Image: Shortwave

I remember the day Google introduced Inbox. It was a dramatic departure from what Gmail was, and a large number of users did not like the change. But, truth be told, most people don’t like change, especially when it involves the services they use and when said change is out of their hands.

Inbox was a complete shift from the traditional email UI. In place of standard viewing modes, it placed tabs front and center to make it easier to sort a deluge of email. I’m not going to lie: I was one of the few who thought Inbox was exactly what Gmail needed. The old UI was way out of date and was especially bad on mobile devices.

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Eventually, other users got on board with the new interface and forgot why they were complaining in the first place. Inbox became the standard, and life returned to some semblance of normalcy.

But there are always those who are absolutely certain they can do it better. So, when a group of former Google developers, led by CEO Andrew Lee, came together to create a new take on the Gmail Inbox, I was curious. That new take is called Shortwave, and it claims to help you “Email smarter & faster with a reinvented experience for your Gmail.”

So what is this reinvented experience for Gmail? I hopped on board the beta for Shortwave to find out.

What is Shortwave?

The goal of Shortwave is to bring order to the chaos. The developers say they’ve completely redesigned email from the ground up, so users can stay calm, focused and in control. Wouldn’t it be nice if an email client could help us achieve those lofty goals?

At first, I was quite skeptical. I joined the Shortwave beta group (so I could install the Android client) and added the progressive web app to my desktop to kick the tires. Upon first logging into Shortwave, my initial response was a tilt of the head and a shrug. OK, they’ve taken Inbox and cleaned it up a bit by shrugging off the extraneous features and getting rid of the tabs.

Big deal.

It took me a moment to realize that what Shortwave has done is actually a big deal.

You see, Google has a habit of overcompensating. It grabs hold of one concept and runs with it so hard and fast it sometimes loses the thread of the original idea. Inbox was great at the beginning but then Google started throwing everything they could at it to take it to that fabled 11. Don’t get me wrong, Inbox is still good, but it’s lost some of what made it so effective in the beginning.

That’s where Shortwave comes in. Shortwave gets rid of the tabs in favor of categorized and bundled threads, so your Gmail inbox suddenly makes sense again. And for those who, due to an overwhelming number of emails, feel a bit of vertigo when they log into their Gmail account, Shortwave has made it really easy to simplify what you see with a single click.

Out of the box, Shortwave organizes email by bundled threads that are combined in chronological collections. If you don’t want to see every email for each period, click the period and every email sorted by that date range will condense so you only see what you need (Figure A).

Figure A

Shortwave makes it possible to view only the date range you want.

One thing you should know right off, the free Shortwave plan only allows you to see 90 days of your email. To reach back further in time, you’ll have to pony up for a paid plan, which includes the Standard plan ($9/user/month), which adds workspace roles, unlimited search and email history, and unlimited team features. The next plan (which is not available yet) is for Enterprise users. To find out more about the enterprise plans, contact Shortwave.

Other features of Shortwave include:

  • Email pinning.
  • Custom snoozing.
  • Drag-and-drop thread grouping and reordering.
  • GIF and emoji support.
  • Rich text and markdown.
  • Conversation history.
  • Do not disturb.
  • Smart threads.
  • Thread links.
  • Quick quote.

Another outstanding feature is the ability to view all conversations with a particular user. Locate and click the user in the left pane to reveal the conversations you’ve had with that person (Figure B).

Figure B

Viewing the conversations I’ve had with myself is a bit recursively meta, but I’m OK with it.

That feature alone is worth the price of admission.

The to-do list of email clients

Shortwave takes a different approach to email. Instead of the traditional read, respond, trash, Shortwave looks at email as a to-do list, with each email as a task. When you’ve completed a task, click Done and it’s out of the way. Unlike Inbox (and most clients), completed email then lives in the Done folder, where you can treat each as though it was still in the Inbox (snoozing, pinning and even returning it to the Inbox).

This is a nice departure from the standard and, once you’ve used it for a bit, makes perfect sense. When you consider each email a task, you really start to understand what Shortwave is doing … and it’s good.

Is this your next Gmail inbox?

It’s kind of hard to place who exactly Shortwave is for. But if I had to draw such a conclusion, it would be this email client is for anyone who feels Google’s Inbox doesn’t give them enough control over how they interact with their inbox. Gmail Inbox is a clean and easy-to-consume UI that always feels a bit limited in features. Shortwave extends that feature set with just the right mix of options to make the Gmail inbox more intuitive, clean and effective.

On top of all of this GUI goodness, I’ve found Gmail Inbox to be a void where so many emails go to get lost. I’ve missed out on so many missives simply because Inbox decided a particular email should be tucked away in some heretofore unknown tag or tab. With Shortwave, I’ve yet to miss out on an email (in the short time I’ve tested it).

That’s a huge plus.

If you find Gmail’s Inbox interface too restraining, give Shortwave a go and see if it doesn’t give you a refreshed hope that you too can take control over your inbox while enjoying a bit more peace and calm.

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