Mailbox: Still Beautiful, Still Clever, Now on the iPad

The e-mail app that practically caused riots among iPhone users arrives on Apple's tablet -- no wait required.

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Lots of nifty new iPhone apps are instantly greeted by enthusiastic throngs of users, but when an e-mail app called Mailbox debuted in February, being excited over its arrival became a particular obsession in iPhone nation. Its creators put prospective users into a reservation queue that grew enormous, helping to reduce the strain on its servers while also stoking demand even further.

I wasn’t startled by the rapturous reception: Mailbox is a beautifully-designed piece of software with clever tools intended to help you grind your inbox down to zero. But I didn’t use it all that much myself: I do 95% of my e-mail on my iPad, not my iPhone.

And now I can, without forgoing Mailbox. The app, which was acquired by cloud-storage superstar Dropbox in March, is arriving on the App Store today in a version that brings all the iPhone edition’s goodness to the iPad’s larger screen. I was briefed on the news by Mailbox cofounder Gentry Underwood and have been living with the new version for a few days.

As before, Mailbox works only with Gmail (for now), supports multiple accounts and lets you see them all combined into one inbox. Four gestures let you wrangle messages right from the inbox list with a quick flick of your finger:

  • Swipe a message a little to the right, and it gets archived;
  • Swipe it further to the right, and it’s deleted;
  • Swipe it a little to the left, and you can postpone dealing with it by telling Mailbox to put it back at the top of your inbox at a certain point in the future, such as Later Today, Tomorrow, Next Week or a date you specify;
  • Swipe it further to the right, you can add it to a list — Mailbox’s version of standard e-mail folders.

And other than standard stuff like the ability to compose new messages and reply to incoming ones, that’s almost all the features Mailbox has. But the ones it does have work great and look great; this is one of the most attractive, finely-polished, every-pixel-in-its-place apps I’ve ever seen on the iPad, just as it was on the iPhone.

Oh, there’s also one feature you’ll find if you scroll to the end of your inbox, where it hides almost like an Easter egg: the ability to archive everything in your inbox (or every message you’ve read) with one tap. You shouldn’t use this nuclear option with abandon, but if your inbox gets so full that weeding out messages individually becomes an impossibility, it’s far better to eradicate everything than to let it fester.

You don’t have to be a hardcore e-mail wizard to find that there’s stuff missing in Mailbox that you wish it had. The app only lets you set one signature even if you have multiple accounts, for instance, and doesn’t let you specify a “Send as” address (very valuable if you use a Gmail account in conjunction with a work account). It doesn’t have Gmail’s Priority Inbox intelligent mail-sorting feature, or anything comparable to it.

Most notably, Mailbox can’t search the mail you’ve got stored on Gmail’s servers — only the recent subset which is actually on your iPad at the moment. I asked Underwood about that, and he said that his team is working on server-side search, but will only roll it out when it’s working as smoothly as the rest the app.

Underwood also said that the team is toying with ways that the app could be integrated with its new owner Dropbox’s service. There are certainly some obvious ones, such as using Dropbox storage as a more elegant and efficient alternative to attachments.

I’m not quite ready to definitively proclaim Mailbox as the iPad’s best e-mail client; I think that some people will miss features in Google’s Gmail app or Apple’s own Mail too much to switch to this more minimalist piece of software. But the things that Mailbox does, it does marvelously well — and if you feel like you’re suffocating under the weight of the messages in your inbox, you owe it to yourself to give its approach a try.

And you should be able to do so without waiting in line. In April, Mailbox finished giving accounts to the people on its waitilist and started letting new folks in, no reservation required. Underwood told me that he thinks the service will be able to handle any sudden mad rush of iPad users without resorting to putting the the virtual velvet rope back up.