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Tech Lab

Apps to manage your e-mail on smartphones

When my time finally comes, I hope the tombstone reads “Cool at last.” It would be a first for me; I’ve never been especially hip, and my loyalty to good old-fashioned e-mail proves it. My Globe colleague Michael Farrell recently reported that e-mail has fallen out of favor, particularly with the nation’s youth.

My own twentysomething daughters favor Facebook postings and text messages.

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But e-mail can be just as snappy, even if you’re sending messages from the cramped confines of a pocket phone. The right app can help you along. These replace standard e-mail software found on smartphones and have a bunch of enhancements to keep your inbox in line.

The most talked about of the lot is simply named Mailbox. It’s a new app that offers an unusually smart way to manage messages. For now, Mailbox is available only for Apple Inc.’s iPhone, and works only with Google Inc.’s Gmail service. But when its developers expand their horizons, this free app could become every smartphone user’s favorite way to check the mail.

Mailbox’s “sideswipe” user interface is its most striking feature. On the screen, you see a list of incoming messages, looking much like the standard iPhone mail client. But with the standard software, you must open the message to read it, file it away, or delete it. Why?

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When I got promotional e-mail from the local Subway restaurant, I knew at a glance I wasn’t interested. I should be able to discard it with the flick of a finger, and with Mailbox, I can. Swipe the message to the right side of the screen. In the vacant space you get two color-coded options. Slide it partway, and the message gets archived­ for long-term storage; drag it all the way, and it flops into the digital trash can.

It gets even smarter when you drag your finger from right to left. You’re given the option of adding the message to a watch list. This lets you quickly file all messages from friends or business colleagues.

Also on tap is an e-mail equivalent of the snooze bar. The “later” function lets you order Mailbox to put away the message, but pop it up later at a time of your choosing. You’re asked whether you want to see the e-mail again ­tomorrow,­ or next week, or in a couple of hours. It’s a procrastinator’s delight.

The swipe-control idea didn’t originate with Mailbox. An earlier app called Sparrow also uses this method. But the Sparrow interface isn’t as clean and intuitive. It lacks the “later” function for putting off messages until a better time. And Sparrow isn’t free; it will set you back $2.99 and is available only for the iPhone.

But Sparrow has its upside. It works with pretty much any e-mail service, including Gmail, Hotmail, Outlook.com, Yahoo Mail, and so on.

All that’s missing is a way to connect to corporate e-mail systems­ that use Microsoft Corp.’s Exchange software.

Google acquired Sparrow last year and may eventually adopt the swipe feature for its Gmail app. But the original app could appeal to users put off by Mailbox’s Gmail-only limitation. E-mail apps for Android phones lag pretty far behind their iPhone counterparts. But I have taken a liking to the unfortunately named Emoze Secure Push Mail. It’s free, and it’s packed with good stuff.

There’s no quick-swipe interface, alas. You must plod through your messages in the usual way. But at least Emoze gives you access to Microsoft Exchange e-mails and pretty much every other kind. It also connects to your favorite calendar service, so you can check the day’s appointments from inside the e-mail app.

The big surprise with Emoze is the app’s hard-core security features. Emoze is designed to protect not just your e-mail, but all the data on your phone if it’s ever lost or stolen. You can set up Emoze to wipe everything on the handset when you send it a text message or an e-mail. For extra protection, you can tell it to accept wipe instructions only from a specific phone number — your spouse’s line, perhaps. It can remotely lock the phone so nobody can use it or send a signal telling you where the phone is located.

That’s pretty high-powered security for a free app that also finds time to collect your mail.

Uncool though I am, I love cool apps, and these three e-mail­ handlers make the cut. Maybe I’ll try them out on my daughters.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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