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Sparrow’s Pretty Dainty

Sparrow

For a long time I was a devoted user of Apple’s Mail.app, despite it’s shortcomings and ugly interface compared to it’s sister app on the iPad, and until a couple of months ago as well I was dragging my feel still using Windows Live for all of my email needs. So you would expect it had to be something pretty huge to drag me into the year 2011 and get me to start using Gmail. That huge thing was actually pretty dainty, and it was Sparrow.

Sparrow has been available in public beta for a while now, I jumped on the bandwagon at Beta 1, and i’ve bigged it up a tonne on here. As of a couple of weeks ago, it’s now available in the Mac App Store with a pile of new features. With this new shipping version, Sparrow comes at a cost as well, so here’s what you should consider before deciding whether it’s worth your £5.99.

It’s refreshing to see an app as well-crafted as Sparrow, it screams elegance and the amount of work that must have been put into it is phenomenal. It was designed to keep things simple and efficient. Just your mail and nothing else. Sparrow integrates really well with all mail accounts, you can use any mail account you want: Gmail, Mobile Me, Yahoo, AOL, and custom IMAP for anything and everything else. Sparrow really shines when you use Gmail though, supporting Gmail labels, Priority Inbox and Starring, if your a Gmail user, Sparrow is the closest you’ll get to a native Gmail experience on the Mac.

Since I started using Sparrow it’s really optimized my workflow, the support for Priority Inbox and labels mean I can easily keep a clean and tidy inbox and get through all of my mail quickly and easily, thanks to Sparrow as well replying to your mail has never been so simple using Quick Reply which means you can respond right inside the email. Click, write and send in the same window. The latest update to Sparrow has also added support for plug-ins so it can integrate better with OS X apps like Things or OmniFocus.Sparrow manages to make using multiple accounts a breeze as well, using the Tweetie inspired sidebar you can Stay up to date with your mail stream on selected accounts while being able to seamlessly switch from one to another. It might sound sad but I genuinely enjoy checking mail in Sparrow, it has threaded email unlike Mail.app letting you quickly flick through threaded conversations. When responding as well Sparrow makes it easy to change fonts, font size, alignment, colour, pretty much everything, right in the app, so that you can make your mail look gorgeous.

Sparrow fully embraces OS X as well, supporting multi-touch to browse your mail and to expand the window, it also supports Quick Look to preview all attachments in emails. Thats where it gets interesting though, Mail 5 which will be arriving with Mac OS X Lion has replicated Mail for iPad on the desktop with added support for threaded mail and other functionality to bring it up to speed against Sparrow including mail rules which aren’t supported in Sparrow yet, so, is Sparrow really worth your money when you can get Mail.app for free? Yes.

Even at £5.99, if you’re a Gmail user Sparrow offers integration Mail will probably never end up supporting, and even if you use MobileMe or Yahoo the rapid development of Sparrow so far shows these guys are great developers who are just going to keep pushing the boundaries.

If iTunes was a hipster

Ecoute

There’s no denying iTunes is one of the most influential pieces of software to come out of the Apple HQ in Cupertino in the last decade, it changed the music industry for better and for always, there is also no denying though that as a music player iTunes can be cumbersome and clunky, there is just too much window for it to be a plain and simple music player. There are so many iTunes controllers out there which try to make using iTunes quicker and easier, a very well known one is Bowtie, as well as CoverSutra, and of course, Ecoute.

Unlike most other iTunes controllers Ecoute is a windowed application, it squeezes all of the awesomeness of iTunes into a window a quarter of it’s size. When you open it, you get a small window with all the Artists in your iTunes library. From there you just choose the Artist you want to listen to and that’s it! Because there’s less window to navigate Ecoute gives a better, quicker experience, one of it’s big advantages is that it only has to focus on playing your iTunes library so it’s a lot more responsive. One thing I really love about Ecoute is that it really embraces keyboard controls, you can easily navigate through your Artists, Albums and Songs all day just by using four keys: Left, Right, Up and Down. To make dealing with things a lot quicker Ecoute also has a fully configurable shortcuts preference pane, so that you can do pretty much anything in the app just using your keyboard. If you’re not a fan of keyboard controls though, you can use it just fine without with ease, or you can even link up your Apple Remote.

Ecoute has a leg up on Bowtie, it allows you to do multiple things Bowtie can’t, all in one window. Ecoute manages to tie in really well with social media, on of it’s killer features is sharing your music with your friends, Ecoute can post the song you’re listening to on Facebook, Twitter, or with Last.fm, it also integrates really well with Grooveshark so you can even post an audio link to the song. Another great feature in Ecoute is the ability to watch the music video of the song your listening to. Ecoute can find videos of the song playing on YouTube with one simple click, a list of videos are opened on Ecoute that you can filter based on Relevance, Rating, Play Count, or Global Rating. The one downside to this exceptional little feature though is that when you chose a video, it will open in your browser, rather than in-line in the app. Another novel little feature is that you can view the lyrics to a song you’re listening to, if any apply, which I confess i’ve never used myself but it really underpins the fact that the developers have thought of everything, I feel looked after when I use this app.

Unlike iTunes, Ecoute manages to get out of the way, there are no unnecessary sidebars or controls, it’s an incredibly minimal app, a perfect example of this is the one menu-let in the app, allowing you to navigate quickly and seamlessly between different categories of content, in iTunes whenever something new is supported it just gets added to the sidebar, Ecoute manages to do things so much more tastefully. Another great feature is the ability to search for a specific song. If you have a huge iTunes library, just type the first letter of the track, album, or artist and you’ll usually find the song you were looking for.

Every pixel in the interface of Ecoute just looks so minimal and so polished, the developers have even created their own video controls for movies and podcasts. Like Bowtie as well, Ecoute also supports a desktop widget for controlling your music, there are themes you can make or download for Ecoute. The PixieApps’ website also has a lot of Ecoute skins that they like.

I personally adore Ecoute, it might not be to some peoples tastes as it’s obviously not iTunes, but I think that’s a good thing. There is far less weight to it compared to iTunes, which is noticeable when iTunes stalls loading while Ecoute launches in a flash. When i’m using Ecoute I feel like everything has been thought through a little better, from the interface, to the functionality, everything just makes a little more sense. Ecoute is perfect as long as you are cool with giving up the iTunes Store, iTunes Sync and Ping. You probably wont miss that last one but I find myself having to open iTunes on occasion to buy a song, sync my iPod or download new podcasts. Ecoute is like if iTunes was a hipster - it would look really awesome and be super social - that sums it up pretty well I think.

Although Ecoute is an iTunes controller, not a replacement, it can’t be competitive with iTunes until you can at least download updates via it, until that day, I think i’m still going to use it, but it will sadly be co-dependent on iTunes. Ecoute costs £5.50 which is worth it without a doubt, providing a more polished take on iTunes. If I haven’t quite convinced you, you can download Ecoute and use a 15 day free trial, Once your free trial runs out, you get 15 minutes of usage before Ecoute quits each time.

If you like the take Ecoute has on playing music, you’ll be excited as I was to hear as well that the awesome guys at PixiApps are working on Ecoute for iOS to “bring something new to the iPod app” which will obviously have the same beautiful user interface and extra little bonuses like social that the Mac version does. Follow the progress over here.