Mail Pilot: an Innovative, To-do Style Approach to Your Emails

For the last fifteen years that we’ve been using email clients — webmail or desktop — the basic concepts and features remained the same. Anyone may have its own workflow to deal with emails and get things done, but almost everyone has to struggle with the same old, rigid logic provided by almost all clients on the market. However, we’re doing more and more with email these days than we did in the nineties. Something, it seems, needs to change.

The Kickstarter-funded Mail Pilot web app, still in beta, aims at redefining the way of dealing with emails. Let’s see how it might help you actually get things done.

Dealing with emails is as easy as dealing with to-dos

The core principle of Mail Pilot is that you treat your emails like a to-do list. There are no read/unread status, no tags, no folders (except for sent emails). Instead, every email you receive in Mail Pilot can be assigned only one status: it is either complete or incomplete.

Incoming messages are considered as incomplete by default. What you see in the first place when you log in into Mail Pilot — what would be called your inbox in any other classic email client — is in fact your list of so-called incomplete emails.

Screenshot of the Incomplete Messages list

Hovering your mouse cursor over one of the big dark grey circles next to each mail transforms the circle into a check mark. Just click and the message is marked as complete.

If a message requires no particular action on your part, apart from discovering its content (think of FYI emails, newsletters, ads…), you can mark it as complete right after reading it. If you do so, the email is automatically archived and won’t appear in your list of incomplete messages anymore.

This is the first major difference with other email clients, where already read emails stay in your inbox until you effectively choose to move or delete them. This often leads to a cluttered inbox if you don’t methodically deal with it.

Another notable difference is that, with the largest majority of web email clients, once you open an email, it is (almost) instantly marked as read. You then have to take a specific action to mark it as unread again, should you want to keep an eye on it.

With Mail Pilot, on the contrary, until you don’t explicitly mark a message as complete, it stays incomplete and thus upfront in your “inbox”.

Screenshot showing a message read but not complete.

The selected message (highlighted in blue in the list on the left) has been read but is not marked as complete until you explicitly do so, for instance by clicking on the green round button.

I find the Mail Pilot approach makes more sense, is more powerful and frictionless. Logical steps require no particular action from your part: when you’ve dealt with an email, it won’t stay in your sight, whereas it will stay at hand until you’re done with it.

I think that if you follow the core principles of David Allen’s GTD philosophy — and even if the developers did not explicitly mention any reference to it — you should feel almost instantly at ease with Mail Pilot. The good point is that, even if you’ve never heard about GTD, you don’t need it to quickly understand how the web app works. In fact, hardcore GTD followers might even feel a bit frustrated as the app only implements the basics (decide quickly, review later). The notion of contexts is not applicable in Mail Pilot, as there is not even any tagging possibilities.

An elegant interface with innovative features within a classical layout

I won’t delve into the details of adding your pre-existing mail accounts to Mail Pilot, as the process is pretty straightforward and you’re guided along the way. You can add as many IMAP accounts as you wish. Once you’ve done this, you are presented with a really well crafted step-by-step tutorial and then you can start playing with the Mail Pilot interface.

Global screenshot of the Mail Pilot interface.

The Mail Pilot interface is based on a familiar three-pane layout but shows a distinctive, elegant design with a strong personality.

The leftmost pane, called the ‘Productivity Center’, features general controls for the application itself as well as selectors to choose which category of messages and/or which review list should be displayed in the middle pane. The Productivity center is the only part of the UI that can be hidden.

Screenshot showing the upper part of the 'Productivity Center' pane of Mail Pilot.

The Productivity Center provides access to main functions and display options.

You will also find a little box that can either show:

  • your ‘Review Calendar’ showing today’s date as well as dates when some messages must be reviewed, highlighted in blue
  • or your list of ‘Review Contacts’ (more on this later)

You can toggle between both with just a click.

Screenshot showing the Review Calendar box.

At the bottom sits a handy mini calendar providing direct access to messages assigned to a date.

The middle pane shows the messages contained in the list you selected in the left pane, and the right, largest pane shows the content of the selected message. This three-pane layout is nothing particularly innovative nor disturbing for an email client, so you should feel at ease quite rapidly.

What’s more unusual is what is called the ‘Drill Down bar’ at the left of your message in the rightmost pane. Here you will find classical functions for replying and forwarding the email as well as three round, colored buttons. These let you act on the message with the specific concepts of Mail Pilot: you can choose to mark the message as complete, add it to the ‘General Review’ list or show more advanced reviewing options (more on the latter later).

Screenshot showing the Mail Pilot 'drill bar'.

The ‘drill bar’ gives access to basic email actions as well as big round buttons for the Mail Pilot specific features.

Overall, the user interface is really pleasant and shows great attention to detail. Every functionality is easily accessible and clearly identified with large colored buttons, while less important and/or more complex features are a bit more subtly identified by black buttons on a dark background. It’s polished, has nice slide-in/slide-out animations, though it’s not too shiny or excessively eye-candy. It’s esthetically pleasing while staying functional, which is a really nice point. It really looks much more like a desktop application interface rather than a web app.

Dark background, vibrant colors… the default theme looks nice but you better like it as you can’t choose another one or simply customize it, at least for now.

Also of note is that there are keyboard shortcuts for the most important actions, and that you can choose between two predefined keyboard shortcuts configurations.

Deal with a message while it’s hot or be reminded later

It appears rather obvious that one of the goals of Mail Pilot is to make you spend the least time possible dealing with your emails. Consequently, when getting a new email, if you don’t want to instantly decide about marking it complete or incomplete, you don’t have to. Indeed, you can mark any email as needing a later review, by clicking on the ‘General Review’ button. You can even define more precise options for the review by entering the Advanced Review mode.

When you click on the big round blue Advanced Review button, the ‘Drill Down’ bar slides out and a new menu panel slides in from the top. Here can choose to review the email later: in one day, three days, one week, or at whatever specific date you choose in the built-in mini calendar. You can also add the message to a particular review list. Review lists might be the closer analog to folders found in other webmail clients. Finally, you can also mark the email as needing a response from someone: by default, you and the sender(s) of the current message are featured in the ‘Review with Contact’ list. Just check the little box next to a name and it will be added to your ‘Review Contacts’ list in the bottom part of the ‘Productivy Center’, left most pane of the web app.

Screenshot showing the Advanced Review Panel

The slide-in Advanced Review lets you configure options for reviewing a message later and adding it to special review lists.

When you assign a date for reviewing an email, this email will temporarily vanish from your list of incomplete messages but will appear back at the top of your ‘Incomplete’ emails list at the day you specified.

These special ways of dealing with emails are what makes Mail Pilot so different from any other email client.

Send emails with some inventive tricks

Clicking on the easily identifiable “Compose New Message” button at the bottom makes a composing window sliding from the bottom. At the same time, an opaque mask is applied on the background of your window, letting you focus on your message to send. One innovative approach is the order in which you type elements of your outgoing email: first the recipients and then the body before writing a subject. This is a nice one and is aimed to let you find and write a better subject by thinking about it after having wrote everything else.

Screenshot of the composing window

The composing window offers you to write your message before the subject. This behavior is reversible.

Replying to or forwarding an email also adds an interesting take on emails, in line with the core concepts of Mail Pilot. Indeed, in addition to just sending the email, you will find two other options: ‘Send & Complete’ or ‘Send & Review’. Once you have understood the complete/incomplete and the review concepts of the app, these buttons are pretty self-explanatory: the ‘Send & Complete’ is pretty much the same as ‘Send & Archive’ in Gmail and is particularly suited if you don’t wait for a further response for this email, while if you choose the ‘Send & Review’, your outgoing email will remain at hand in your Review list until you’re done with it.

Finally, a much welcome feature is that you can send attachments from files stored in your Dropbox, thanks to an in-app browser. Files attached with this method will be uploaded just as files from your computer would, they won’t appear as a Dropbox link to your recipient.

Screenshot showing the in-app Dropbox browser that lets you add files from your Dropbox account as attachments to your emails

You can directly attach files from your Dropbox thanks to an easy-to-use in-app browser. You can even have a live preview of pictures.

A few things still missing

What first annoyed me is that there is no delete function for an individual message. You have to enter a special, ‘bulk’ mode where you can select several messages to mark them as complete or delete them. But even in that case, you have to select emails one by one as there is no ‘select all’ option. I find this frustrating, especially if you’re dealing with a large collection of emails. I think the main philosophy of Mail Pilot really is to just ‘complete’ an email and then forget about it.

Screenshot showing the Bulk functions.

There’s a mode where you can bulk delete or complete messages, but no ‘Select All’ button, which means you have to check emails one by one. Frustrating.

Also, there’s no threaded view like what you would find in Gmail, though this is on the roadmap and will be added later in the development.

Conclusion

Mail Pilot is refreshing in it provides a much-needed new approach to deal with emails. The basic concepts are interesting and promising. Overall, the design is polished and the UI is easy to deal with once you’ve understood the underlying concepts. However, you’ll miss some features (threaded views, drafts) that, despite being on the development roadmap, will probably prevent you from completely switching from your everyday email client for now. Be reminded, though, that Mail Pilot is still in beta.

Another important thing to consider is its price tag: yes, Mail Pilot is not free. Though the devs provide much understandable reasons to the subscription-based pricing model, you will have to spend $99 a year or $12 a month to use their service. During the public beta period, you can subscribe for a reduced $60 yearly price; you can’t choose to try it for just a month, for now. You might not be accustomed to this if you use one of the many free web mails available on the market.

Still, the concept and the way it is implemented are really interesting. It is also noteworthy that, once out of the beta period, the Mail Pilot team will progressively release free dedicated apps for Android, iOS, Mac and Windows.


Summary

Mail Pilot is a subscription-based web app that aims at prodiving a new workflow to deal with your emails. You treat messages as todos. The concept is promising, the UI design is really polished, but there are still some trade-offs in this public beta version. Definitely worth having a look at again once the final version is released.

  • Mail Pilot  | 
  • Subscription-based: $12/month or $99/year (special beta price: $60/year)  | 
  • Mindsense
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  • http://iqtell.com/ Team IQTELL

    I totally agree that emails should have a to do list approach about them, but calendars, bookmarks, files, notes and all types of data for that matter should also be included on that workflow. It’s only natural.

    • http://mac.appstorm.net/author/pwizla/ Pierre Wizla

      Thanks for your comment.
      Calendars are included in MailPilot, and notes are on the way (on the roadmap), FYI ;-)

  • http://www.thepapermail.com Jacob Penderworth

    I originally liked the concept of this app and pledged to it, but the initial launch really let me down. There were a lot of bugs (and still are in areas) within the Web app, making it unusable for me. Some of them were graphical glitches, which just got annoying.

    I was hoping this would be a Mac app instead of a Web one because usually Web apps are terrible. However, it seems that they’ve moved forward in development a bit. Maybe the final version will be better.

    • http://mac.appstorm.net/author/pwizla/ Pierre Wizla

      You’re right, Jacob, and thanks for your point of view.
      I actually partly rewrite this review several times, taking into account each new beta iteration. I do think it’s getting better and better ;-)
      The Mac app should be on its way in 2013, I guess.

      • http://www.thepapermail.com Jacob Penderworth

        Crazy stuff. That last sentence is good news for me.

    • Greg DeMaderios

      I was also very disappointed in the MailPilot beta. Didn’t live up to the hype for me and they abandoned the Get Satisfaction forum as a means of support with little to no notice that they’d done so.

      So unless I hear that they’re support has gotten better and made the necessary changes to MP to be usable, I won’t be giving them a serious look.

    • Greg

      I was also very disappointed in the MailPilot beta. Didn’t live up to the hype for me and they abandoned the Get Satisfaction forum as a means of support with little to no notice that they’d done so.
      So unless I hear that they’re support has gotten better and made the necessary changes to MP to be usable, I won’t be giving them a serious look.

  • http://developerkitty.com Developer Kitty

    I really like the look of this and wanted to give it a try, but as it’s a paid only app I need to consider stopping one of my other subscriptions to other apps I use first. As you can imagine there are so many wonderful web apps out there that you simply can’t have them all, unless they are free of course.

    But I do really like the look of this so if I can find a saving elsewhere and replace it with this this I definitely will.

    • http://mac.appstorm.net/author/pwizla/ Pierre Wizla

      Thanks for your opinion. Totally agree with you.
      I would have loved a free 1-month trial, at least. Maybe when out of beta?

  • http://[email protected] Iain

    Tried the interactive demo and must say I am disappointed, glad I did not pay for the beta.

    It has a nice interface by the the actual functionality is more limited then the standard OSX Mail.

    You would be more productive by using Flags and Rules in processing your mail – even more so if you added Mail Act-On from Indev, and a you would save a lot of money.

    Heres hoping .Mail while finally bring a new alternative to mail processing on the mac.

  • Alex

    Tried to use the beta and had to give up – it does not work for most people using their own hosted IMAP servers. As most hosters do not allow for root folder generation and these guys regret to implement that feature in the next time. Waiting for other solutions …

  • Gary

    Please let me know when there is a mac.app and a free 1 month trial available. I would also like to see outside reviews.

  • http://N/A Santiago

    No free version?

    Not for me. Plus I don’t need more monthly bills!
    I do like the concept and love the dark and black theme.

    I’m developing a Favorite Links web page and will try that
    theme.

    Bye, best of luck,
    Sam A.

  • eMBee

    i have followed mailpilot with interest and was very happy to be able to try the demo. (better than a trial which i’d have had to fill with my own messages)

    i like the general concept, but unfortunately mailpilot lost me as soon as i noticed the lack of folders or tags. that’s just not practical when most of my email is from mailinglists which can be automatically filtered. these filters need to be able to put mails somewhere, either folders or tags.

    greetings, eMBee.

  • Mswift

    Gave up trying to create an account, too “Internal Error” message stopped me from being able to create an account. Tried in 3 browsers, none worked. You would think these bugs would be fixed before even a beta launch! Concept sounds good, if only it would work.

  • Caroline

    I really like the look and UI of this app. I’d like to request a feature be added that most mail apps don’t offer: a way to show the user that his email has been received and/or read. This could be such a big help for several different reasons. If you send a text message on an Apple iPhone, it shows you if it was delivered, not delivered, and also indicates if a response is being typed back to you. I like that interface, and rely on it a lot.

    Another request would be to allow emails to be duplicated and stored in more than one folder within the app, i.e. cross-filing. It would also be nice to be able to store the correspondence in various places outside of the mail app, and be translated into whatever format a program needs it to be in. For example, I cannot save an Apple email to a dropbox folder, unless I translate it into a pdf, etc. Ideally, you’d be able to respond or otherwise change the original email, and these updates would show up in all the folders and on all the devices the original email is stored on.

    Thanks for coming up with ‘a better mousetrap’! I look forward to seeing how it grows and develops.

    • larrymcj

      “allow emails to be duplicated and stored in more than one folder within the app”

      VERY nice suggestion, Caroline. The closer this gets to emulating my actual Gmail…the more likely I’ll be to pay $100/yr for it.

  • http://www.cambridgetax.co.uk TaxTeddy

    Agree with comments above – I am juggling emails from over 350 clients and others. I rely heavily on keeping order with folders for individual clients. So, while I might be tempted away from Thunderbird, this isn’t yet a solution for me.

  • Will

    I, too, really wanted to love this app, but don’t see a value-add above OSX mail worth $100/yr.

    Starting to feel like we’ll never see .Mail launch, and thought this might be an alternative. Not yet, at least for me.

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      The .Mail team recently announced that they’ve been working hard and should have something to show soon. I can’t wait, myself.

      And yes, I felt the same about Mail Pilot. I’d be willing to pay more for a mail app, and sure wish Sparrow had tried something new to keep their app independent, but $100/yr for this seems too much.

    • Robert

      yup…looks like .mail is gonna be dead before it arrives.

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  • Rick

    I’m okay with bleeding edge stuff being a bit rough around the edges. It looks promising enough to live with that. Perhaps the biggest thing that turns me off about it is the limitation of IMAP servers. For $100/year I’d certainly expect to be able to funnel all of my email into the program. For almost all of us in the corporate world that means talking to Exchange. Sure, I can appreciate the groans from folks who’d have to handle the far great complexity that talking to Exchange would lay on to them. But the idea of just using this for Gmail and being stuck in Mail or Outlook for everything else just doesn’t work for me at this price point.

    • Robert

      You are right….you need to be able to route all your email through this app. I went ahead and paid the $60 and I am pleased with it but I can’t 100% commit to the app yet because I can’t get all my email in it. Until that happens, it will be fun to play around with, but can’t be used full time.

      There are a couple of bugs going on with it right now. You sent emails and received emails don’t show up as soon as they are supposed to…they lag about 30-45 minutes. Sure it is the beta thing.

      • larrymcj

        @Robert: Thanks for posting this. I was about to prepay the $60, even with the shortcomings of the beta, but to wait 30-45 minutes for my email to show up is a showstopper. I wonder if this is an isolated problem…or if that’s the way it is for everyone?

  • larrymcj

    I understand the developers want users to process email they way “they” intended, and for the most part I’m willing to accept that. But to not provide a DELETE button is absurd. I “get” the “complete/incomplete” concept and I’ll buy into it. But just pressing “Complete” does nothing more than send yet another message to my Gmail archive. After a couple of years I’ll have to spend several days in the Gmail client just deleting out crap that I don’t want. The other thing they might want to re-think is not allowing users to have folders. E.g., how would I keep all my online purchase receipts in one place if I don’t have a “Receipts” folder? I’m sure enough people will complain about these, and other, things and they’ll have to relent.

  • avox

    I think not using Categories or Tags is actually an amazing plus, compared to regular email apps we are used to. The whole idea of this app is to “put email it its place”. Less time spent in your inbox, more time spent in the real world.

    I’m not sure if the creators intentionally left it out, or if categories/labels is a postponed feature, but to me this makes a lot of sense.

    Don’t get me wrong I have over 100 of labels in my email app of choice – Gmail; which I use vigorously every day.

    However, it makes me think that email should be used for what it’s intended – communication. Get in, say what you need to say in timely manner, then get out of it. Email should not be your storage or electronic filing cabinet. Just use search. You’ll save days if not months of your life if you don’t have to file away every single email that comes your way..

    As most of us who are struggling to keep up with the ever growing inbox, I need a simplified and effective solution and I think these guys are on the right path. I almost did the switch today to MailPilot. The only thing that stopped me is the lack of conversations (threaded views), which I just found out about in this article. The online demo shows no sign of threaded views either. As I said, the main purpose of email should be communication and the lack of threaded views just killed my boner.

    • larrymcj

      @avox: In an email from the developer I’ve been assured the desktop Mac client will definitely have folders…but no word yet on whether or not the web app will (I think it would eventually have to in order to be 100% compatible with the desktop client).

      I do understand the functionality of NOT having folders/tags, but (for me, anyway) there are times they can’t be avoided. Here’s a good example and maybe you have a suggestion on how Mail Pilot would handle this. I have a Gmail label named “Receipts” and it contains EVERY receipt for anything I’ve ever bought online for the past five+ years. All my iTunes receipts, MAS, eBay, Amazon, etc. What happens to them now…if the answer if they’re just dumped into the big “Archive” bucket on Gmail that just won’t work for me. I don’t think I can deal with eliminating all my other frivolous tags, but then again, I’m not sure.

      I love everything about Mail Pilot except this…and I’m just too much of an organized Taurus to not have someplace to stash important messages and have them somehow categorized.

      • larrymcj

        Correction: I meant to say…

        “I do think I can deal with eliminating all my other frivolous tags, but then again, I’m not sure.”

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