Zit Seng's Blog

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Airmail for Mac OS X

_DSC0583For many people, emails have become one of the most significant activities they do on their computers. If email is frustrating or a chore to you, well, one way to lessen the pain is to have a great email app. Emails aren’t going to go away any time soon, but at least, you could try to make working with emails less of a drag.

I posted about a bunch of mails apps previously (Much Ado About Mail). This time around, I want to go into Airmail with a little bit more depth. As you might have read, I’ve moved away from Apple’s Mail.app which is included in Mac OS X. Mail.app has been a great app. However it isn’t keeping up with my needs. Airmail isn’t perfect, but it has the best mix of features that work for me.

What is Airmail? If you know about Sparrow, which Google acquired in July 2012 and has since discontinued further development, Airmail seems deceptively like Sparrow reborn. Of course, Airmail’s development is unrelated to that of Sparrow, but they do share design simplicity and sleekness that leads you to think of one when talking about the other.

If you didn’t know about Sparrow, that’s alright, because Sparrow is gone, and now there’s Airmail anyway. Airmail is a Mac-only email client that is designed to be fast and lightweight. It’s become quite feature rich, but the interface and design continues to exude simplicity and sleekness.

The first thing you need to do when you begin to try out Airmail is to configure your mail accounts. I was quite impressed with how easy I could do that. In particular, if you need to configure your Gmail account, including those of Google Apps domain accounts, it’s extremely simple with Airmail. With just your name, email address, and password, Airmail completes the rest of the setup for you. Airmail supports generic IMAP, POP3 and Exchange accounts too.

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The main mail window is not unlike what you’d expect of other mail clients. You see a list of accounts, list of folders, the message list itself, and the message view. What sets Airmail apart is how beautifully the interface has been designed. That, and of course, many other features. I won’t go into every little feature, but I’ll mention those that were significant to me.

  • Airmail properly understands Gmail labels. Labelling is easy, and labelling does not create extra copies of messages (I’ll talk about this again later).
  • There’s a unified account view, not just for the Inbox folder, but also your Starred, Drafts, Sent Mail and Trash folders. When you search in the unified account, the search takes place across all accounts.
  • Instead of sending large attachments in email, Airmail can help you upload the files into a cloud storage service (Dropbox, Google Drive, Droplr and CloudApp), and insert a short-link to the file in the email for you. It’s a great way to save on your email storage space.
  • If you’re prone to sending an email and then immediately wished you could take it back, Airmail can be configured to automatically delay email sending by between 5 seconds and 120 seconds.

There are also really cool techie features in Airmail too. One, for example, is the Operations window, that shows every operation Airmail has performed on your mail or mail accounts. For example, you can see the individual operations that moved your mail from one folder or another, or removing mail from a folder, etc. Did you just moved a mail somewhere, but forgot where? The Operations window will tell you. The Operations window even lets you revert (i.e. undo) any operation. It’s better than the normal Undo, because you can revert any operation even if it is way back, not just the most recently performed operation.

Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 4.15.45 PMAnother neat feature under the hood is about how email is stored. It’s totally different from either mbox or MailDir formats. Each account is represented by a database, which contains all messages under that account. An important feature is how Airmail handles Gmail labels. As you should be aware, Gmail messages can have multiple labels. In IMAP, this is translated into messages that appear in multiple folders. Airmail not only recognizes the multi-labelled messages in multiple folders are really the same message (as some Gmail-aware email clients already can do), it also stores just one copy of that message.

So, for example, while all Inbox messages are also messages in All Mail, Airmail stores just one copy of each. This can get really important as a space saver if you have the habit of sorting all your mails into folders.

I’ve been using Airmail for many months now. But I’ve been reluctant to recommend it previously, even though it’s been a great email client, because there were a few key features missing. It’s really great to see that the Airmail developers listen to and work on popular users’ requests. I’m glad the following features have been implemented:

  • Moving and copying messages across different accounts.. This was a real show stopper for me if I cannot move messages across accounts. You can copy or move messages between folders of the same account, but for some reason, they didn’t think about doing the same across different accounts earlier on in the project.
  • You can now fully navigate folders and messages using only the keyboard. No mouse needed. I really prefer to be able to navigate fully using only the keyboard. Having to take your fingers away from the keyboard to use the mouse (or trackpad) is high undesirable for some users.

Airmail is released in two forms. The first is via the Mac App Store at just US$1.99. This is for stable releases. The latest cutting-edge beta is also available as a free direct download from the Airmail beta website. The beta has all the latest features. As a beta, you should expect that things might break from time to time.

I bought the Mac App Store version, to support the development, but still download and use the beta in order to get the latest updates. If you’re looking to renew your email experience on Mac OS X, I will strongly recommend trying out Airmail. Remember that with most account types (POP3 aside), you can try Airmail in parallel with whatever other way you’re currently reading your emails.

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