A Brief Review of Sparrow Mail

I have been using Sparrow (@SparrowMailApp on Twitter) as my primary desktop mail client for a month now. I like it, but I have a lot of complaints, too. If you’re considering switching, I hope you find this quick review of use.

Update: OS X Lion is out, and I really like its updated Mail app.

The Good

Sparrow is a welcome new option to the OS X mail app landscape. It borrows some interface stylings from Tweetie, the seminal OS X Twitter client eventually purchased by Twitter, Inc.; the end result is that Sparrow feels less cumbersome than the current Mail.app that ships with OS X (as of this writing, that means 10.6 Snow Leopard). [Updated comparison here, now that 10.7 Lion is out.] Sparrow is mostly a one-window deal, and it holds hands with Gmail quite nicely, with native support for starring, labels, and even many of Gmail’s keyboard shortcuts.

Sparrow lets you move around a bit more quickly than Gmail, which still prevents you from going back to your inbox before your current draft finishes sending or saving (after all these years!). This is an expected benefit of any native email app, but Sparrow doesn’t disappoint here; this is a big part of why I use it instead of Gmail.

Another great thing about Sparrow is its unified inbox, showing mail from all your accounts in one view. (I don’t love how it is then tricky to see which account actually received the email as you are replying, but in some sense, this could be considered a success of this feature.) The convenience of having one inbox is what keeps Sean on Sparrow.1

The Bad

Sparrow can be quite annoying at times, particularly in its current limitations.

  • You can’t undo actions like archiving. (Good luck figuring out which message you accidentally archived!)

  • Sparrow refreshes the whole right pane screen up to three times while sending a reply (very distracting, and puzzling as to why, technically, this is necessary).

  • It took me a month to figure out how to view “All Mail.” (Use the tag icon at the bottom of the window.)

  • Sparrow hides all quoted text by default, even text you have never seen before. Consider a forwarded email: You only see the forwarded text, and a tiny, non-underlined, easy-to-ignore “show all text” link at the bottom. Sometimes this occurs within a threaded conversation, all but guaranteeing you’re going to miss something that someone thought important enough to clue you in to. Gmail never makes this mistake!

  • There is no option to only sound the incoming-mail alert for “priority inbox” items.

  • If your Internet connection is spotty or overloaded and Sparrow’s initial attempt to send a message fails, it doesn’t go to an “outbox” to retry periodically; it just never sends (and reverts back to a draft for you to manually retry).

  • You can’t disable the unread count badge on the dock icon, which I consider stressful and unwanted.

  • You can’t view an email’s source or its full headers.

  • Sometimes the search feature just fails to find messages that are in your account (going to Gmail’s web interface and searching will find the email).2 And message search doesn’t allow any of those great Gmail search operators.

  • You have to go into Advanced Preferences before being allowed to view a list of unread messages (or priority inbox).

Conclusion

My list of complaints is long. And yet, I find Sparrow the most convenient option I currently have for working with email. [Update: No longer the case.] I’m going to keep using it and keep hoping for meaningful, regular updates.

I’m not sure these guys’ priorities are straight: the last update added Facebook integration to pull avatars (and to spam your Facebook wall with an ad for Sparrow unless you actively opted out). To be fair, it also added the unified inbox, which was a welcome feature. I can’t be alone in preferring to see my list of gripes shrink than to see a few more friends’ faces in my email.

If you want a very Gmail and Tweetie-like native mail client, you can check Sparrow out in the Mac App Store, or download the free trial from the Sparrow website. It’s probably worth a spin.


  1. In a sense, this keeps my desktop and iPhone email situation fairly close in terms of the the contents of my main email view. Thanks to Sean for mentioning this feature while reviewing a draft of this review. ↩︎

  2. It also doesn’t seem to support Gmail’s search operators (like label:Work). Thanks to Sean, again, for reminding me of search’s weakness. ↩︎


June 15th, 2011. (Updated: July 21, 2011 at 4:24pm.)
Alan Hogan (@alanhogan).  Contact · About