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For many, the prospect of "inbox zero" seems impossible – the unicorn of modern communication. Mailbox understands this struggle to stay atop the constant deluge of digital correspondence, and sees the problem not as a matter of personal effort, but rather perception. As such, rather than resemble typical mobile email options, Orchestra's new iPhone app takes its inspiration from the to-do list, challenging users to clear their inboxes like checking tasks off when completed, with a handful of breezy actions used to facilitate the process.
Currently designed to work only with Gmail accounts, Mailbox enables snap judgments with the swipe of a finger. Archiving an email from the inbox is done with a light swipe to the right, which a more complete right swipe sends the unwanted message to the trash. Despite the similar actions, they're differentiated enough to avoid mixing up your intentions, and the approach makes it easy to smash through an overnight stockpile of notes while the morning coffee's pouring.
It's the leftward swipes that give Mailbox a larger toolset than the average client, however. The smaller swipe lets you remove an email from the inbox and reappear at a specified date and time, allowing you to hide certain notes until pertinent. Meanwhile, the full left swipe unveils a list of folders (examples include "To Buy" and "To Read") to let you sort emails for easy access later. You can add your own from the app, and they'll all show up alongside the marked-for-later folder wherever you use Gmail, whether it's web, the official app, or Mail.
In practice, Mailbox offers an elegant way to stay atop the madhouse that is your email inbox, and it's a largely smooth experience throughout. It has a couple of nagging annoyances, though, like messages that still appear unread in the app when you read them elsewhere, and likewise notifications that hang around when that mail is read somewhere else (unlike with Apple's Mail). Also, while you can browse your Gmail archive and search within locally available emails, there's no option for searching emails on the server, nor can you access existing labels from the outset – you'll have to re-nest them under "[Mailbox]" within Gmail's settings to access them through the app.
We were already on the fence over whether Mailbox could be an all-in-one Gmail solution considering such annoyances and omissions, but we got our answer when Mailbox's servers went down a week after release, leaving users without access to new messages for several hours. Mailbox is young and promising, but following that surprise downtime, the idea of putting a middleman between our iPhones and Gmail's servers suddenly seems hugely unappealing. Until the app matures and stabilizes, we'll consider it a helpful secondary sorting tool rather than a primary resource.
The bottom line. Mailbox's smart approach and UI make it incredibly helpful, but growing pains keep it from replacing your mail app of choice.
[Editor's Note: As of this posting, Mailbox is restricting access to the app via a first-come, first-served system, with more than 800,000 people currently waiting to use the service. You can download the app now from the App Store, but expect to be greeted with a large and slowly-dwindling number of how many people are in front of you in line, plus a sure-to-grow tally of those still behind. (Also, added note to review regarding workaround for accessing existing labels via renesting process.)]
iPhone or iPod touch running iOS 6.0 or later
Fresh approach to mobile email makes it easy to stay atop your inbox deluge. Slick UI based around very simple and effective swipe actions.
Servers not stable enough to be a primary email client. Only for Gmails users to start. No ability to search emails not saved locally. Must re-nest existing labels to access them in app.