Mailbox: First Impressions

After a few days of obsessive countdown checks, I finally got access to the iOS app-du-jour, Mailbox. Now that I've had a chance to put the app through its paces, I have a few first impressions.

Overall, the app feels polished and very well done. The interface responds quickly and smoothly. The overall theme includes very light gray textures and subtle embossing effects. There are a few nice touches in there as well – when your inbox is empty, Mailbox shows a cutout of its logo with a scenic photo in the background. Tapping on the photo shows a bigger version, and there's even an option to see more information about the photo by viewing it in Instagram.

There's a drawer that can slide in from the left of the main screen, which allows you to move between different folders, as well as access help and settings. The drawer is a bit of an odd outlier in terms of visual design, with brightly colored icons in an otherwise subdued app. I find the effect a little cartoonish, and they'd probably be better off with grayscale icons.

Since it's unable to run in the background like Apple's built-in Mail app, Mailbox uses iOS push notifications in order to deliver new message alerts. I wondered if the notifications might be slow to arrive compared with the native Mail app, but I found that the two were quite comparable. Unfortunately, push notifications can only do so much. Even after receiving a notification, Mailbox still has to connect to the server and download your new messages once you launch it. It's a frustrating contrast to Mail.app, in which messages are downloaded in the background and waiting for you. The problem is especially acute if you're in an area of limited service, like a subway, where you might receive a notification, only to open the app and find yourself unable to reconnect to download your messages. Hopefully, Apple will allow apps like Mailbox to do some limited background downloading in iOS 7.

By default, Mailbox displays an alert on the lock screen when new messages arrive, which felt like overkill pretty quickly. I disabled the banner alerts in favor of the simple icon badge after just a few minutes.

Conceptually, Mailbox is centered around keeping your email clutter-free. The app encourages you to clear your inbox by archiving, deleting, or "snoozing" messages. It even offers to go through your inbox and archive everything for you, with an option to leave unread or starred messages where they are. When you're done with a message, you can archive it with a swipe or delete it with a longer swipe. (There's a quick and handy walkthrough that explains the gestures.) You can also "snooze" a message until a later time. Mailbox provides a variety of options, including "later today," "this evening," "this weekend," or even "someday." You can also pick a specific date. Once you snooze a message, it disappears from your inbox until the selected time, when it returns. You can view snoozed or archived messages by selecting tabs at the top of the screen, or by searching.

Snooze is really the killer feature in Mailbox, and I've found it to be quite useful so far. It's an adjustment from my normal workflow, which involved starring messages or leaving them unread in the inbox when I needed to act on them. So far, I've found snooze to be a good way to dismiss messages that I need to act on, but can or should wait until later. It helps that Mailbox gives you a lot of control over the snooze timings, with a settings pane where you can customize the start and end of your day, as well as define lengths of time for options like "later today." If you're looking for your snoozed messages in another client, you'll find them in a simple Gmail label. Mailbox's servers handle moving them back to the inbox, so snoozed messages reappear even if you're not accessing your mail from the app. The feature works well enough that I find myself wishing for it on my desktop, and shifting more of my email management to my phone.

So far, I've dropped Mailbox into my iPhone dock, replacing Apple's Mail.app. I'm uncertain whether I'll leave it there, as the inability to download messages in the background is frustrating, but features like snooze make Mailbox hard to resist.