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Sparrow for Mac beta hands-on review

Sparrow is essentially what happens when Gmail and Tweetie for Mac hook up and have a baby. It's very much what Gmail should be on the Mac -- minimalist and classy. I tried out Mailplane a few months ago, but couldn't quite bring myself to pull the trigger on the purchase. I won't with Sparrow. It's just that good -- especially for a beta.

We had a couple of recent pieces announcing the plethora of updates to the program, but now we're getting beyond the pretty icon and we like what we're seeing.


Setting up Sparrow

Sparrow dispenses with both the Gmail and the Mac Mail interfaces and goes for a very streamlined look that users of Tweetie for Mac are familiar with. Messages are presented in a narrow column with a button on the bottom right of the panel to expand a preview pane. You can start off with just one account, but it's easy to add more through preferences. You toggle back and forth between accounts by clicking on the small icons. Like iChat, you can either set your own icon or if you already had one associated with your Gmail account for chat purposes, Sparrow will import them.

What Sparrow won't import, however, are your signatures. You get a default app signature instead. That's all well and good, but I have specific ones that I use for various accounts. This meant going back to Gmail and copying over my signatures. It's not a deal-breaker, but a small hassle that I hope will be fixed in the future. Sparrow supports aliases, which you also have to manually add to the account you use the alias with.

You also have the ability to set up custom shortcuts to show/hide Sparrow and create a new message. For those happily wed to Gmail's shortcuts, you can set those to override Sparrow's so you're more comfortable.

Best of all, Sparrow gives you the option to turn off the ad that normally resides at the top of the message panel.

Using Sparrow


Like Mailplane, Sparrow syncs with Gmail, so while you have messages on the Mac, it doesn't wipe them from the Gmail server. It makes it very nice for when you're using other programs like Mail on the iPad. I can read my mail on the iPad and it'll mark as being read through Sparrow without having to re-download the message -- my biggest pet peeve with Mail via OSX. If you have a large inbox and don't want to synchronize all of it, there is an option to download messages on demand, which limits the synchronization.

With the preview pane minimized, you can double-click on a message to show the entire thing. A small star on the left will let you star messages. Right click and you can archive messages, label them, and get rid of spam. When you delete messages, however, make sure to do Option+Backspace to fully delete the message and not just hit the Backspace key, which will archive the message. Threaded messages work as you'd expect, and you'll get a notification if there's a new message added to the thread.

The icons are largely self-explanatory, and you can also drag an attachment to the dock icon to create a new message. Once in the message, you can screengrab on the fly. Right click and select "Capture selection from screen" and you can get the screencap you want. You can get message notifications via dock, menu bar and through a tiny bell chime that I quickly turned off.

Some minor issues


Labeled messages are indicated by colored tabs in the upper right corner of the message. However, Sparrow doesn't import the colors associated with that message in Gmail. For example, messages pertaining to the webcomic I work on are flagged with a red label in the normal Gmail interface. The tag switched to green in Sparrow. So, you may need to fiddle around with the tags if you're used to color-coding messages a certain way.

After the first time Sparrow brought in my messages, however, it stopped attaching labels that are automatically attached to mail in the Gmail interface. Several webcomic-related e-mails came through with no tag at all. Then, 12 hours later, it was importing messages with the proper labels again. Gmail was also missing some messages completely -- I flipped to Gmail to compare a feature with Sparrow and noticed a few missed messages.

You also can't Quick Look attachments on messages from the server, though you can when you're creating a message. It's a bit of a pain, especially when you're used to this sort of behavior on other e-mail clients on the Mac.

The screwy labeling, the missed messages and the lack of Quick Look for attachments are my biggest complaints with the client, and it's something I'm confident that will be fixed before Sparrow emerges from its beta nest. Otherwise, it's a free download and worth a try. The thing I disliked most about Gmail itself is its interface, and I was even less thrilled with Mailplane's. Sparrow takes everything that's good about Gmail and puts it in a nice Cocoa wrapper and gives you Gmail on the Mac the way I think it should be.

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