If you, like me, are always dealing with an onslaught of email, you may dread getting away from it for any amount of time, even if it’s just an evening at home, the weekend, or a trip. There’s always the worry that you’re missing something important, and returning to an overflowing inbox isn’t fun. Worse, if you do check in quickly, you risk getting sucked in for too long and incurring the ire of family or friends. Then there’s the problem of business travel, when you need to juggle important communications while in meetings.
An iPhone is certainly a boon in such a situation; you can check email quickly without having to sit down at a desktop Mac or even pull out a laptop. With cellular connectivity, an iPhone even enables email checks in places where a Mac could never get online. But Mail, Gmail, and most other iPhone email clients focus more on providing a full email experience than helping you scan email quickly. For that, you want Triage from Southgate Labs, a $2.99 email app for iOS that you can use to separate the wheat from the chaff as quickly as possible.
At the highest level, there are only two types of email, those messages you need to read, and those you don’t. But when you’re faced with a list of messages as long as your arm, it can be hard to scan quickly without becoming distracted. Triage changes the equation by displaying your Inbox as a series of Keep/Delete questions, one for each new message.
Once you’ve configured Triage to connect to your email accounts (Gmail, Yahoo, iCloud, Outlook and standard IMAP accounts), it retrieves a list of unread messages and presents you with a preview of the first one, showing you the sender, the subject, and a snippet of text from the body of the message (unless it’s an HTML message without a text alternative), plus a number if there are multiple messages in the conversation. You have two choices, keep the message for later, when you have time or can deal with it better, or delete it. Swipe down to keep the message; swipe up to delete it.
Keeping the message requires a little explanation, since “keep” actually means “Do absolutely nothing with this message on the server, but don’t show it to me in Triage again.” The key is that when you keep a message, it appears in other email clients as though you’ve never seen it before.
When it comes to “deleting” messages, Triage lets you choose from three “delete” actions in its settings (you wouldn’t switch between these actions regularly). Triage can mark the message as read, archive it, or truly delete it. Which you choose depends on how you manage email. Since I delete almost nothing and consider archiving email in Gmail (which just deletes the Inbox label) to be unnecessary make-work, I have it set to mark as read. If you’re more of an Inbox Zero person, you’ll want to archive or delete the message, depending on how retentive you are.
That’s the core of what Triage can do, but it has a few additional features. Tap a message preview and it expands to show the full message (the right-hand screenshot above), in case you couldn’t determine what to do from the preview. Left and right arrows let you see other messages in the conversation, if any, and once you figure out what to do, you can tap a double-arrow button to shrink the message back down to the preview and swipe it up or down. An i button displays header information, and there’s also a curved arrow button that lets you reply to the message or forward it, which is good, since sometimes a message can be dispatched in a few seconds, and it would be frustrating to have to switch to a different email program to respond.
So here’s a common scenario for me. It’s Sunday, and while I don’t want to get sucked into reading email or using my Mac in any way, I’m expecting to hear from friends about a run we’re planning. I launch Triage, and swipe my way through the messages that have appeared in my Inbox since I last used it, keeping those that need further attention and marking the rest as read so I don’t see them when I next sit down at my Mac. It’s a wonderfully lightweight way to check in, and in a matter of minutes I can find out who’s coming on the run and be certain nothing has exploded since my last mail check. And when I launch Triage again, perhaps while killing a few minutes while waiting for Tonya and Tristan, it shows me only messages I haven’t yet seen — you never have to triage a message twice.
Or, while at Macworld/iWorld, where I don’t have time to check email other than morning and night, Triage is being helpful for checking in on email-based logistics during the day.
It’s important to realize that Triage is meant only for these very quick email checks, not as a tool for managing all sorts of incoming email. It sees only messages in your Inbox, for instance, and not those filtered at the server to other folders. It doesn’t let you file or label messages, flag them, or mark them as spam.
While I appreciate that focus most of the time, I occasionally long for a few more features. It’s hard to swallow having to keep spam, for instance, because I want to make sure to mark it later so Gmail learns from my actions. And some people have email processing strategies that involve filing messages from the Inbox into action-based folders — for them, the keep/delete dichotomy is too limiting.
It’s easy to imagine Triage adding left and right swipes as well, and making them configurable, so a left swipe could mark a message as spam and a right swipe could move it to a particular mailbox. It could even have a swipe bring up a list of particular mailboxes into which the message could be moved.
My main complaint about Triage is that the button to shrink an expanded message back down to a preview is finicky; it often doesn’t activate when I tap it. I’ve found that swiping down on the button works much better for some reason. Another annoyance is that I strongly prefer to send all my email from my firstname.lastname@example.org address, but Triage has no provision for an alternate sending address for Gmail accounts, forcing any replies and forwards to come from my generally hidden Gmail address.
But while there’s room for both near term improvements and longer term feature growth, I’m a happy Triage user in the here and now, and if you’d like a quick way to cruise through your new email from your iPhone, I encourage you to give it a try. As with Recur, the last app I reviewed, the highest recommendation I can give is that Triage has earned a spot on my home screen.