Hands on with iOS 6: Mail

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Since many people use Mail more than any other app on their iPads and iPhones, improvements to the mobile Mail can dramatically improve the iOS experience. Although the Mail app didn’t receive as many major improvements in iOS 6 as it did in iOS 4 and iOS 5, the changes it did get should help you be more productive.

New special mailboxes

Two changes you’ll spot the first time you use Mail in iOS 6 are a couple of new entries in the top-level Mailboxes list: VIP and Flagged. These mailboxes are similar to Smart Mailboxes in OS X Mail, in that each gathers particular messages across all your inboxes and presents those messages in one convenient list.

The Flagged and VIP mailboxes let you quickly find and view your most important messages.

The Flagged mailbox displays any message you’ve marked with Mail’s flag feature (more on that below) located in any of your mail-account inboxes. (It doesn’t show flagged messages you’ve filed into other mailboxes.) This is a feature that people have been asking for since flagging debuted in iOS 5, and it lets you quickly see your most-important messages without having to scroll through all the other messages in your inboxes.

The VIP mailbox, which debuted in OS X Mail in Mountain Lion, gathers messages from people you’ve designated as VIPs—your spouse, your boss, your bookie...er...financial advisor—so you won’t overlook those messages in the daily flood of email. (Unlike OS X Mail’s VIP feature, which shows VIP messages across all mailboxes, iOS’s VIP mailbox shows only messages located in your inboxes.) Perhaps the best part of this feature is that it syncs using iCloud, so if you add a VIP on your Mac, that person automatically becomes a VIP on your iPhone and iPad, and vice versa.

Designate people as VIPs on any device, and that list syncs to other devices via iCloud.

To designate someone as a VIP, tap the blue-and-white arrow at the right edge of the VIP item (in All Mailboxes), then tap Add VIP and choose the person in your contacts list. (The person must already be in your contacts list for you to add them as a VIP.) The VIP List screen also shows your full VIP list; to delete someone from the list, either right-swipe across the contact’s name or tap Edit.

The other item of interest here is VIP Alerts. Tap this button, and you go to Settings -> Notifications -> Mail -> VIP, where you can configure iOS-notification settings for email received from VIPs.

Don’t like the VIP feature and wish it wasn’t cluttering up your Mailboxes list? Unfortunately, you can’t get rid of it, but you can move it elsewhere in list—say, at the bottom. Just navigate to the Mailboxes view in the Mail app, tap the Edit button, and then drag the handle next to VIP to move the VIP mailbox where you want it in the list.

New notifications

In iOS 5, your notifications options for Mail (found in Settings -> Notifications -> Mail) were much like those for any other app: You had one set of notification settings that covered all incoming email. In iOS 6, you now get per-account notification settings, as well as separate options for VIP messages.

Go to the Mail screen of Notifications settings, and you see three sets of options. The Show item simply lets you choose how many unread email messages appear in Notification Center. The other two groups are where you fine-tune your notifications.

iOS 6 gives you more fine-grained control over email alerts.

Choose any email account from the list, or the VIP item, and you get—for each account or for VIPs—the standard Notification Center options: alert style, app-icon badge, whether to show a preview of the message, and whether to view notifications on your device’s lock screen. In other words, you can choose to enable all options for, say, your work account, but only some for your personal account.

The other new option here is the capability to choose a different alert sound for each email account, as well as for VIP messages. This means you now have three places where you can choose sound alerts for new email messages:

  • The default for all accounts is your setting for New Mail in Settings -> Sounds.
  • If you choose a different sound for a particular account in Settings -> Notifications -> Mail -> [account], that sound overrides, for new messages received in that account, your default sound.
  • If you choose a different sound for VIP messages in Settings -> Notifications -> Mail -> VIP, that sound overrides, for new VIP messages, any other sound settings.

Easier media attachments

For years, emailing an image or video you captured on your phone was counterintuitive: You had to open the Photos app, choose the item(s) to send, and then create an email message, with those items attached, from within the Photos app.

Not anymore. In iOS 6, you can finally add photos and videos to messages the way every other email client allows you to: from within an email message. However, the procedure isn’t immediately obvious.

Add photo and video attachments right from within your email message.

When you're composing a message, tap-hold or double-tap in an empty area of the message, and in the pop-over that appears, tap the right-facing arrow. Tap Insert Photo Or Video; a Photos-app-like media browser appears. Choose an album, and then tap any image or video in that album to view a preview. If you like what you see, tap Choose to add the image or video as an attachment. Repeat the process for each additional item you want to attach. (I’ve successfully added 12 images to a single message; I have yet to discover if there’s a limit.)

When you tap Send, you see a screen that tells you how big the current message is and asks whether to scale the images down to reduce the size of the message. Just tap your desired option (Small, Medium, Large, Actual Size, or Cancel).

Per-account signatures

One of the most welcome improvements to Mail is that it now allows you to configure a different signature for each of your email accounts. Go to Settings -> Mail, Contacts, Calendars -> Signatures, and then choose Per Account. This enables a separate signature field for each email account you’ve set up on your device. Type or paste your preferred signatures, and Mail will automatically append, to each outgoing email message, the appropriate signature for the sending account.

Pull to refresh

You no longer force Mail to check for new messages by tapping a clearly visible refresh button at the bottom of the screen. Instead, Apple has in iOS 6 adopted the trendy “pull to refresh” approach first found in the original Tweetie Twitter client for iOS. When you want to force an email check, you must first navigate to a mailbox view or the Mailboxes screen—you can’t force a refresh while viewing a message, as you could in iOS 5. Then you swipe the screen downward as if you were trying to access the Search field while in a mailbox. You should see a little refresh button (the one with the circular arrow) at the top of the screen; keep swiping until that button stretches down and then “snaps back” to a progress indicator.

(As in earlier versions of iOS, Mail automatically checks for new messages whenever you open the Mail app and whenever you open a mailbox.)

Minor improvements

Some of our favorite new Mail features are the kinds of little things you could easily miss. For example, if you tap-hold Mail’s new-message button, you get a convenient screen for choosing one of your saved drafts; you can tap a message to continue working on it, or tap New Message to start a message.

When you're viewing a message, you can more easily mark it as unread, and apply or remove a flag, thanks to a dedicated Flag button in the toolbar at the bottom (on an iPhone or iPod touch) or top (on an iPad) of the screen. In iOS 5, this functionality was hidden behind a Mark link located in the message headers—and that link was itself hidden unless you’d chosen to view the full header details.

View the recipient(s) of a message, even if you’ve hidden the header details.

Speaking of headers, another minor useful tweak is that you can now see—in small, gray characters—the recipients of a message, even if you’ve chosen to hide header details. In addition to being helpful when you're viewing sent messages, this feature is also useful for incoming messages in that it allows you to see whether you were the primary recipient or a CC or BCC recipient.

If you and the people you communicate with are fond of top-quoting (aka bottom-posting), in which the quoted material sits at the top of the message and your reply appears at the bottom, iOS 6 Mail helpfully collapses, accordion-style, much of the top-quoted text, making it easy to read the latest lines.

One of my favorite changes—which I actually forgot to include here initially (thanks to Abraham Vegh for the reminder)—is that you can now remove an address from Mail’s auto-complete list as long as the address isn’t already in your contacts. When typing a person’s name, if you see an address in the auto-complete list you want to remove, just tap the blue-and-white arrow next to that address. In the resulting detail screen, tap Remove From Recents and you’ll never see the address again. (Alternatively, you can add the address to an existing contact or create a new contact entry for it.)

You can now edit recent recipients by tapping the blue-and-white arrow (left) and then choosing an action (right).

Finally, if you have an email account that supports message archiving (Gmail, for example), you can now choose, on the fly, whether to archive or delete a message. While viewing a message, tap-hold the Delete button to produce a pop-over menu listing Delete Message and Archive Message options. Just tap your preference for this particular message.

What’s missing?

Despite its long evolution, Mail still lacks some features you might like in an email client. Among the lingering gaps:

  • Mark All As Read and Delete All: You can tap the edit button in a mailbox, manually mark multiple messages, and then mark them as read/unread or delete them, but it would be great if you could quickly mark as read all unread messages in a mailbox, or, similarly, quickly delete all the messages in a mailbox.
  • Send to groups: It’s somewhat shocking that, more than five years after the iPhone debuted, you still can’t enter a group name in an outgoing message to send to the members of that group. (Heck, you can’t do much at all with contact groups in iOS without downloading a third-party app.)
  • Smart mailboxes: The new Flagged and VIP folders are a great start, but I’d still love to be able to create a few smart mailboxes (or, at the least, to be able to save searches).
  • Local spam filtering: Many people would even be satisfied with better iCloud-server-side spam filtering and a way to designate received messages as spam.
  • More text options: It would be great if you could use additional fonts, force plain-text viewing, and choose top- or bottom-quoting, to name a few minor options.

The good news is that with iOS 6, these remaining feature requests feel more like gravy than meat: Though it still has limitations, Mail feels more like a full-featured email client. As I said of Mail in iOS 4, the app gets most of the basics right, and it excels at the most important tasks, such as viewing and composing messages, displaying attachments, and connecting reliably to nearly any email server. In the two years since I made that statement, Mail has matured significantly, to the point where even power users can be satisfied.

Updated 9/21/12, 9:40am, to include instructions for moving the VIP mailbox. (Thanks to Kevin van Haaran for the tip.) Updated 9/30, 6:30pm, to add info about removing addresses from auto-complete list.

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