Today we’ll look at Sparrow Mail as a third entry in to our series of looks at email clients. If you’re interested in the other two here is a look at Mailplane and Postbox.


Sparrow is one of the newer entries in to the OS X email market and is made by Cactuslab, a company that designs websites and iOS applications a team of 3 that came together to improve the email experience on OS X. As pointed out in the comments Cactuslab made the Sparrow site.

The foundation in iOS development for the Sparrow team is pretty obvious when you first look at their application. The minimal interface bear strong resemblance to the original Tweetie interface. This gorgeous minimal interface is what made me fall in love with Sparrow in the first place. Looking at the applications I really love they’re all minimal and have a single function. Sparrow also offers a ‘minimal’ and ‘expanded’ view depending on your preferences.

Sparrow minimal and expanded interface
Sparrow minimal and expanded interface

One thing I always mention in a review is the amount of keyboard control that an application offers. Sparrow offers pretty much everything you could want in keyboard shortcuts. Not only does it offer a full suite of it’s own keyboard shortcuts, but its history as a Gmail/Google Apps only client shows in that it support the Gmail shortcuts you’re used to. You can also record custom system wide keyboard shortcuts to hide Sparrow or start a new mail message. I’m not really sure of the utility of the hide Sparrow custom keyboard shortcut since you can just use the OS X default ⌘H to accomplish the same thing.

Unfortunately most of us have multiple email accounts now so any must have feature of an email application is support for multiple email accounts. It’s also very possible that you’ll have multiple email providers that need to be supported in your email application. Well of course Sparrow has you covered on both fronts. While it started as a Gmail only application it now supports pretty much any IMAP interface you can think of. Add to that the ability to easily have different images for different accounts and it’s easy to see which account you’re working in visually.

Sparrow account configuration
Changing the image is as simple as dragging it on top of the old one.

If you’re a notification kind of preson (I’m not) then you’ll be happy to know that Sparrow supports many types of notifications. Prefer Growl, it’s here. Just want to see the icon in the menu bar with a little number for unread emails, you’re covered. Notifications are application wide (in what type you get) but you can turn them off or on for each account which can help at least stop notifications from higher traffic accounts that don’t matter immediately.

Again showing it’s Gmail based heritage Sparrow supports threaded conversations. I’m sure we’ve all spent time searching for exactly which email someone was responding to, well threaded conversations stops that. It’s present in most email clients (and all that are worth looking at) so I won’t go in to more depth then to note that it’s included in Sparrow.

Sparrow also has many other Gmail niceties like quick replies and starred conversations. I’ve got to admit that I’ve never used starred conversations for anything but if you do it’s here.

While Sparrow didn’t include support for calendar invites out of the gate (which was a reason I couldn’t/didn’t use it) in one of the last few updates it’s added support for invites. Clicking on the invite will take you to your Google Calendar (it’s all I use so all I can check) with further options on accepting/rejecting the meeting invite.

Many users (not me) also love a unified inbox which as of the 1.2 update Sparrow now supports. I’ve got to admit that I’ve never seen the utility of a unified inbox. Sure all the email is in one spot but when I’m on work time I should be dealing with work email only and when I’m not at work I don’t look at work email. If you’ve got a compelling reason that a unified inbox is a great thing then let me know in the comments.

Sparrow’s 1.2 update also added integration with Facebook. Let’s get the fact that I’m a Facebook hater out of the way. Really all Sparrow is doing is using Facebook integration to provide the images of your friends along with their emails. It already did this with Gravatar’s and images in your Address Book so it’s really just and extension of functionality already included in the application.


Gmail doesn’t have folders in the traditional sense (at least it doesn’t call them that) it uses labels as a way to organize email in to specific areas and of course Sparrow supports Gmail’s labels. Unfortunately labels are hard to find now. At one point they were in the top of the application interface next to other things like Archive and New Message but an update moved them down to the bottom left corner. When I got the update it took me a few minutes to find labels. My opinion is that labels are hard to find now sitting by themselves in the bottom of the application with no other interface elements and should be moved back to the top with the rest of the application interface.

Sparrow label icon
Hrm there are the labels.

Adding to the bit of label frustration is the fact that Sparrow doesn’t search the full label when you’re trying to assign it. When you start typing it only matches against the first word, unlike the support for assigning labels in Gmail proper. I’ve got a lot of labels so this is a big PITA for me and I’d assume a number of others.

I mentioned above that Sparrow has lots of keyboard shortcuts to keep me happy but it’s made a few odd decisions. The biggest one is that searching your mail is no the default ⌘F of 99% of all applications (or control-F on Windows). To search mail in Sparrow you’ve got to use ⌘⌥F. Sure it works but it’s non-standard. I’m of the very firm opinion that if there is a generally accepted practice of any sort then you should be using it. It’s not quite as bad as changing the cut/copy/paste keys but it’s not all that far off in my opinion.

Shortly after releasing Sparrow on the Mac AppStore Cactuslab added the always intended feature of support for many other mail sources (Yahoo, Hotmail, IMAP…). While this was awesome for some I’ve found the decision a bad one, bad enough that I started looking for other email clients. The real issue is that Sparrow became really really slow when checking for new mail after this addition. I have no idea if there is any relation between the addition of the feature and the slow down of the client but that was the halmark feature of teh release and ever since I’ve found it nothing but slow when checking my mail. Email is painful enough already without having to wait 60 seconds plus for your email to actually come in. I think they’d have a much better project without the extra support for email and keeping the speed, but all my email goes over Gmail so I may be biased.

sparrow multiple account support
Great you support multiple accounts but it so slow the app is useless now.

While you can send text to OmniFocus Sparrow has no special support for it. In Mailplane highlighting text in Sparrow will result in not only the text being in the note, but a link to the specific email provided in the note field. Sending text to Omnifocus out of Sparrow just results in the text and leaves you searching for the email if you no longer remember the exact context. I realize that not everyone is an Omnifocus user but I am so this is an issue for me.

One final ‘bug/note’ is that recent Gmail changes require some additional configuration of your Gmail account to work with Sparrow. Totally not the fault of the Sparrow team but a bit of a pain anyway. Read more about it.

I’m Not 100% sold

So do I use Sparrow? Well I used to. For quite a while Sparrow was my go to application with out a doubt but the speed issues I’m having have meant that I went looking for a new mail application and settled on Mailplane. Even when I wrote the Mailplane review I wasn’t sure I’d stick with it but after a day or two back with Sparrow I was missing a number of items in Mailplane so I just bought it and haven’t looked back.

If you’re looking for an email application and like the interface of Sparrow then by all means try it. It’s pretty dang great and the speed issues may be only mine or they may not bother you. I certainly update it and give it a few days to see if speed issues have been resolved and with the developer pushing regular updates it’s patching up many of the issues I’ve had. In fact this article sat scheduled for 3 weeks and has required 2 updates changing likes/dislikes around. The only lingering issue is the fact that Sparrow still seems to sync pretty slow, if that can be resolved then I’ll give it a full chance again.


I paid for all of the applications myself but most of the links above are affiliate links.

2 responses to “Sparrow Mail”

  1. Matthew Buchanan Avatar

    Hi Curtis, a small correction: the Sparrow website was made by us at Cactuslab. The app itself was made by a French team, and you can read about them on the site.

    1. curtismchale Avatar

      Thanks for the clarification, I’ll update the post.