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Like so many, I have a love-hate relationship with e-mail. If I’m waiting for an important message, I thrill at the sound of something new hitting my inbox. Most of the time, though, I’m slogging through an ever-growing list of daily deals, mailing lists I don’t remember signing up for, and reminders I’ve sent to myself. Important e-mails are too easily lost or forgotten about. And the rise of e-mail on smartphones and tablets has made this e-mail overload seem even worse.

E-mail is showing no signs of disappearing, either. According to the Radicati Group, a technology market research firm, there were more than 2.1 billion e-mail users last year, and this number is set to rise to 2.7 billion by 2016. Besides the sheer number of messages, much of the problem with e-mail is that we’re dependent on the same technology used to send the first message more than 40 years ago (see “Startups Aim to Bring E-Mail Back to the Future”). In the years since, most of the innovation in e-mail has happened on top of that tech.

It will likely be a long time before something replaces e-mail altogether, but there is hope for improving the services we already have. Companies large and small are working to make e-mail less of a pain. I’ve spent time using three that I think are worth a look. If you’re ready to rethink your inbox, one of these might do the trick.

Mailbox

On the surface, Mailbox—a mobile-only service that works with an existing Gmail account—looks similar to many other mobile e-mail apps, but it has a smart “to-do” list twist: Each e-mail message is considered an actionable item meant to be checked off, rather than simply read, by swiping.

That means that Mailbox messages don’t automatically lose their bold type when you read them. A little dot next to each message will disappear when it’s been read, but really you’re meant to mark a note as done when you’re actually finished with it—something you do by archiving or deleting an e-mail after you read it. You can also snooze it for a later time (or even a surprise time in the future).

The coolest thing about Mailbox is its reliance on sliding gestures. You can swipe a message swiftly to the right to archive it or slowly to delete it. Swipe it slowly to the left to add it to a list (“to buy,” “to read,” “to watch,” or just add your own) or quickly to snooze it.

Here’s a promotional video on Mailbox:

Each of these actions removes, or archives, the message from your inbox, which I found both liberating and a little scary. Mailbox’s layout makes it easy to see all these categorized messages again. At the top of the app’s main page are three little icons—a tiny clock, inbox, and check mark—which you can tap on to see all the messages in those categories (the clock indicates snoozed messages; the check mark ones you’ve archived). A little square with three lines in the top left corner reveals all your different lists and settings.

If you’re feeling really productive (or simply curious about how it feels to have an empty inbox), you can even scroll to the bottom of the inbox and tap “Help me get to zero,” which will archive all your messages at once—meaning you’ll have to go to the archive section to see them again. I was a little scared to try this one, but it felt like a good way to start the new year.

Unfortunately, you can’t simply download Mailbox, since it’s currently only available in a private beta for the iPhone. And, while it’s expected to launch early this year, right now it works only with Gmail accounts. To be truly competitive, it will have to branch out.

Alto

When you think about AOL and e-mail, you probably remember your first inbox of a decade ago or more, complete with slow dial-up Internet that made checking messages a drag. These days, the Internet company is trying to shed that musty image with a free website called Alto (see “You’ve Got Mail Overload”) that helps make it easier to organize your messages.

I know what you’re thinking: AOL can’t be pushing the envelope. I was skeptical, too. But with its clean looks and clever features, Alto is impressive.

The service, which works with your AOL, Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and iCloud accounts, is marked by its use of “stacks” that automatically group photos, attachments, retailer messages, and more into individual piles to the right of your message stream (if you want, you can set it up so these messages never even hit your Alto inbox—you’ll still get a little green “new” notification whenever a fresh note hits the stack).

Having a stack for each member of my family made it simpler to keep track of conversations, and I appreciated having all my photos in one stack, since I am often searching back through old e-mails for images—with the stack, I could just click on the stack to see small previews of each one.

Another neat feature I noticed when playing around with stacks is that if you hover your mouse over any single stack and move it from left to right, you’ll see a chronologically ordered preview of what’s in that stack.

Alto also has a very good real-time search function that automatically pulls up messages, contact info, and attachments as you’re typing in your query.

I did have a few issues with Alto, most notably that it seemed to lag behind by up to a few minutes in letting me know I had new e-mails, which really slowed down a conversation I was carrying on with my dad. It also seemed very slow to surface my old Gmail messages. Alto opens tabs for stacks you’ve recently looked at, recent searches, and e-mails you’re in the midst of writing, which at times made my screen look quite cluttered.

Alto is currently in a private beta, but the company is offering MIT Technology Review readers early access, which you can get by clicking here. There’s currently no mobile version of Alto, but one is in the works.

Inky

My favorite of the bunch, however, is Inky, a free, cloud-connected desktop application for Mac and PC that offers a great way to manage your e-mail in an intelligent, easy-to-view interface.

Inky includes a couple smart ideas, the best of which is the ability to sort each day’s messages by relevance, based on your past e-mail sorting behavior. In Inky, relevance is the default view, though you can change it to show you e-mails by many other expected indicators (date, time, subject, etc.). A little blue droplet next to each message indicates its importance, as determined by the software’s machine-learning algorithm—the darker the droplet, the more Inky believes you care about the conversation.

When you first start using Inky (it works with all IMAP or POP accounts like Gmail and Yahoo Mail), it does its best to automatically determine what you care most about, and you can click a little blue droplet next to each message to let Inky know if you really do (or don’t) care about it. I trained Inky a bit—mainly by telling it that messages from family members and some friends were relevant—and it generally did a good job of figuring out what I cared most about.

Another good idea is the modestly named “smart views,” which are small icons on the left side of the Inky application window that automatically sort your e-mail into categories like personal, packages, subscriptions, social notifications, and notes to self. Inky did a good job of auto-filtering my personal e-mails into one folder, making it easier to keep up with family and friends.

One more noteworthy feature: Inky has a one-click unsubscribe button, which is a tiny red circle with a slash through it in any e-mail that allows you to either send an unsubscribe note to an e-mail list or go to the unsubscribe page on the Web. I had mixed success with sending an automated note—it worked with two subscriptions but bounced back on a third attempt.

The sad truth is that it’s tough to make e-mail better. That said, Inky does the best job at combining innovative features with good design. Its biggest drawback is that it only works as a desktop app right now. While I still spend most of my time checking e-mails from a laptop during the work day, like many of us, I’m increasingly doing so on my smartphone. Hopefully, a mobile Inky app will be coming soon.

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Tagged: Computing, Communications, Web, gmail, e-mail management

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