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9to5Mac readers know a thing or two. When I reviewed Postbox, after explaining that I had lost patience with the flakiness of late of Apple Mail, several of the commentators recommended Airmail, a lightweight email client based on the popular but discontinued Sparrow app. It’s also the only alternative to Apple Mail and (of course) Outlook for those who need Exchange support.

Since then, Apple released OS X 10.9.1 with Mail fixes. It’s definitely better, but those unread mail counts still don’t update promptly, and my jury is still out (to put it nicely) on Gmail integration and other issues. As I mentioned before, so long as you use IMAP, switching back-and-forth between email apps is trivial, so I decided to give Airmail a try …

Unlike Postbox, Airmail doesn’t provide any canned screenshots, and I do have to be careful not to inadvertently reveal confidential information or breach the privacy of anyone emailing me, so there are fewer screengrabs than usual in this review.

Also, if you have any non-Gmail accounts and use IMAP folders, you may want to scroll down to Accounts and folders below to save yourself some time …

Setup

setup

Unlike Postbox, Airmail doesn’t allow you to import account details from Apple Mail. This is no big deal these days – with gmail, all you need enter is your name, email and password and the app will grab the settings automatically – but is a surprising omission. I have a couple of non-gmail accounts, so needed to enter the server addresses and ports manually (you can look these up in Keychain, as that’s where Apple Mail stores them).

One annoyance when setting up multiple accounts: that damn ‘Subscribe to Newsletter’ checkbox is ticked by default every time. In my case, that was six opportunities to accidentally subscribe to something I don’t want. Attention every software developer in the world: absolutely nobody wants to be spammed as the default option.

I’m never quite sure whether to be scared or impressed about how integrated technology has become these days. When I entered the account details of my main personal email, Airmail automatically selected my photo as the icon for the account. More on that in a moment.

Portability

As is standard with most email apps, you can simply copy the entire mail folder between Macs. This means that once you’ve set it up for one machine, doing so for a second one is just a question of copying the folder over then opening the app. For Airmail, the path is ~/Library/Application Support/Airmail. Airmail makes this particularly easy: just to Window > Show Airmail Data to open the folder in the Finder.

Look & feel

Apple Mail and Postbox are both inoffensive, but I don’t think many would describe them as beautiful. Airmail gets pretty close to earning that description. I would certainly describe it as pretty.

On the far left are icons for your accounts. At the top left is the currently-selected account (I’ve obscured my email address), with the usual ‘unread mail’ counter:

account

At the bottom, in the same column, are icons for the other accounts:

icons

For my other accounts, Airmail picked random icons (mostly of fruit, it appeared). Since I was never going to recognise those, I took advantage of the option Airmail offers to choose your own icons. I used a graphics app to create my own icons, opting for a simple color-code and first letter (or number, in the case of my 9to5Mac account). With this done, my icons were of course instantly recognisable to me.

Postbox picks up icons and avatars from linked social media accounts and uses them in the conversation view. You have to link the accounts before it can do this. Airmail takes a slightly different approach.

Airmail checks iCloud contacts, Google contacts, Google+ and Gravatar to find avatars and icons for your contacts without you having to link the accounts. It’s pretty impressive. Where Postbox uses the images in the conversation view, Airmail uses them in the list view – you can see here that it recognised Amazon’s email address (yes, it is holiday season) and displayed the logo.

logos

As well as making the app look more visually appealing, it makes it much easier to find emails from particular people or companies, so this is one of those small-sounding touches that makes a surprisingly big difference to usability. (You can switch the feature off if you prefer.)

Spam filtering

Airmail’s spam-marking is very clear: a yellow SPAM prefix in caps:

spam

As I mentioned in the Postbox review, it’s always a bit of a pain when you have to start again, training a new email app, and this is one weakness of Airmail: there is no Spam icon to click. To mark an email as spam, you have to right-click then select Mark as spam. It’s a small thing, but definitely less convenient in the early days when you’re doing it a lot.

You can at least set the preferences to delete mail as soon as you mark it as spam.

Accounts and folders

Switching between accounts is done by clicking those pretty little icons. Anyone with more than two or three accounts will probably want to follow my example and create your own icons. All I did was screengrab one, to get the approximate dimensions, then use a graphics app to create the rest.

Folders appear directly below the inbox area. Unlike Apple Mail, you can’t see folders for multiple accounts in one view. This is much neater visually but makes it much harder to move messages between accounts.

folders

In Apple Mail, you can simply drag a message to the desired folder in the other account; with Airmail, you have to right-click, mouseover Transfer to account, mouseover the account, then mouseover the folder within the account.

But the far bigger issue with folders is that Airmail does not support automatic filtering of messages into folders! There is no equivalent of Apple Mail’s rules or Postbox’s message filters. I was quite taken aback by this, as it’s a feature I use a lot to keep my email manageable, and something I consider a basic feature that any email app ought to have.

The rationale, I think, is that Airmail was essentially conceived as a gmail client. Gmail allows you to configure your filters in the web interface (though of course applying labels and categories rather than folders), and Airmail recognises these and tags them in the app. It does, though, rule it out for power users who have non-Gmail accounts.

labels

Other issues

I did find a few other issues with the app. There’s no way to customise the toolbar, for example. Again, this is a basic that I expect from any email app, and I discovered it was missing when I went to add a clickable icon to mark a message as spam. Nope: it can’t be done.

I also found that it sometimes jumps to high-ish CPU usage. Mostly it sat at less than 1 percent, but would sometimes hit 25 percent or so for no obvious reason. It also stopped responding to right-click once and had to be force-quit.

Conclusions

It’s a beautiful user-interface, it really is. I liked it so much that I even very briefly wondered whether I could manage without automatic filtering into folders – that’s how pretty I think it is.

But ultimately, as much as I appreciate aesthetics, form is no good without function. My main personal account – an email address I’ve had since sometime in the Bronze Age – isn’t a Gmail one, so the app isn’t going to work for me.

If all your email accounts are Gmail ones, however, I would absolutely recommend taking Airmail out for a spin. Despite the lack of account import, setting it up takes a matter of minutes as all you have to do is enter your Gmail account details and Airmail will do the rest.

There’s no trial version available, but when the app costs two bucks, really, who cares. You’ll spend more on a cup of coffee the first time you use it in your local Starbucks. It’s available from the Mac App Store.

Update: We now have five giveaway codes:

7RJTAW7HTTEY
LTLW3A4WHW37
K7AKKMJNHJ3P
MPHHHHFYR9FM
EY3ERA6K9F3M

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46 Responses to “Review: Airmail, an exceedingly pretty but Gmail-centric alternative to Apple Mail”

  1. mockery17 says:

    I think I will get this. Mail never shows my Gmail inbox correctly. I use the Mailbox iOS app to archive my messages and when I go back to my Mac they are always still in my inbox.

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  2. 311sie says:

    Thanks for this review. In my case it’s the perfect client as I do live in a Gmail world but do not like the feeling of the web client that Google provides. I used to be a Sparrow user (again Gmail world) and find that, although not as fast as Sparrow, Airmail feels more polished. I would also add the fact that you can link your Dropbox and Gdrive accounts which Sparrow didn’t support (Gdrive). Hopefully this review will make it’s way to the Bloop team as they seem to be very open to user feedback.

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  3. Thanks for this review.
    I´m using my gmail account as the one and only client for all my accounts by having all my incoming mails forwarded to gmail and sending them via SMTP out of gmail via the original servers.
    I think it´s nice to have only one single login to access all my email on probably every computer or device thats got an internet connection.

    The problem with all availible 3rd party clients right now is, that they can´t handle these alternative accounts in gmail (they can deal with aliases, but not if you have set them up sending via external servers – correct me if I´m wrong). Thats why I use (and like) the original gmail web interface. It looks the same on iOS and on the Mac i got MailTab Pro which works really fine with notification center:

    https://itunes.apple.com/de/app/mailtab-pro-for-gmail/id430252530?mt=12

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    • mockery17 says:

      Honestly I think this app is just one of those that abuse your menu bar and waste your resources.

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      • Can you explain that please?
        It does what it´s supposed to do: Informs me when i recieive new email and displays my mail client with a single click on every screen, I think that´s pretty cool and is exactly what I´ve been looking for.
        And I´m really strict when it comes to icons and informations on my menu bar, I got one of the cleanest Mac menubars I´ve ever seen :)

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    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      Yeah, I’m contemplating redirecting my mail email to a Gmail account, as there are lots of nice features these days, but I’m definitely an email app rather than webmail kinda guy

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  4. You missed one of its biggest features and the main reason I use it over Mac Mail and that’s EXCHANGE SUPPORT. This is the only client other then Mac Mail that support exchange and does it nicely.

    Also they do offer a trail per-say, its in beta form, but you can at least try it out and see if its worth the $2 in the MAS (which is absolutely is!) http://airmailapp.com/beta

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    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      True, that’s not relevant to me, but worth noting, so I’ll add it. I wouldn’t personally let my email anywhere near beta software … !

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      • Their betas have been pretty good publicly. They tend to test all the crazy stuff privately before releasing them. It at least lets you try it out before buying if you really need to.

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    • Not that I would condone the use of it, but why do we keep saying that the only alternative to Mac Mail for Exchange is Airmail? Has anyone ever heard of Outlook for Mac? LOL

      I use it at work, and while its a bit more of a resource hog than I would like, i typically have both calendar and mail open all day anyway, so its not too bad. I did test Airmail for about 4 weeks. I love the ToDo list feature, the gestures (swipe right to Trash, left to Archive), Quick Reply with signature and the Evernote integration (Create Evernote Reminder from Email), but ultimately the sync with Exchange is faster with Outlook (we use Office365 for email at the office and from what i’ve heard, O365 uses a slightly different sync method than in house Exchange 2013). Fingers crossed for an Outlook 2014 that is sleeker, smoother and better performance.

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      • You’re right, but Outlook for mac is pretty bad; even though its much better then Entourage ever was. The issue is it follows a weird design that Microsoft invented which isn’t even close to the design they use in Windows which is frustrating and lacking features. These clients though follow a much closer Appleistic design.

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      • Ben Lovejoy says:

        A friend tells me Outlook is a lot better these days, but he may be biased as he works for Microsoft. :-) I’m still too traumatised by memories of it to take a look just yet …

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    • By “Exchange Support”, do you mean MAPI support? I tried to use Airmail to read my Outlook.com mailbox with Exchange ActiveSync. That failed. It would only use MAPI (or POP).

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    • Apple Mail with the MailHub add-on is a great combination. I couldn’t imagine managing volumes of work email without MailHub.

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  5. cameronthail says:

    Excellent review Ben! Recently I’ve had some trouble with Airmail mapping my Google Apps email, so I think I may try out Postbox based on your other review and compare.

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  6. Scott Adams says:

    Nice review Ben, thanks very much! Unfortunately both Airmail and Postbox have deal-breakers, at least for me; the lack of automatic filtering in Airmail (a bit shocking) and Postbox’s lack of Exchange support.

    On a brighter note, the recent OS X 10.9.1 update seems to have smoothed out some of Apple Mail’s previous glitches for me so I guess for the time being, Apple Mail will continue to be my email app of choice.

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    • Why would anyone want to do Client-side filtering? Most of the time, the e-mail is read on smartphone/tablets, where there’re no filtering capabilities. So your filtering basically depends on which e-mail client or device you’re using at the time? Makes no sense to me..

      You should be doing all your filtering / tagging Server-side. Gmail has very rich filtering / tagging engine. Use that, and leave your client out of it.

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      • +1 for this comment. I was thinking the same thing. If i don’t have my client app open none of the filtering occurs. That is not productive for me.

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      • Scott Adams says:

        As I previously mentioned I have six IMAP accounts; one is Gmail, one is iCloud and the others that I use most are based domains that I own. As in the author’s circumstance when email arrives it is automatically filtered based on various rules/parameters (from, date, flagged, etc.) and sent to a specific mail folder in my email client (Apple Mail). I find that this makes organizing and responding to emails considerably more efficient. I also read a majority of my email on my iMac.

        So thank you for the lesson and advice and I’m happy that what you’re doing works well for you. It might work well for other as well. However I always try to remember that not everyone is like me and that not everyone’s circumstances are like my own before telling them what they should or shouldn’t do. Following that advice has served me well, although I fail at it now and then, probably more often than not…I keep trying. ;)

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      • Ben Lovejoy says:

        That’s fine if you use gmail, but two of my accounts aren’t. The Mac does the filtering, and because I use IMAP, that filtering is reflected on my iOS devices.

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  7. Mark as Spam has a shortcut. Should be even faster than clicking a button.

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  8. Naman Goel says:

    You’ve missed some very important features:
    1) it works very well for Gmail and non-Gmail alike.
    2) It is actually the best mail client for outlook/hotmail accounts on an apple platform.
    3) HTML and Markdown support. I know this is not a mass market feature, but it is probably the only mail client with support for HTML emails. (sending obviously, every client can receive them). Anyone with a small business etc. can make their emails look 100% more professional with minimal effort.

    4) The recent update enables import from the Mail.app.
    5) The recent update enables offline use (earlier it wouldn’t let you do anything but read emails if you were offline.)
    6) There is still a bug where new emails take about 2 minutes longer to actually show up, but that seems like a non-issue for most people.

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    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      Thanks for your input, Naman. 1+2 are obviously subjective views, nothing was ‘missed’ there. HTML mail is not something I would encourage anyone to send other than for marketing emails, and there are far more appropriate tools for those than any email client. There was no import in the latest version I used – perhaps in the Beta?

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  9. I’m confused as to what makes Airmail “Gmail-centric”. Could you please elaborate? Is it simply because as you stated in the post that it was originally conceived as a Gmail client, and therefore didn’t have any “rules” feature? I’m not sure that the lack of one feature that one would surmise is due to the availability of the feature inside the Gmail webapp makes it Gmail-centric. If anything, I would say it’s “webmail service-centric”.

    I use it primarily to access my IMAP email from fastmail.fm, and my Exchange mail account. Both of those services have mail filtering at the server level and wouldn’t require the use of client side rules. Sure, it’s a pain to be unable to manage them from within the mail client and be forced to use the web interface for that, but it’s not a deal breaker to me.

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    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      It supports Gmail labels but has no client-side filtering, so the assumption appears to be that you’re using Gmail and will do your filtering there.

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      • Another Gmail-centric issue: starring. I’d be willing to bet that “starring” an email in Airmail (or flagging it for that matter) syncs with the default mail client on an Android device, but it doesn’t sync with the default iOS mail client nor does it with Outlook via Exchange. (I don’t recall which version of Exchange we’re using.) I’m really hoping that changes because I really liked my time with Airmail but the lack of a method to flag an email across all the devices I use is a productivity deal-breaker for me. Using Airmail version 1.3.2.

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  10. saoir says:

    Not having ever experienced any of the discussed issues in Mail concerning my two Gmail accounts on IMAP, which I have had for several years, I won’t be switching. However it’s an interesting alterative.

    I do wish someone would offer a real alternative to Mail that was more innovative and imaginative in it GUI. Both of the apps covered in this series are like clones of Mail. Nothing really new being offered in terms of interface/layout etc.

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  11. I have been using Airmail for a while and while it kept getting better with updates, the recent updates completely broke the app. After i set it up again they release another update it it broke everything again. It breaks it to a point where you can’t launch the app. So whoever wants to use this be aware, its good when it works, but most time it remains broken. Looks like the developers don’t have good testing prior to releasing.

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  12. rippedmonkeys says:

    THANK YOU for the reviews of Postbox and Airmail. I’ve been having issues with OSX Mail. I’m a huge Apple fan, but I’ve been noticing the quality of software-builds from Apple, lessen lately. I might switch over and use 3rd-party apps like these. I use to only have trouble with Yahoo! in Mail never iCloud or Gmail. But now only one of my accounts works, and even then, it’s intermittent. Hope Apple fixes Mail.

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  13. AirMail is really a nice MailBox. I have used their service for 2 months. It required still required some changes. overall its a good software for Mail

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  14. jeffisme says:

    I’ve been playing around with what must be a half a dozen apple mail alternatives for the last month or so; the frustration being all of them don’t quite measure up for one reason or another. I love looking at Airmail, but I have it on a fullscreen on a large monitor, and the interface is sort of ridiculous. You have to drag an item about a mile and a half down to the left if you want to drag and drop on a label, and you have to have the eyesight of an owl to see the tiny icons at the top, and as you point out, no way to change them (nor the position of the labels).

    i like how Apple mail has the first few lines of an email in its list (as does Airmail); the developers of Postbox decided that was too much work. On the other hand, the way they allow you to click on a name in the middle column to send that person an email is terrific, and I don’t understand why Apple or Airmail doesn’t adopt it. In the end though, that Postbox hasn’t been updated in nearly a year tells me they are more interested in mobile development or giving up on the desktop app. Either way, it doesn’t bode well, and I’m reluctant to invest my time, especially if I have to go through the whole import/export thing again. That the developers don’t have the decency to keep their paid users informed or provide an area for help or feedback is also a big strike against them.

    I’ve also tried Mail Pilot and Unibox, but I have pop3 accounts too, so they would only have limited use. Mail Pilot is also beautifully designed but still lacks some basic functions.

    It’s all pretty frustrating, but I have to admit that I keep returning to Apple mail with each update. Mail Tags and Mail Hub make it easier to do so, but I do wish someone with the design sense that went into AirMail (but with more flexibility) took a stab at it.

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  15. Any idea how to get the icons next to the email large? I can’t find it anywhere in the preferences, and the default is very small.

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    • jeffisme says:

      The more I use Air Mail the more frustrated I get with its design. Clearly, it was not made to be a fullscreen application on a 27″ monitor, in front of which is the where I spend most of my work day. The gmail sorting icons on the left are stuck all the way down in the lower left of the screen and the icons in the menubar at the top are miniscule. The gap between the folders and sorting icons narrows considerably when reducing the size of the Air Mail screen or when working on a laptap but you can’t do anything about that gap if you stay on a full screen. On a laptop, the icons at the top aren’t so far away and don’t strain your eyes and the whole user experience is much nicer. I just don’t use my laptop that much. I have emailed AirMail support about this and I got a “thank you for your input” response. Oh well.

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  16. helloconnect says:

    Pretty but functionality very unstable

    I wasted so much time with the app, airmail. The setup was very frustrating. The auto-discover did not work, so you have to try and figure out how to add your gmail accounts, IMAP with the correct ports etc.. The help forum is severly lacking.

    Then like after a days effort of setup, I start using it and more than half the time I cannot send a message. Useless!

    Airmail returns error message that is not correct. Error message is “stable connection could not be obtained”. Meantime I had no issue sending from same IMAP gmail account that is in native apple mail (which i was switching from… trying to…) and also from the trusty IOS6 mail app on my iphone. Same WIFI at home.

    So I would definitely not recommend this Airmail app to anyone. You could not give me money to use it. Such a waste of time.

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