Win the inbox war: Four utilities fight email onslaught

Analyze, sort, file, delete: here's the help you need for your overstuffed inbox.

Managing your inbox can feel like a full-time job, which is problematic given that you need all your time for your actual job. Like some crazed productivity Terminator, the email just keeps coming, all day, every day. If you're not diligent about replying, filing, and deleting your messages, it won't be long before you're, well, terminated. Or at least terminally depressed.

But guess what? You don't have to let your inbox win. New tools and services can help you tame that ever-expanding beast, making it easier to weed out the junk, highlight the important, and organize the rest--all without the hassle of manually creating a complex system of filters and folders.

Is such an attack plan really necessary? In these days of thoroughly indexed inboxes and fast, easy searches, the concept (and especially execution) of "inbox zero" may seem like more trouble than it's worth. After all, when Gmail can locate any message you've ever received with just a few keystrokes, who cares about organization?

You'll have to decide that one for yourself. But once you see how easily and effectively some of these solutions can whip your inbox into shape, you may decide it's better to be proactive about mail management.

Alto

Ever wish you could hire an intern just to sort your email, to separate the e-wheat from the e-chaff? That's the idea behind Alto, a free browser-based service that organizes mail into virtual stacks, not unlike the way you might sort physical junk mail into piles on your desk.

Developed by AOL, Alto works with the most popular email services, including Gmail, iCloud, Yahoo, and, of course, AOL. And you can use it with multiple accounts, making this a great way to manage several inboxes under one roof.

Once you sign in, Alto sifts through your inbox and sorts your messages into a handful of existing stacks: Daily Deals, Social Notifications, Photos, Attachments, and so on. You can create additional stacks as well, and once you direct an email to it, all future messages from that source will automatically land there. Thus, you could have a "client" stack, "boss" stack, "widget project" stack, and the like.

Alto's pretty interface features a scrolling inbox on the left side that lets you preview each message without actually clicking it. If you mouse over an individual email, you'll see one-click icons for Delete, Snooze, and Star. The Snooze option is particularly great for business users: It lets you temporarily archive an email until a later time, thus getting it out of your inbox but returning it to the top when it's more convenient for you to deal with it.

Alto rocks. But it's currently a private beta, meaning you need to request an invitation to try it out. The good news is that your invitation should arrive within about 24 hours, at least based on my recent experience.

Inky

Unlike most of the inbox-relief options in this roundup, Inky relies on actual software: It's a desktop email client stocked with tools for better email management. However, that could be its downfall for some users: If you're already vested in, say, Outlook, switching might not be a convenient (or even desirable) option.

It is compelling, though. Inky works with both IMAP and POP mail accounts and gives you the option of a unified inbox for as many accounts as you want to connect. Even better, it automatically filters certain types of messages into a variety of handy "Smart View" sub-inboxes: Daily Deals, Personal, Social, Subscriptions, Maps, and even Packages.

The Packages inbox could help business users who constantly need to track package deliveries via confirmation emails, while the Personal inbox helps you zero in on important messages that might otherwise get lost in the business shuffle. I especially like the Notes inbox, which is where the email reminders you send to yourself get stored.

Inky looks almost too elegant for business use, and its heavy reliance on icons (not all of which are intuitive) steepens the learning curve. Thankfully, there's an excellent guided tour that walks new users through the interface, and you can mouse over just about anything to get a pop-up descriptor. I found it much easier to navigate after expanding the side dock, which displays text labels alongside the icon for each section.

To help make sure the most important emails get noticed, Inky attempts to guess which ones are most relevant to you and tags them with a blue drop. The darker the drop, the more relevant the email--though you can easily fine-tune the results by clicking the icon. This should help ensure that messages from clients, coworkers, and other key people get immediate attention.

As PCWorld's Yaara Lancet points out in her review of Inky, the program has a few bugs, but it still "shows immense promise and has real potential in revolutionizing the way you use email." I'm not sure I'd give up Outlook for it, but I'll agree it's one of the best desktop mail clients to come along in years.

Mailstrom

Frustrated by the roiling tornado that is your inbox? Mailstrom (get it?) aims to help you regain control by analyzing its contents, sorting the results, and giving you some tools to reduce the flow of mail. Admittedly, you can accomplish much the same thing using filters and targeted searches, especially in Gmail, but Mailstrom saves you the trouble.

The service, which operates in your browser, works exclusively with IMAP accounts, though for the moment you're limited to three of them. I added AOL and Gmail accounts, then waited a few minutes to see the results.

Those results can be confusing at first. The Mailstrom dashboard lets you sort messages by sender, subject, lists, time, size, shopping, and social. When you click any of these view options, a middle pane lists the results from most to least. In the sender view, for example, you'll quickly identify who sends you the most mail, because they'll appear at the top of the list. You then click any sender to see a list of the messages from that person, which appears in a pane on the right.

Mailstrom gives you four key tools. For any given selected batch of messages, you can archive, delete, or mark as spam. You can also move them to another folder (in other words, out of your inbox), at the same time optionally creating a rule so that future messages land in the same spot. And if you're looking at the Lists view, which shows any mailing lists you might be on (Groupon, stores, message forums, and so on), there's an Unsubscribe button.

However, Mailstrom doesn't distinguish between read and unread mail, which I found a serious limitation, and the color-coding it assigns to each filtered list of messages seems to serve no purpose. Plus, you can't view individual accounts; the service lumps everything together.

Although PCWorld reviewer Liane Cassavoy liked Mailstrom a lot, I found it less helpful. I felt like I spent more time trying to figure out how to use the tool effectively than I would have simply processing my inbox the usual way. That said, it's definitely worth a try, and for now the only cost is your time: Mailstrom is currently free.

SaneBox

Picture a bouncer stationed at the door to your inbox. VIP messages (like those from business contacts) get past the red-velvet rope; all others must stand in line. Outside. Like the undesirables they are.

That's SaneBox in a nutshell. The service works with webmail clients like Gmail, iCloud, and Yahoo, and also Exchange, Lotus Notes, and Outlook, making it without question the most business-savvy inbox attacker in the group. I tried it with a Gmail account.

In a matter of seconds after I signed up (with nothing to install, thankfully), SaneBox had analyzed some 1500 messages and relegated roughly a third of them--those deemed unimportant--to a newly created SaneLater folder. So in one fell swoop, the size of my inbox shrank by more than 30%. However, I was still looking at a mix of business and personal mail in both locations; SaneBox analyzes based on communication history, not content.

Over time, as you drag messages between folders to "train" the filtering system, SaneBox will indeed keep the important stuff in your inbox and consign the rest to SaneLater. You can also add SaneBlackHole (a trash bin for senders you never want to see again), SaneTomorrow (which holds emails until tomorrow), and SaneNextWeek (which holds them until the following Monday). Need a custom "defer" folder? SaneBox lets you add those, too. The service even has a reminder option similar to that offered by Followup.cc., along with loads of other customization options to help steer mail to more desirable places. (Think: attachments automatically saved to Dropbox.)

Now for the bad news: SaneBox isn't free, and it's not exactly cheap, either. The $6-per-month Snack plan affords you just one email account, five of the aforementioned reminders, and five attachment routings. For $15 monthly, Lunch buys you two accounts and 250 each of reminders and attachments. And the $20-per-month Dinner plan supports three accounts and unlimited everything else. At least you can get price breaks if you prepay annually or biannually.

Still, you'll have to decide if SaneBox's bouncer is worth the expense. Gmail users in particular might prefer to roll their own "sane" inboxes via filters and labels, which cost a grand total of zero dollars. But if money is no object, SaneBox is perhaps the single best way to control email overload.

Inbox insanity no more

Some people can zero-out their inbox every day, and some people just can't keep up. And then they give up. There's no need to suffer alone, though. Inbox-taming apps like SaneBox, Mailstrom, and others can sort, filter, and prioritize emails, so you can spend less time scanning subject lines and more time responding to the messages that really matter--or doing other important work.

This story, "Win the inbox war: Four utilities fight email onslaught" was originally published by PCWorld.

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