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Mailbox: the free iPhone app that will change how you use email

On the Buttons: David Phelan reviews a revelation in email for iPhone users

Mailbox is a free iPhone app that aims to change the way you use email. It's from Orchestra, the guys who made Orchestra To-Do, a sophisticated reminder list app for the iPhone. It's pretty good, - though personally I'm still devoted to the colourful, intuitive and perfectly configured Clear (iPhone, £1.49).

Click here for the step-by-step visual guide to the app.

Orchestra realised that plenty of people use email as a rather poor to-do list, with scores or even hundreds of messages sitting unanswered to act as reminders of unfinished business.

As organisational guru David Allen (best known for his time management book and method Getting Things Done, which partially inspired the app)  points out, an overflowing inbox is deeply inefficient and it's important to scuttle the unimportant stuff away to stop it from distracting you from the crucial bits.

The most efficient way to deal with an email, and many other kinds of communication is to look at it only once, deciding then to action, save or delete the message.

Mailbox recognises the importance and – dare I say it? – the beauty of 'inbox zero' where there are no emails at all sitting there to make you feel guilty that you haven't dealt with them.

So when you look at your inbox onscreen, Mailbox lets you swipe to sort it. A quick swipe right and emails that you don't need but shouldn't be deleted are swept into an archive, symbolised by a green tick. A slow swipe right, however, and the tick turns into a red X, telling you that email has been deleted.

But what about the emails you don't want to look at right now, don't want forever and can't just get rid of? Mailbox has an elegant solution with its snooze function which makes the message vanish and reappear later.

A short swipe left invokes the snooze function. Do this and a grid of options appears so you can decide how long before the email is back. Choose from later today, this evening, tomorrow, this weekend, next week, in a month and so on. Each has a cheery icon, though the fact that the "this weekend" option is signified by sunshine shows that this is not a British-developed app.

There's one more option – a long swipe left lets you put the email into a list. Default options are to read, to watch and to buy, though you can create more.

You can do all these swipes without even opening an email, reading the first two lines of the message in the inbox list. Of course you can also open them and assign a destination from inside the emails, too.

Getting through your inbox suddenly becomes a simple and very speedy process. And then there's the joy of reaching an empty mailbox, signified by the app displaying a photo – this changes on a daily basis – and the legend "You're all done".

This is a fantastic app, though there are some downsides – mostly to do with the fact that it won't work for everyone. For a start, it's iPhone-only – there's no Android, Windows Phone or BlackBerry version for now. Second, it only works with Gmail accounts, though you can work with multiple Gmail addresses. It's a shame there's no me.com email compatibility as so many iPhone users have one of these - Orchestra says it's working on this.

Third, you need to be patient. The app works on a reservation system. Only when you reach the front of the queue can you start using Mailbox. When I joined there were hundreds of thousands of people in front of me – the app shows a countdown with the number of people in front of and behind you. It counts down at around 10 people per minute, though the team hope to accelerate this soon.

Not getting it yet is the biggest disappointment but go with it. Reserve your place now and wait your turn. This is a remarkable app that can really make a difference to the way you use email. For sure, it will be copied by others, but for now it's unique. And highly desirable.

What are you waiting for? Oh yes, that's right, to get to the front of the line.


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