Sparrow for iPhone

Sparrow for iOS is equally well designed, but may disappoint those who need a fully functional email client.

Sparrow, a Mac desktop email client produced by Sparrow SARL, has generated a fervent following due in part to its simple and elegant user interface. The recently-released $3 Sparrow for iOS is equally well designed, but may disappoint those who need a fully functional email client.

(Image Caption: Better Living Through Swiping: Sparrow makes extensive use of swiping gestures in its iPhone form. In this instance, swiping on a message opens a pane with icons that let you reply, delete, or perform other actions.)

Like its desktop counterpart, Sparrow for iOS works only with IMAP accounts. (I tested Sparrow using Gmail, Google Apps, iCloud and Kerio Connect, and all of them worked fine.) If you have multiple email accounts, you can set all of them up within Sparrow and work with them either individually or "unified," where all your accounts are merged into a single view.

The biggest thing that sets Sparrow for iOS apart from other mail clients is its liberal use of swiping gestures, similar to those found in many current Twitter apps. For example, you can pull down on the Inbox screen to refresh and check for new messages. Swiping on the Inbox displays a list of all the folders in the active email account. One more swipe takes you to a screen that lists all your accounts. Swiping on a message opens a pane with icons for reply, favorite, label, archive, and delete. Swiping across the title bar moves you among the Inbox, Favorites, and Unread messages. Swiping up or down on a message that's part of an email thread moves you forward and backward within the conversation.

Sparrow handles your contacts with equal elegance. When composing a message, you can select from your contact list, sorted in order by frequency; those people you email most often appear at the top of the list. Contact photos can come from your address book or your Facebook friends list. A feature that I especially like is the ability to choose either To, CC or BCC options via icons that appear directly on each contact. If you'd like to see the app in action, the developer has posted a demo video here.

I love everything about Sparrow except for one important factor: At present, the app does not support push email. According to a page on Sparrow's website, a push-enabled version of the app was rejected by Apple, so that feature had to be removed in order to get the program into the App Store. For the time being, I've been working around this limitation by relying on notifications from the native iOS Mail app. Additionally, the developer has provided instructions on setting up push notifications via Boxcar. (Another limitation, similarly due to Apple's policies, is that you can't designate Sparrow--or any other third-party email app--as your default email client. Which means that no matter how much you prefer Sparrow over Mail, you'll still be forced to use Mail any time you email from within another app--for example, when sending a photo from within the Photos app.)

I'm hopeful that either Apple will loosen its restrictions or Sparrow can come up with an Apple-sanctioned push email solution. Provided that all this gets sorted out, Sparrow for iOS is so good that it could easily replace my use of the built-in Mail app, and I certainly hope that we'll see an iPad-optimized version of Sparrow in the not too distant future.

Brian Beam is a software designer and partner with web development firm BOLD Internet Solutions, living somewhere near Kansas City.

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