbox. This generally takes about an hour, though if your inbox is huge, like mine, it can take a day or more. Then it presents you with a handsome, detailed dashboard showing what’s there. You can sort your inbox by a list of characteristics on the left, which brings up groupings of messages in a center panel. The characteristics can include sender, subject and date, as well as types of email, like lists, shopping or those from social networks. When you select a group, a panel on the right lists all the emails included in it.

You can select some or all of the emails in a group and then by simply clicking on a colored button, you can delete or archive everything selected. In Gmail, deleted emails go into the Trash folder. You can empty the trash once back in Gmail, or just leave it alone, since Gmail’s storage limits are essentially unlimited. If a marketing sender allows unsubscribing, Mailstrom will allow you to unsubscribe and delete with one click.

In most cases, I simply left every email in a group selected, and then deleted all of them. You can move all the messages to a different folder, and even set up an automated action to perform that move going forward — including moving all emails of a certain type to the trash. If you like, you can check on an individual email and reply to it, or, with one button, reply and then archive it.

Mailstrom also displays stats showing how many emails you’ve received today, how many you’ve deleted and how close you are getting to a goal called “Zero Inbox.”

Swizzle, at theswizzle.com, is much, much simpler, but also much more limited. It works more quickly because it’s only looking for marketing emails, and its layout is much simpler, with no categories, just groupings. It doesn’t let you examine individual emails, or select only some messages for deletion.

Because Swizzle is so marketing-focused and believes its users are mainly looking for the right marketing emails, it focuses on unsubscribing. The most prominent button is “Unsubscribe Me.” If you click an arrow on the unsubscribe button, you can delete a whole group. You can also move an existing marketing group into your Daily Digest.

Once you’re done weeding out your inbox, Swizzle shows you a colorful display of marketing emails you can subscribe to and receive via the Daily Digest.

Swizzle shows new marketing emails from partners who pay the company if a user buys something from them, but you needn’t subscribe to new emails to use Swizzle. Mailstrom says it gets no money from email senders, but plans to eventually charge heavy users an annual subscription.

Bottom line: Mailstrom is a very good way of quickly chopping down your inbox, regardless of what kind of mail is cluttering it. Swizzle is more limited to finding you the right marketing messages. But both help cut clutter.

Write to Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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