How to replace Apple Mail on the iPhone or iPad, and why you might want to

in iOS edited October 2020
Apple may lock down iPhones and iPads more than it does the Mac, but despite the greater constraints, developers have managed to create Mail alternatives that are more compelling on iOS. AppleInsider looks at what they've done and why you should try alternative email apps.

Icons for the main alternatives to iOS Mail including Airmail, Spark and Outlook

Previously on AppleInsider we looked at the reasons to move away from Apple Mail on the Mac. We also pointed out that there were strong reasons to stick with it too. You'd expect the situation to be the same on iOS, especially as many of the apps we're going to recommend work on both. Yet iPhones and iPads are a different world.

Pop up message in Spark Mail explaining that you can be reminded when recipients haven't replied in a specified time

Apple sandboxes apps on iOS so that they can't interfere with each other and consequently they can't easily cooperate, either. It's also not possible to replace Apple Mail as the default email app on your iPhone or iPad. If you click on an email address on a website, for instance, it's going to open up a new message in Apple Mail.

So there are technical constraints that make email different on iOS but there are also practical ones because you use iOS on the move.

Email on the move needs to be fast. It needs to arrive quickly and notify you promptly so that you're always up to date. There needs to be easy and swift ways to deal with the email when you're on the go and can't stop to devote an hour to cleaning up your inbox.

Still, just having email on your iPhone or iPad does a lot of this. Email coming to your phone as you go between meetings frees you up to travel, knowing that you'll still get your emails promptly wherever you are. The trouble is that you're now expected to deal with emails quickly too.

That can be because your job requires you to be responsive to customer emails or to react to work from your boss. However, even when that isn't the case, an email that isn't dealt with stays there in your inbox. Eventually you have a lot of them and as well as it then physically taking time to find one you want, you've also got the mental issue that it feels overwhelming.

So the job of a great email app on iOS is to show you the messages promptly and then help you deal with them as fast as possible. That means canned replies, it means handing emails over to your To Do app or delegating to colleagues. It means, as far as humanly possible, being able to look at any given email only once. Look at it the one single time you need to deal with it and never be required to look at it again.

It also means thinking about security. When you buy a company's email app, you're trusting that it won't track your data in some way.

Apple Mail is fine

You won't ever hear us knock Apple Mail, not on Macs or iOS. It is an under-appreciated app that does a lot of work for us so seamlessly that we, well, under appreciate it. There are limitations, though, and while that's surprising in such a mature program, this is why you should bother looking at alternatives.

Chief among the limitations is what Apple Mail lets you do when you receive an email.

In Apple Mail for iOS, you can swipe in the inbox to move or delete it. There's also a More button which lets you reply, forward, mark or get notified when someone replies to this email thread. That's an odd one as you're going to get a notification of a new email message anyway but it's about the only time Mail adds something extra to the regular send and reply.

The basic options for replying to a message in Apple Mail

Once you're in a message, you can also get an Unsubscribe button if the email is a newsletter. Then if the message has dates or email phone numbers in, you could also get Apple's excellent data detectors which turns those into items you can click on to save.

Receiving emails

However compare that to your options if you're using Airmail 3 for iOS instead.

The extensive possibilities for how to deal with a message in Airmail

These are called actions: they are options that Airmail can perform on any email message you get. More than the quality, feel the quantity: there are too many to fit on one screen.

At present Airmail offers you around 35 possible actions you can take upon reading an email. Those do include the familiar ones such as replying or forwarding. However, it also has the ability to send the message to your calendar.

If you choose that, you are prompted through all the regular things you have to do to make a calendar appointment such as specifying time, date, place and so on. Airmail attempts to fill out as much of those for you as it can, and then it places the text of email as a note.

So when you get to your meeting, you can tap on the event in your calendar to brief yourself on what it's all about.

Sending emails

This sounds like the simplest of functions for an email app and, again, Apple Mail does it well. However, alternatives do find more to do -- and have features we wish Apple would adopt.

For instance, in Edison Mail, when you tap to write a new message, the To: field has a series of buttons under it. You get one button for each person Edison Mail thinks you're likely to be emailing.

So those buttons will include ones for the people you have most recently or most often emailed -- and also the ones who have sent you messages lately.

If you don't want any of those, you start typing a new name and both Edison and all email apps will try to autocomplete addresses for you.

There are features to help when you've finished writing the body of a message, too. When you finish an email in Spark for iOS, then before you hit Send, you can also tap an alarm button to set up a reminder. With that one tap, you tell Spark that it should remind you if you don't had a reply to this new email. You can specify a time, you can just click on more vague options such as Next Week.

Scheduling an email reply to be sent after a certain interval in Spark Mail

You can also set a time that you want your email to be sent. Say you're trying to look busy or even just cool and replying instantaneously would blow it. Write the email immediately and hit Send but tell Spark to actually send it Later Today, Tomorrow or a specific date and time you pick.

That's immediately and clearly useful -- if you're on a Mac that's plugged in and online all the time. It's useful if you're on an iPhone with a cellular connection too. If you're using a WiFi-only iPad then they won't send until you have a connection again. Equally, if you write a bunch of emails before stepping onto a plane but mark them as not to be sent for an hour, they won't go until you land.

Canned replies

Sometimes you just need to acknowledge an email, you don't really have to think about it much. And sometimes that acknowledgement can be predictably terse -- so Edison Mail offers you some prepared replies.

Edison Mail offers automatic suggestions for reply text

It's similar to how Google does this with Gmail: the suggestions aren't random, they are calculated in some way based on what's in the email you've received.

Also like Gmail, alternatives to Apple Mail like Outlook will automatically sort your inbox to save time. What it considers to be important -- such as an email sent directly to you from someone you regularly correspond with -- will appear in the inbox. Messages that Outlook reckons aren't that important, such as newsletters, may get shunted to an Other inbox.

That seems like abdicating the decision over what you do and don't want to read but it's surprisingly effective. Plus the more you use an email app like this, the better it gets at knowing what you do and don't want.


We keep referring to different email apps but there are different email services too. Typically they share the same name so when you use the Apple Mail app you can be sending and receiving email over the Apple Mail service. If you use Gmail on the web, you're typically sending and receiving email over the Gmail service.

Different apps suit different services better than others. Outlook is great for Microsoft Exchange. Apple Mail isn't brilliant for Gmail.

In theory you are best off having just one email app and so if you're on Exchange, you should pick Outlook. If you can bear it, anyway.

For the same reason, if you are a user of Apple Mail then there's a very good argument that you should be a user of the Apple Mail app. Plus in years of trying out different alternatives, we do keep coming back to Apple's one just because it's the most reliable.

Except there's nothing to say you should stick to just one.

You could try having Apple Mail most of the time but Spark whenever you're traveling and in a hurry, for instance. When you've suddenly got a lot of email coming in and have to deal with it right now, Airmail is what you need.

Know what you do and don't need

Just as some of these apps get to know what you do, you need to spend some time getting to know them. If you asked us straight out what the best alternative to Apple Mail is, we'd say that for us, it's Airmail. That's specifically because we've got used to having its swipe actions: swiping to various degrees left or right lets us trash an email, archive it, send it to OmniFocus and so on.

Yet Spark is a strong contender, Edison has many good features and Outlook -- well, Outlook gets foisted on people who can't get out of it.

There are other email apps, too, such as Polymail which aims to be best for working in teams sharing the same messages.

In theory the only way to assess them all is to try them all but you're not going to do that. In practice, do try at least a couple and stick with the first that suits you. It's going to take time for you to become used to a different email app and really able to tell whether it's for you.

There is something you can do to cut down the range of choices, though. Don't bother with an email app that isn't regularly and recently updated. That means, with regret, that you shouldn't try Dispatch. We like it but it's not been updated in a couple of years.

One more thing. If you do run two or more email apps, switch off notifications on all but one of them or you will be driven crazy. Trust us on that.

Airmail costs $4.99 on the App Store.

Spark is free for individuals and costs from $6.39 per user per month in a team.

Outlook is also free to download but requires an Office 365 subscription which costs from $6.99 per month.

Lastly, Edison Mail is free.

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  • Reply 1 of 20
    Was a devoted user of airmail and spark and ultimately both fell short, miserably, and I’ve been quite happy with Mail. Airmail is buggy and has terrible support and the worst interface I’ve ever seen. Spark is missing some basic features like rules and the ability to turn off threading or sort a thread in descending order and has been saying for two years now that these are under consideration yet never delivers. Yeah, I miss snoozing messages but Mail has never lost an email I was sending or drafting. Not so much with Airmail. And Spark wouldn’t display Exchange invites as invites if the invitation contained attachments, as they often can and do. So I missed meetings as a result. Readdle never fixed that despite many back and forth emails with logs and other details. Spark can’t change fonts or parse some emails properly (Airmail also messes up many received emails with regard to parsing). Plus some email programs just bite the dust suddenly. Remember Newton Mail? Gone. Alto? Gone. Sparrow? Gone. 

    If an email program fails at basic functions, it doesn’t matter if they can snooze or send emails later. I would love to see more innovation from Apple on Mail but it handles Exchange really well (better than Airmail, Canary or Spark) and is reliable. I tried Outlook and had hopes for it but that didn’t work well for me either. YMMV. 
    edited September 2018 lkruppdewmewatto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 20
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 10,482member
    Some people just like to be different and that's okay. I get it. But for the vast majority of iOS users Mail is all you'll ever need.
  • Reply 3 of 20
    I haven not read article yet but just beginning. But on Mac, when Apple introduced sharing menu I lost ability to send files from Finder as one of most popular alternative client Thunderbird, even showing in sharing options is not showing in menu. Probably Thunderbird problem but before it was working fine. Those constant changes are not bringing positive results every time.
  • Reply 4 of 20
    I agree. for the normal user the default iOS app is absolutely fine to get your usual online shopping mails and bit of chit-chat social stuff.

    I have a Microsoft Exchange account, and so does my work, plus my needs are a bit more sophisticated, so for me Outlook works best. 
  • Reply 5 of 20
    mac_128mac_128 Posts: 3,454member
    kkqd1337 said:
    I agree. for the normal user the default iOS app is absolutely fine to get your usual online shopping mails and bit of chit-chat social stuff.

    I have a Microsoft Exchange account, and so does my work, plus my needs are a bit more sophisticated, so for me Outlook works best. 
    I would give anything if I could delete Microsoft Outlook and never use that piece of trash again as long as I live. I far prefer Mail to it any day.
  • Reply 6 of 20
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 3,077member
    Be very careful before you hand over the keys to your email to a third party. Always read the terms of service first. And read the terms of service carefully--by using the software, you may be giving the developer implicit permission to scan, read or share your email. If the terms are complicated, stay away. If the software is free, ask yourself how the developer earns a living.
    edited September 2018 dewmetoysandmewatto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 20

    Now if Apple could only figure out a way to make the iOS Mail app display my paycheck PDF attachment every two weeks...

    David, my old employer sent pdf attachments like yours but mine always appeared. I’m guessing that your employer is using some obscure method of inclusion which is keeping the pdf from appearing. Just a thought. 
  • Reply 8 of 20
    My biggest issue with all mail in iOS is the inability to do something as basic as change fonts or font size. I use four different email clients including Mail and Outlook, and frankly, they’re all equally mediocre. 
  • Reply 9 of 20
    fh-ace said:

    Now if Apple could only figure out a way to make the iOS Mail app display my paycheck PDF attachment every two weeks...

    David, my old employer sent pdf attachments like yours but mine always appeared. I’m guessing that your employer is using some obscure method of inclusion which is keeping the pdf from appearing. Just a thought. 
    I have my work Exchange account set up with Mail. I sometimes have issues opening PDF's in e-mails as well. Sometimes they will download and open, other times the pdf downloads but it says its unavailable when I try to open it. Not sure what causes that. 
  • Reply 10 of 20
    Outlook works fine here. And no, I don't need any 'subscription' to use it on iOS. Just download ...add in email account address(es) and done.
    edited September 2018
  • Reply 11 of 20
    I suspect that Google's GMail client for IOS tops all of the above except for the built-in Apple Mail app.

  • Reply 12 of 20
    My concern is that these 3rd party apps store your email credentials on their servers as well as acting as a relay for your messages/ attachments, which now becomes another giant honey pot of user data. This made things particularly difficult as my work email servers check the IP address location when logging in. Given that a couple of these 3rd party mail servers were located outside Australia, I couldn't get them to collect my work email. Getting outlook to work on my iPad and iPhone together was a nightmare....login on the iPhone, and I had to re-authenticate on the iPad and vice versa, despite trying every combination of app specific password (one for each device/ one for each app etc). Finally, mail was being delivered and sent much quicker via apple's own mail client on iOS, indicating that the third party clients were contacting their own servers which were acting as a relay. If the third party clients were accessing your mail server directly, it would receive mail at exactly the same time as iOS mail.

    Check the ToS and privacy policy of these companies, it is eye opening.
    edited September 2018 watto_cobragilly017
  • Reply 13 of 20
    mike1mike1 Posts: 3,161member
    I wish there was a way for me to finish and send an e-mail that was started on my PC through Exchange. Currently, I can see the draft on my phone, but can’t do anything with it. 
  • Reply 14 of 20
    I have my main email machine on 24/7. Apple Mail sorts out all incoming into various subfolders. As it shows me all incoming and outgoing in the Today folder I still see my daily mails in one place. This however means that iOS mail is fairly pointless as there is no Today function there. All sorted mail is invisible in iOS mail. If someone would create a Today function I would start using mail again on iOS, but for now mail for me is MacOS only.
  • Reply 15 of 20
    YvLyYvLy Posts: 89member
    Question: I use AppleMail on a Mac OS and have folders and subfolders for clients and projects. Is there any way to EXPORT all of these folders and content to IOS AppleMail? With other words: I would like to MIRROR my MacOS AppleMail to IOS AppleMail? By the way, I am happy with AppleMail. Simple and reliable.
  • Reply 16 of 20
    YvLy said:
    Question: I use AppleMail on a Mac OS and have folders and subfolders for clients and projects. Is there any way to EXPORT all of these folders and content to IOS AppleMail? With other words: I would like to MIRROR my MacOS AppleMail to IOS AppleMail? By the way, I am happy with AppleMail. Simple and reliable.
    If you will be using IMAP connection then you will see the same on both devices. Not sure how easy is switching from POP to IMAP.
  • Reply 17 of 20
    fred1fred1 Posts: 1,053member
    The Apple Mail app on my MacBook Pro worked fine until recently and then I started having problems, like the same message delivered on two different days, messages disappearing, and messages would appear with a different sender and subject line.  I tried Spark and had no problems. Then I contacted the Apple support people, who looked into it and told me that it was because of the antivirus program Avast. They said it “gets between your mail server and your laptop and causes problems.”  Uninstalling Avast seems to have solved the problem.  
  • Reply 18 of 20
    I have Airmail, Spark and Outlook which I use the least of the three. I went to Airmail first because I found Mail on my iMac tedious. It’s a pain to to delete unwanted mail in the inbox. In fact this is what I hate about Mail on iOS and macOS the most. Airmail et al, allows you to tap and 'select all' to trash. If Mail has that feature will someone please share it with me 'cause I haven’t noticed it. UI and overall look of Airmail and Spark are great too. Mail needs some work Apple. It’s high time.
  • Reply 19 of 20
    YvLyYvLy Posts: 89member
    Thanks, Frantisek!
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