First Look: Mailplane â€“ A desktop Gmail client for OS X
These days, web apps are giving their desktop equivalents a run for their money. Still, desktop apps provide a level of integration that is difficult to recreate through a browser. Mailplane aims to provide the best of both worlds for users of the popular web-based email service Gmail, plus some clever new features that aren’t found anywhere else. Mailplane will be released in the coming weeks â€“ here’s our first look.
Mailplane tries to bridge the gap between web app and desktop, bringing drag-and-drop file management and integration with other applications to Gmail. While you can still use the “attach a file” link when composing an email, it’s now possible to simply drop an attachment into a new message. An “iMedia” browser gives direct access to the most likely locations for media files, potentially removing several steps from the process of attaching frequently mailed file types. While these features may be nothing new for most well-made Mac applications, Mailplane makes Gmail feel right at home on the desktop.
You can even attach multiple files in one step. Try that with Gmail’s file dialog.
There are also some unexpected niceties that aren’t all that common place. When composing a new message, for example, a “Screenshot” button becomes available. This opens Grab and prompts you to select an area of the screen to capture. Your new screen grab is immediately attached to the email. While it might be a little specific, it’s a useful feature that I’d love to see make its way into Mail.app.
Managing Multiple Accounts
Through a traditional browser, Gmail only allows one account to be logged in at a time, making managing multiple accounts a real chore. Mailplane works around this limitation, providing a sidebar listing of available Gmail accounts and unread messages in each. Switching accounts is as simple as a double click.
One small catch: while Mailplane handles the process of logging out of one account and in to the next, it can’t hold your place when you switch back. This means that if you just put together a complicated search in one Gmail account, then switched accounts to quickly read a new message, you’ll have to start your search all over again upon switching back.
A Specialized Browser
Mailplane is, at its heart, a specialized web browser exclusively for use with Gmail. This contributes both some strengths and weaknesses.
On the up side, you always see the full Gmail interface in the center of the Mailplane screen. This means that if Google decides to add a new feature or change the shortcut for a function, you won’t be stuck going back to Safari until Mailplane gets updated. That’s nothing to sneeze at considering how quickly things can change in the world of web apps.
On the downside, the buttons in the Toolbar are effectively “hacks”. They require Gmail’s Keyboard Shortcuts to be turned on (which Mailplane does nicely remind you to do when adding a new account,) and are limited to the functions that are accessible through those shortcuts. Those shortcuts do include 90% of what you’re likely to do in Gmail, but one could argue that you might as well just learn the shortcuts yourself, or use the buttons built in to the Gmail web interface. Luckily, the Toolbar is easy to customize, so you can mix and match as you see fit.
Sure, I could use the Toolbar button, but the regular one is so much closer.
Additionally, since Gmail doesn’t work without an internet connection, neither does Mailplane. No, I’m not expecting to be able to magically receive emails offline, but it would be nice to be able to review those I’ve already received and draft new messages. This is something we’ve taken for granted for a long time in clients like Mail.app, but making this possible in Mailplane would require some action on Google’s part. With Google Gears, however, it may not be long until this gets remedied.
I can see you, email… If only I could read you.
Overall, Mailplane provides some great new functionality and increased ease of use for many Gmail users, with a handful of minor drawbacks. If you use multiple Gmail accounts from multiple locations, or work with Gmail through a standard browser, Mailplane is definitely worth a try. However, those currently using Mail.app to check their Gmail account and working primarily from one computer are unlikely to find a reason to switch.
Mailplane for OSX (Currently in Beta, v1.0 coming soon)
Price: $24.95 for 1 license, $32.95 for 5 system “Family Pack”
Pros: Mailplane provides Gmail users with the kind of OS integration that can still only be found in desktop applications, without watering down Gmail’s impressive feature set. Working with multiple Gmail accounts in multiple locations is a breeze. Extras like easy screenshot mailing and iLife integration are welcome additions.
Cons: Mailplane’s “specialized browser” approach can lead to redundant options that are often more of a pain to use than Gmail’s built-in buttons. Mailplane relies on an available internet connection to function, making offline composition or review of received emails impossible.