With the MailBox app calling it quits, now managing the email in a simpler way will again become a complex task. Mailbox was easily one of the best email handling apps that lived well upto its expectations. And so, if you happened to be a mailbox fan, well, we can now say that we have an alternative to mailbox, that is the Spark by Readdle.
I’ve been using Spark for the past three months, and it’s the most versatile email client for iPhone I’ve ever tried. It’s also fundamentally limited, but with a promising potential for the future.
On the surface, Spark looks like a simplified version of Google’s Inbox app, heavily influenced by the company’s concept of automated email organization. Once set up, Spark will take a look at your email history and start to file new messages in three categories: Personal, for new messages addressed to you and written by other humans; Notifications, for messages sent by automated services such as Twitter or Amazon; and Newsletters,
The app borrows freely from Mailbox with a snooze feature and, again, Inbox with the ability to “pin” messages so they’ll be highlighted until you archive them.
Spark works with five email providers and it lets you configure your own IMAP server as well; more importantly, Inbox and Mailbox offload all their processing to the cloud, while Spark is entirely based on local on-device processing to understand what messages are about.
By default, cards show messages from your Smart Inbox and all the accounts you’ve added to Spark, which is a fantastic way to bring messages from multiple accounts together and categorize them within the same system. If you want, though, you can display the same card multiple times for each account, disable cards for some accounts, or group accounts inside one card to choose which messages you want to see every time. The flip side is that, unlike Inbox, Spark doesn’t let me set per-card notifications.
Spark is incredibly intelligent at cleaning up multiple replies and this feature even works with forwarded emails, which show up as inline previews so you can reply to the original sender and not to the person who forwarded the email. I’m also a fan of the interface adorning the message viewer. At the bottom, there’s a tab bar with the usual shortcuts to mark as unread, reply, archive, and actions. At the top, Spark features buttons to pin and snooze a message. Each message is almost laid out like a web article – a large subject centered at the top of the screen, with a date on top of it and details underneath.
You can tap the Details button to open a popup with lots of extra information such as email addresses, timestamp, and message type. Tapping on the type lets you train Spark to move a message to another card and you can tap the bell icon if you want to turn on notifications for a thread. You can also tap the sender’s email address to copy it, create a new message, or create a new contact for it.
The compose experience is well done. When you’re writing a new message, you can tap & hold in the body field to show the copy & paste menu and then choose ‘Attach’ to insert an attachment from a variety of sources supported by Spark (more on this later).
You can also tap the ‘x’ button when composing a message and choose to keep a draft or minimize it; the latter, like Apple’s Mail for iOS 8, will shrink the message to a floating popup so you can go back to your inbox, peek at another message, then resume writing. It’s a delightful touch that makes working with email on an iPhone easier.
Signature recognition is another feature made possible by Readdle’s email technology. As soon as you start using Spark, the app will analyze messages in your Sent folder and try to recognize signatures you’ve recently used. Then, upon composing a message, Spark will offer a list of suggested signatures that you can accept to add to your signature list.
Spark’s other big feature is smart search based on natural language. Smart Search in Spark understands the context of email. It can distinguish personal email from automated, it knows about attachments and links and so on. Also, Smart Search understands Natural Language which means you can search by typing “Email from Alex with a PDF file last week” and Spark will show all email from Alex that contain PDF attachments that you got last week. As you type in the search bar, suggestions for commands are displayed below and you can tap them to add them to your query. You can create smart folders with natural language search in Spark, too. Smart folders can look in individual accounts or all accounts at once and they can carry a smart filter based on natural language search.
In the app’s settings, you can connect the following services to Spark:
- Google Drive
You can have multiple accounts for each service and, while not exhaustive, this is a pretty good start to save attachments and links from email to other destinations.
When you receive a message that contains a link, you can tap & hold the link to bring up a custom menu. Spark doesn’t default to the share sheet; instead, using a model similar to Pocket, it shows custom options first with an additional Share button to view all your installed iOS extensions.
Spark’s interface is also highly customizable: you can set swipe gestures, add or remove easy access widgets, or change what’s in the app’s sidebar to make it fit your needs. You can customize long and short swipes to the left and right for actions that include archiving, snoozing, marking as unread, and pinning messages. I like the options available here, but I would have loved to see support for quick actions as well – such as saving a message as PDF with a swipe or creating a todo from a message without even opening it.
Widgets are interesting: you can choose between two placements and you can customize the buttons that show up at the top or bottom of your inbox. If you go with the bottom layout, you’ll have a toggle for smart inbox at the top next to a search button; at the bottom, you’ll see floating buttons for compose and a radial Path/Pinterest-like menu to which you can assign any shortcut you want. You can use the menu to open your snoozed and pinned messages, or you can put your calendar and favorite smart folders in there.
Spark also has a companion Apple Watch app that includes quick replies, making it possible to triage and respond to messages as they come in without having to use the phone.
Below each message in Spark on the iPhone, you’ll find a quick reply bar with buttons to “like” a message, say “thanks” for it, and “smile” at the sender – each with a custom emoji-like figurine. If you tap one of these buttons, Spark won’t, say, bring up the keyboard with a pre-filled message that says “This is great!” or “Thanks!” – it’ll automatically send an email in reply with messages like “Federico smiled at you”. The first time you try it, it’ll be odd;
With the latest update, there’s a limited functionality in-app browser for webpages. But the calendar should do more. You can’t view recent contacts or people you email the most.
Although it may not be fully complete, yet Spark is an impressive email app for iPhone or Mac. The heuristics used to power smart notifications, cards, signature recognition, and smart search is a tremendous asset to Readdle and it’ll determine new features that will be brought to Spark in the future.
Give it a shot and let us know if it’s the perfect email app for you!