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Mailbox – the Friction-free Mail Client to Get You to Inbox Zero [iPhone]

Mailbox inbox zero achievedMailbox is the new Gmail-only mail app that has been getting mostly rave reviews for the way it helps iPhone users tame their inboxes. Let’s get one thing out of the way first, though – Mailbox isn’t going to change you as a person. If you’re a master procrastinator, it won’t suddenly transform you into a wizard of the do-it-now. If, however, your habits tilt in the direction of almost staying on top of your email, Mailbox might just eliminate enough friction to get you to email hallowed ground. And if you’re already an inbox zero guru, then Mailbox will beckon to you like a desert oasis.

Mailbox’s secret sauce rests in its interface. That interface (and the guts of the app, described below) is geared toward speed. Just about every important feature of the app can be achieved with a swipe from the main inbox view. Swipe half way to the right to archive a message, and all the way to the right to delete a message. Swipe half way to the left to defer a message, and all the way to the left to add the message to a list. These same funtions can also be found when you open a message, but instead of swipes, you tap on icons at the top of the screen.

Mailbox archive         Mailbox delete

Mailbox message view


When you defer a message, a menu pops up, allowing you to pick some predefined times, such as “Later today,” or set a custom time. The ability to defer a message can be both a blessing and a curse. It depends on your mindset. If you frequently use the defer feature to put off messages for no reason (other than because you don’t want to deal with them), then your deferred message list will serve no other purpose than to help you shuffle your mess around. If you have a plan, though, and stick to it, then deferring messages can help you to stay organized.


Mailbox defer swipe      Mailbox defer menu


In the few weeks that I’ve been using Mailbox, I’ve come up with a way of handling the defer functionality that works for me. I defer a message when it isn’t something that I want to handle on my phone, but know that I want to handle in the very near future. If I’m headed out the door, for example, and receive a message that I want to answer when I return home, I’ll defer it. If I can’t respond to a message without access to a particular tool, item, or person, but I still want to get to the message as soon as possible, then I’ll defer the message until a time when I’ll have what I need. For example, if someone sends me an email about an event, and I need to discuss the event with my wife, I’ll defer the message until shortly after the time that I normally arrive at home.

I can hear some of you asking what the point is of defering a message and keeping it in the app, instead of moving it over to my GTD system (I use OmniFocus). I do in fact send an email into OmniFocus, if it is an item that doesn’t fit one of the scenarios described above. But the simple fact is that I check my email more frequently than OmniFocus, so if I want to get to a matter soon, I defer it in Mailbox until a later time.

While I’ve loved the ability to defer items, I haven’t had the same love for the app’s use of Lists. In fact, I haven’t used Mailbox yet to add an item to a List, at least in the sense that the developers seem to have imagined it. For this, I already use OmniFocus. Instead, I use Lists to bring Gmail labels into Mailbox, for the many types of emails that won’t be easily found in the future when searching. When you to the full swipe to the right to add a message to a List, your Lists appear, and you tap the name of the desired List.

Mailbox List swipe         Mailbox List menu

There isn’t much more to Mailbox, and that’s part of the beauty of it. It’s simple, and very fast. The speed is not just in the interface, but in how the app downloads messages. This speed is important, since third party mail apps can’t run in the background on iOS. When you open the app, your messages quickly download and appear. I found this to happen much quicker than with Sparrow and Gmail, the other third party apps that I’ve tried. It happens fast enough that I haven’t longed for the ability to run the app in the background. You can also receive push notifications of new messages, if that is important to you.

For those of your who are very security conscious, Mailbox won’t be an option. In order to support notifications, and to support the speed and unique features of the app, Mailbox needs your Gmail login credentials. I did give this some serious thought, and ultimately bit the bullet, but not before switching some email recovery options for other apps and services over to another dedictated email address.

So far, I’m happy with my decision. Mailbox is fast, and I have yet to finish a day without reaching Inbox Zero. That might just be a victory in my own mind, since sometimes there are items in my Later box. Still, I’ll take that tradeoff. Going to bed with a clear mind is its own reward. In sum, Mailbox is one of those rare apps that lives up to the hype.

Do you use Mailbox? What are your thoughts?