E-Mail on iOS

E-mail clients are plentiful now on iOS, although there have been times where this category of apps were not available on the App Store at all.

But since third-party clients have been made available, I have taken some of them for a spin to see whether I could find the one that works best for me.

I wanted (but, in all honesty did not fully expect) to see whether it is really possible for me to point to one of the apps and declare it the best one overall, period.

The Sweet Setup thinks the best e-mail app on iOS is Outlook. I have tried Outlook but (as much as I respect The Sweet Setup) it did not even make it into the three apps that I have finally spent some time with:

Spark

Spark is a really solid option on iOS with some minor drawbacks. It is very well designed and visually the most appealing apps of the three.

One of the most prominent features is the “smart inbox” that does a pre-sorting of incoming e-mails and presents the user with a structured list of e-mails separated in different categories (e.g. newsletters, notifications, and personal)

Spark supports snoozing and also the opposite of it, i.e. pinning an e-mail to the inbox.

The feature that I like most is that Spark is able to make a proposal for the target folder of a move operation. The proposals are surprisingly accurate.

And Spark is fast. Switching between e-mails as well as access to attachments is almost instantaneous.

Spark supports push-notifications for IMAP accounts, but in my experience the notifications have a tendency to stop coming in after an initial period where everything works well.

Until yesterday, search used to be more or less a desaster. I’ve heard a lot of praise about Spark‘s search capabilities, but that must have come from gmail-users, I assume. On IMAP, search just did not work. It was unreliable and utterly slow.

Today saw the release of version 1.8.0 that fixes most of the annoyances. Search now works as I want it to, at least if I have opened the folder in which potential hits are located previously. Spark will just ignore folders that have not been opened in the app for search.

One minor issue that I have with Spark is that it does not have the ability to make any changes in the folder structure, i.e. renaming, adding or removing folders is not supported.

Airmail

Spark’s greatest weakness (in the past) is where Airmail shines like a beacon in the night. It has the best search engine for IMAP accounts that have ever found on any e-mail app on iOS.

It even runs reliable search queries when offline, i.e. it must have the ability to create a search index on device. Also, it is very easy to take na e-mail address and find every single mail received from this specific sender in the entire IMAP account.

Airmail shows the name of the folder as part of the response´use to a search query, a very nice detail and an information that requires an additional tap in Spark.

Airmail is the only app of the three that supports adding and deleting of folders in an IMAP account. Neither Spark nor Newton deliver any amount of control over the folder structure. Airmail also comes with option to color-code the folders, which is very nice.

Airmail has the best and most elaborate documentation of the three, despite the fact that the documentation is hidden behind a rather misleading topic named “give feedback” in the preferences.

Despite its undeniable technological advances, Airmail has a certain reputation of being buggy. I can at least confirm that I have been hit by the occasional glitch, especially when composing a message.

Newton

Newton is the most expensive option of the three by a large margin. The business model is based on subscriptions that amount for 50€ per year in the German app store. 50€ is a lot of money and that naturally raises expectations.

But frankly, Newton was by far the biggest disappointment of the three e-mail apps. Newton is ridiculously slow, to the point sometimes I had the impression that it was just a wrapper around a web mail view.

When switching between individual messages there’s plenty of opportunity to stare at a spinner. Scrolling is the worst. The app scrolls a few lines and the takes some time to add a further chunk of messages to the bottom of the list. When scrolling beyond this point, the procedure repeats.

And the same thing happens even after I scrolled on particular folder from top to bottom. If I tried to scroll the same folder some time later the app behaves as if the scrolling were done the first time.

Search is even slower than scrolling. I cancelled all my queries in a state of frustration, every single time.

And it gets worse: I had cases where an e-mail vanished from my inbox, only to reappear after a couple of hours. However, as other clients confirmed, the mail was positively in the inbox all of the time.

Another aspect where Newton failed all my expectations is support, which is limited to a rather limited FAQ page on the website.

Conclusion

If you are interested in further candidates I’d recommend listening to Canvas episode 10 where Federico Viticci and Fraser Speirs explore the world of e-mail clients on iOS on a broader basis.

Myself, I will use Spark as my main mail app, now that such big improvements have been made with the latest release. Airmail, on the other hand, is more than a solid alternative despite its occasional tendency to drop the ball.

Things 3 is coming

From the Things Blog:

We’re very excited to report that Things 3 is almost ready for release. After a final round of beta testing, we expect to ship in May.

I have been using Things on and off over the years. I have tried other apps of that category, starting with Remember the Milk, then OmniFocus, Todoist, purely textual apps, and 2Do.

I guess the reason why I sooner or later return for another stint with Things is because the app hits a spot between an obsessively simplistic and a demanding and complex GTD approach.

The approach implemented in Things really stands out from the crowd. Things is not, and has never been, like any other generic task manager. There’s a concept behind it and I like that a lot even if I ended up writing entire blog posts to help myself figure it out.

However, or alas, that spot occupied by Things is no stable equilibrium. It works fine for some time, but frustration slowly but inevitably builds up until it is time to switch.

For explanation, one aspect that used to make my relation to Things complicated is about a glaring shortcoming in the workflow. In the current version, the creation of a repeating task is only possible in the Scheduled section and it is not possible to convert a non-repeating task into a repeating task.

I really hope there was time enough during the development of the new version to fix this.

On the other hand, there is so much to like. Let’s face it, Things‘ synchronization of data between devices is lightyears ahead of any competition. Nothing else comes even close. It took time to get there, people had to be patient, but the result is truly outstanding.

So I welcome a next iteration of the Things saga and I personally can’t wait to give it a try.

Joel Spolsky’s new Computer

Joel Spolsky made a splash on Twitter:

Sorry Apple. After 10 years loyalty, this latest MBPro with useless touchbar and unreliable keyboard was last straw. Switched to Dell XPS13👋

I am using a Dell Precision 5510 (which is basically a rebranded XPS15) at work for more than a year now.

My only minor complaint is that Dell doesn’t seem to care about fine-tuning the hinge such that it is possible to open the lid with one hand while the machine is lying flat on the table.

Apart from that, it’s a solid hardware with modern components that has a Skylake processor and that supports being loaded with up to 32 GB of RAM1.

Even as a Mac user for more than 20 years, I wouldn’t hesitate giving money to Dell for an XPS 15 (or 13) to run my my private stuff if only there was an officially supported way to run macOS on it.

Joel, for what it is worth, does not seem to care much about the software aspect. While many will agree with Joel on the hardware choice, I bet that the question of the operating system is not as unequivocal.

Windows has gotten better with Windows 10. But in my personal experience, it is still way behind macOS in many measurable ways. Plus, for people heavily invested into software based firmly in the Apple ecosystem the idea of switching to Windows is still a scary idea2.


  1. I have personally no experience with this option or the implications on battery life. 
  2. Especially the prospect of having to keep a Windows installation that is not maintained by a corporate IT department free of malware would give me nightmares. 

App Store Adventures

It all started with a mistake, that’s fully admitted. I was browsing a web site that had some app recommendations. Tapping one app icon on the site opened the App Store app that in turn told me that the item was not available in the German Store. Oh, and whether I wished to switch to the U.S. store.

Thanks, no. Somehow (and here comes the mistake part) my tap was a bit too much off-center and registered with the “yes, switch me over” button.

Welcome to the U.S. store.

At least, that’s what it looked like. Instead of naming the price of an app in € the labels all had a $ on it. At this point, it was totally safe for me to assume that the switch actually happened.

I struggled with a faint memory of a similar incident a couple of years ago: there had to be a way to switch back immediately, and got confirmation by the fast-reacting @AppleSupport Twitter account. Kudos, I was really impressed by the prompt reaction.

Unfortunately, I was still unable to follow the advice: In order to proceed into the “Country/Region” section of my Apple Id properties dialog, I was told that first I would have to cancel my ongoing Apple Music subscription and then wait until it expired. Which would not happen before (you guessed it) end of February.

Great!

As an aside, I really don’t understand why tapping on “Country/Region” results in the information that I can’t switch without cancelling Apple Music instead of just telling me what my current region is. If this were the case and Settings.app had informed me about my current region the whole issue would have been over by then (I have filed a radar).

Frustrated, I called Apple support on the phone and was quickly connected to a support person who, after listening to my story, confirmed to my surprise that the switch had actually never happened. According to the support person, I was positively still on the German Store.

And yet, this information was somehow at odds with the fact that the App Store app on my phone insisted on app prices in $ instead of €.

So I did what I was supposed to do in this situation: reboot the phone. Still: $.

I went to my iPad, launched the App Store app and watched all the little € appear in the place where they are supposed to appear. This was another reassuring indication that the switch really never happened. But how on earth would I be able to get my phone back to my native currency.

After some time, I wondered what would happen if I tried to purchase an app on (what still seemed to me) the U.S. App Store.

Here’s the thing: after confirming my intention to buy a random app I was informed that this app was not available on the U.S. App Store and, hallelujah, whether I wanted to switch to the German App Store.

Yes, sure. Please do it. Can’t wait.

Now that everything is back to where it belongs I’m still struggling to understand what was happening. It seemed that the App Store app initiated the switch which, however, was immediately deflected by my existing Apple Music subscription.

But somehow the App Store app had convinced itself that the switch went through and it would only be able to get back on track when an actual purchase transaction was attempted.

Whatever, I’m pleased that this adventure turned out well. Apple support in Ireland (yes, you apparently get connected to Ireland if you call from Germany) deserves an honorary mention for the crucial confirmation that my account was never actually moved.

I can’t help ending with the clever conclusion that if you want your iOS devices to prevent your account from inadvertently switching to a different App Store: buy an Apple Music subscription!

Pocket Casts Notifications, reloaded

I had this struggle with double notifications in Pocket Casts. First, I seemed to have found a solution by signing out and into my account again, but after some time the pair-wise notification were back.

Tired of this issue, I eventually deactivated notifications within Pocket Casts. After that, you’d expect that notifications would stop popping up altogether going forward, right?

Wrong.

Here’s the thing: I still got notifications, only the notifications din’t come in pairs any longer. Weird.

OK, time for more radical measures. I deleted the app, and reloaded it from the App Store. Unfortunately, I did not even make it to the first notification when I realized that the audio effects were simply not available.

The buttons were just inactive, and it was not possible to use these features. This was no good.

After taking a deep breath, I was willing to give it one additional shot. If that worked I would stay with Pocket Casts, otherwise it would finally be time to leave.

Again, delete the app. Reload. Launch. Try audio effects. Wait for incoming notifications. Phew.

The tentative conclusion is that the last install seem to work according to my expectation. However, I have to say that this job stretched my loyalty to the product dangerously close to the snapping point.

Sierra and my Printer

One of the most successful1 articles on my static site has been created as the result of taking notes while fixing the installation of a printer driver for my Dell laser printer while running the El Capitan beta.

Frankly, I was expecting that the issue went away after the product release of El Capitan. I was expecting that driver developers would quickly find a way to provide a seamless installation experience in the times of System Integrity Protection (SIP).

I was more than surprised that this article sparked such a resonance. And I was even more surprised to learn from commenters that the issue obviously persisted long after the product release.

Naturally, I was having mixed feelings when ticking the list of actions for the installation of my new computer, and “install printer driver” came closer and closer.

I went to Dell’s website and downloaded the latest driver for my C1765NFW printer. I started the installation and everything went its way just smoothly.

The printer started printing and I was relieved to see that I didn’t have to apply my own recipe to get the stupid thing behave properly.

So that problem thankfully seems to have gone for good.


  1. In terms of the number of commenters. 

Using the Kindle app for Audio

I listen to podcasts nearly every day, and I think I have a pretty good feeling how playing podcast episodes impacts the battery life on my devices.

That’s why I was stunned to see what happened to my battery after a modest amount1 of time spent listening to an audio book played by the Kindle App on iOS.

There’s a word for what the Kindle app did to my battery of my plus-caliber iPhone, and the word is slaughter. Within said time period the charging level went from well above 50% down to 8%.

And, as could be expected, it gets significantly worse if the audio goes to the internal speaker.

I did a quick search on the Internet, and indeed found complaints about the Kindle app’s impact on battery life here and there. But these were mostly years old and probably do not represent reliable data points for the current app.

I guess I’ll finish the book reading …

Update (2016-12-03)

Predictably, I tried the Kindle app again, trying to verify the astonishing effect of the first time. This time, the loss of battery life was way less pronounced, and not even close to the frustrating result of my first try.

Therefore, I can’t help but come to the preliminary conclusion that my experience must have been a fluke, despite the fact that I really didn’t do anything else with my phone than listening to the audio book.

Whatever happened during that period, it does not seem as if the Kindle app could be blamed for it. The book is not finished, so maybe there will be further opportunities to either reproduce my initial impression or get reassurance that it was just a one-time effect.


  1. Around an hour, if I remember correctly. 

DEVONthink

Only Evernote does what Evernote does. Just in case, I’m talking about the ability to store lots of documents and notes, sync all of these between a bunch of devices, and provide a world-class search over your entire repository.

And yet, the advent of “features” like “Context” or “Work Chat1 may be taken as an indication that Evernote is evolving into a direction that makes me start to worry about the long-term viability for my intended purpose.

If you’re an Evernote user you probably know what I’m talking about. If you’re not, you probably don’t care.

Anyway, while I’m actively2 using Evernote on a daily basis, I’m always on the lookout for alternative solutions that could better fit my needs long-term.

Enter DEVONthink. I’ve had it on my radar of potential replacements for Evernote for quite a while. The Mac app convinced me on the spot, but the mobile counterparts (a.k.a. DEVONthink To Go) left a lot to be desired.

This extended to syncing options but also to the general functionality and stability of the apps. Note that this asessment applies to the 1.x versions of DEVONthink To Go

This has changed in the meantime, DEVONthink To Go has been released in early Augst. It is taking benefit from an improved syncing technology that has been rolled out on the Mac version previous to the new mobile app3.

Development of DEVONthink To Go continues at a steady pace4, and I couldn’t be happier with it. Naturally, the app follows the same approach as Devonthink for Mac. This means that new content appears in the inbox of a database, which is roughly an equivalent to a notebook in Evernote.

DEVONthink To Go does not sync in the background. However, in most cases, a short syncing period as the app starts up doesn’t really take that much time. I’m getting used to that quicker than I thought I would.

One detail that makes DEVONthink in general stand out from Evernote is meta-data. I love that I can assign a URL to a note or document in my database. That’s a simple feature, but pure genius in day-to-day work.

Search is another discipline that left much to be desired in V1.x of DEVONthink To Go. V2.x has improved in that regard, although it does not reach the level of the Mac app. The latter, in it’s most expensive incarnation, is required to OCR documents in the database.

This ability to OCR documents comes by default in Evernote, and the quality of the results are mostly good. The OCR algorithm of DEVONthink Pro Office, however, plays in a different league. The results that I get from DEVONthink Pro Office are simply outstanding.

In contrast, DEVONthink To Go does not do any OCR at all. It would be really nice if it did (and I would pay real money for such a capability, especially if it delivers on the level of DEVONthink ProOffice). On iOS, there’s no shortage of apps5 capable of running an OCR on a document. But the results are on average just not as good.

To summarize, there’s a stable chance that I’m going retire my Evernote account soon. I’m still in the process of evaluating DEVONthink, but it is already safe to say that it would take some serious issue to get me back onto Evernote.


  1. Yes, I heard about it. Just in case. 
  2. and, more or less, happily 
  3. When the new technology was announced I was skeptical at first, because the 1.x version of DEVONthink to go was so much behind, it was almost hopeless. I was pleasantly surprised to see the progress made between V1.x and V2.0. 
  4. The current version, as of mid November, is 2.0.6. 
  5. My personal favorite is Scanbot 

Step Two

From an e-mail to subscribers:

As you know, some of the best Instapaper features were limited or gated behind the Instapaper Premium paywall. Now that we’re better resourced, we’re able to offer everyone the best version of Instapaper.

This is the second milestone on the road to assimilation. Optimism wasn’t warranted when the news about Pinterest acquiring Instapaper broke, and it is even less warranted now.

Converting a paid product into a freebie is done with the intention to put it on a growth trajectory to gain as many users as possible in the shortest amount of time. Then step three happens.

I’ve been a long-time active user of the Instapaper product, but this is now coming to an end. I don’t want to be part of the growth. I’ve tried Pinterest once, didn’t like it, and have no motivation to return.