You’ve got bad mail: Android needs a better e-mail app

Given how many people do email on their phones, shouldn’t Android have a consistent, native app that rivals the iPhone?

One of the most popular apps for smartphones and tablets won’t show up on the “Most Popular” lists at iTunes or at Google Play. E-mail is the app, and it’s built into our devices. Doing e-mail on the iPhone or the iPad is a pleasure. E-mail on Android phones and tablets is a disappointing crapshoot. That should change.

Pew Internet reported last year that email was the fourth most popular activity among smartphone owners in the US, done by 76% of them. Email was beat only by texting, taking pictures and sending pictures and video. No doubt some of that sending was done via email.

comScore reported that for the last quarter of 2011, email was the third most popular activity on feature and smartphones in the US, done by 41% of mobile users, again coming after texting and taking pictures.

Given this much usage, you’d think that the email apps on our phones and tablets would get a lot of attention by their developers to work well. With Apple’s iOS operating system used by the iPhone and the iPad, I’ve found this to be the case. With Android, which is backed by Google, the email app feels like an afterthought.

The biggest issue overall is that it feels like there is no native Android email app. Each device maker seems to use its own app. Even the same Android manufacturer, such as Samsung, will have email apps that act differently from phone to phone.

I’ll go on a little tour of how Android falls down versus iOS below, in hopes that someone — anyone — at Google will solve the problem. I had one Googler specifically ask me for this (you know who you are), so fingers-crossed that it might make for some changes.

Tablet faceoff

Let me start with the joy that is doing email on the iPad:

ipad email

The view above is what you get when holding the iPad in landscape position. On the left, my inbox. If I click on any email message listed there, the message is displayed on the right in the reading pane. Nice.

Even nicer is when I go into “edit” mode in my inbox. Do that, and I can tap any message to make it display in the reading pane. As I tap additional messages, they begin to “pile up” on the preview side, as the screenshot above shows. It’s an easy way to skim through many low-priority emails that you likely want to delete. When finished, push “Archive,” and away they go.

Now consider what I get on my Asus Transformer Prime tablet, which runs the latest Android 4 operating system:

android tablet email

As with the iPad, I can view my inbox on the left and preview emails on the right. Excellent! But unlike the iPad, there’s no quick preview-and-archive feature. If you’ve never used this, it might not seem like a big deal. But once you have, you understand what an immense timesaver it can be — and likely wish Android had it, as well.

Still, I could skim down the list in my inbox and tap the checkboxes for emails that I want to quickly delete. But checkboxes like that aren’t always standard in other Android email apps. Nor does it address another pet peeve, how “conversation view” is often missing.

Let’s get conversational

Given that Google’s Gmail service help popularize the idea of viewing email by conversation or topic, rather than simply by date received, you’d think a conversation view feature would be standard for Android phones. It’s not. Consider:

Conversation view on iPhone and Android

On the left is email from my iPhone. At the top, three emails from a mailing list I’m on are combined into a single conversation (that’s why the number three is shown to the right). At the bottom is another conversation, between people I work with at Search Engine Land, talking about how our site appeared on the Rachel Maddow show (we were pretty excited). Again, three different emails were combined into a single conversation

In the middle is how my same inbox appeared on a Droid Bionic phone that Motorola is currently lending me for testing. Like the iPhone, it offers a conversation view. It combines all the messages from the mailing list I’m on just like the iPhone does. That’s why I have a single arrow going straight across. One message from the staff discussion isn’t combined with the other two, which is why the bottom arrow splits into two. Still, it does a pretty good job. In other instances, the Bionic might properly combine conversations that the iPhone might miss.

On the right is my same inbox again, this time as it appeared on the Galaxy Nexus that I own. It has no conversation view. As a result, my mailing list discussion is so spread out that two in the conversation don’t appear unless I scroll down. That’s why I have those two arrows going down the page. The staff discussion is also broken up, with two messages visibile as the two arrows show while the third is off the screen.

So much inconsistency

You might be thinking that the differences are due to the fact that the Droid Bionic runs Android 2.3 while the Galaxy Nexus runs Android 4.0. That’s not it. Different Android versions don’t control how the Android email app works. Different handset makers do.

Samsung makes the Galaxy Nexus, which lacks a conversation view. Samsung also makes the Galaxy S II Skyrocket that I own, an Android 2.3 phone that does have conversation view. Samsung also makes the Droid Charge, the Android 2.3 phone I had before I changed to the Galaxy Nexus. It has conversation view, like the Skyrocket. However, it differs in other ways.

With the Droid Charge, a tickbox appears next to each email message in your inbox, similar to how both Android inboxes shown above appear. You can easily delete emails by ticking the boxes and pushing the delete button. With the Skyrocket, you have to do the opposite. You select the menu to reveal the delete button, then pushing that makes the tickboxes appear. After picking what you want to trash, you then go back to the delete button and push it again. That process slows things down.

But wait, there’s more! With the Droid Charge, delete an email you’re reading, and you go back to your inbox list. I prefer instead to have the next email “below” what I was reading load. That saves time. Motorola’s Droid Bionic has this same problem. In contrast, Samsung’s Galaxy S II does load the message below. The Galaxy Nexus lets you choose if you want to go to an older email that’s below what you were reading, a newer one above or back to the inbox list. Why don’t they all have these choices?

There are yet more maddening problems. The Galaxy Nexus (as does the Transformer Prime) has reply buttons in the emails that scroll off the screen, making you waste time going back up if you want to send a response. My review of the Galaxy Nexus explains this more and some other email problems.

No, the Gmail app is not the solution

One reason I suspect that the Android email app gets overlooked is that Google offers its own Gmail app for Android. Surely that covers everything! In fact, the Android site features Gmail as an app and makes no mention of the email app at all. 

Certainly when I complain about the poor email experience on Android, I sometimes hear from other Android users that I should just use the Gmail app. But the Gmail app not the answer. Not everyone uses Gmail. Not everyone likes how Gmail blends all messages in a conversation into a single view. Sometimes, you want to drop out some of a conversation but not all of it.

Speaking of Gmail, it would be really nice if Android email apps could recognize a Google Apps account — which is basically Gmail but using your own domain — and automatically configure this correctly. The iPhone and iPad manage it. Even Windows Phone manages it. But the email apps on Android phones inevitably ask me to manually adjust my IMAP and SMTP settings.

Third-party apps

I’ve been through Google Play (formerly Android Market) in hopes of finding a good, third-party solution to my Android email woes. So far, I’ve come up short.

K-9 Mail is a free, popular choice with many options but lacks conversation view. 

Enhanced Email was one of the apps that Amazon gives away each day for free as part of its own Android app store. I’m glad I didn’t pay the $ 10 list price, because while it has many options like K-9, conversation view doesn’t appear to be one of them.

Mail Droid, which is free, does have conversation view and seems to work OK, but deleting an email that you’re reading takes you back to the inbox. If there’s a setting to change this, I’m not finding it. Also, the banner ads at the bottom of my inbox feel intrusive. Paying $ 18 to get rid of them via the pro version feels a bit steep.

Know a good app I’ve missed? I’d love to hear recommendations in the comments.

Please make a good, native app

Of course, I shouldn’t have to turn to a third-party app, made by companies I’m not familiar with. Do I trust their products with my email? It’s probably fine, but it would be so much better to have a native app that works well.

I like my Android phone for many reasons, especially for excellent Google Voice integration, built-in GPS and 4G LTE speed, all of which the iPhone lacks. But I find myself dreading doing email on the Galaxy Nexus, since the experience is so bad compared to my old Droid Charge, much less my iPhone 4S.

I’d like to see Android ship with a better native app, one that rivals the features that I can find in iOS. Or even Windows Phone, for that matter, which does have conversation view. Pity deleting an email sends you back to the inbox when using Windows Phone, though.