New Email software - Not ready for prime time?

In 2016 we have seen a plethora of new email software programs. It seems like there are now zillions of new apps that claim to provide better "must have" ways to manage our daily deluge of email.

After resisting for most the year, I took the plunge during the holidays to install a few of them and try them out.

There are new apps for both desktop and mobile devices. Some are completely free of charge and others have reasonable ($1 to $10) prices. All the apps I tried were free or pay once, none were subscriptions. (For those that are curious, the free apps monetize with in-app advertising or offer upgrades to bigger systems for teams or company use with the free apps only for personal use.)

Why switch email programs? Just about every system you buy includes a built-in email program. In the Apple eco-system, both macOS and iOS include full-featured email handling. However, as is often the case, the pace of innovation in built-in, free software is slow and updates can be few and far between.

Some of the enticing features of the new crop of email software:

  • Unified inbox - all incoming mail from multiple accounts is consolidated into a single inbox for easier review and processing.

  • Snooze feature - emails can be deferred for hours or days so they get out of your way until you are ready to respond. (Snooze works by creating hidden folders and moving messages between your inbox and these hidden folders automatically.)

  • Eye candy - developers have lots of creativity when it comes to visual design and style; the new email apps are not constrained by the corporate/stoic look and feel of built-in apps that must match everything else. Mostly cosmetic, but different screen layouts and visual look can increase productivity or happiness when using email.

  • Knobs & dials - some email apps have an incredible amount of user configurable options. Going way beyond the basics, you can change both visual elements and fuctionality such as gestures/swipes on iOS and keyboard shortcuts on macOS.

  • Mail handling - workflow, macros, and automated handling of mail to streamline daily tasks.

I have not been interested in most of these new features. I don't want a unified inbox (I prefer to keep my "personal" and "work" email accounts very separate), I don't need the snooze feagture (I manage my task list and priorities outside of email), and eye candy has only limited appeal.

My driving motivation is in the advanced knobs & dials and mail handling - I like to manually sort my email into many levels of nested folders and the built-in email software, especially on iOS, makes it very difficult to manage mail folders and move messages to folders that are nested multiple levels deep.

I'm not going to mention specific product names because I don't have anything to recommend. Some apps installed smoothly and were intuitive and easy to use. Other apps were more difficult to install, but offered many more features.

Unfortunately, none of the apps I tried worked well. Some of the problems were significant and left me unwilling to trust any of these apps with handling my email. Cool new features or fancy visual layouts cannot be justified when basic email handling shifts from "it just works!" to "did it work?" with everything you try to do.

I found myself navigating the dark alleys of tech support and fighting annoying bugs or glitches.

Bugs and problems I encountered:

  • Poor compatibility with email servers - I use Gmail, iCloud, and Microsoft Exchange mail servers. Not simply "basic IMAP" email systems. Some of the new apps could not connect to some of these accounts at all; others were flaky and unreliable.

  • Poor performance - the apps took longer to load and run, and didn't present a current view of my mail right away. I had to wait for them to sync/update with the mail servers. Moving messages between folders was convenient, but also slow.

  • Unreliable - this was the biggie. Sometimes my entire inbox or mail folder disappeared and waiting did not make a difference. A random combination of exiting the app, restarting, or even rebooting my system was required.

  • Poor or non-existing tech support - Sure, some of the new apps were free or relatively inexpensive, but email is critical and whether you pay nothing, $5, or $500 for the software it needs to work. If it doesn't, you need to be able to get help quickly. Sending an email off to tech support and waiting a day for a reply or using an online chat where the agent doesn't respond for 30 minutes, is simply not viable for me.

Although I did enjoy more advanced mail/folder handling with one of the apps, the disadvantages outweighed the benefits and I have decided to completely uninstall the new apps and go back to what I already had working (and kept configured).

The allure of the "shiny new thing" wore off quickly. Unless you have a pressing specific feature that your current email app does not provide and you simply cannot live without, my strong advice is to stick with what you have and avoid these immature new offerings.