Row of old mailboxes in apparently rural setting

Battle of the iOS email heavyweights

AltaMail vs. Preside: Two apps for power users

published:  May 14, 2020
last modified:  May 16, 2020

Image: Anne-Onyme; Pixabay

Nearly a year since my first encounter with MailMate, a stupendously powerful macOS email client app for power users, I remain utterly amazed by all its capabilities.

Largely since I’m not a heavy email user and purposely don’t use my go-to phone for any business email purposes, I’ve gone back and forth between using and not using MailMate. To some degree, how firmly I’ve stayed with the app has depended on how I felt at any given time about Apple Mail on macOS. So, since the Catalina (macOS 10.15) version has had its share of problems, my macOS email activity is back to essentially all MailMate, all the time.

Fair warning to the uninitiated: MailMate isn’t “pretty.” Its interface is busy and dated-looking (although, like just about everything else in the app, highly customizable). But MailMate is solid, powerful, ultra-compliant with email standards, and loaded with more features than any user could ever possibly exhaust. And that’s exactly how its creator and lone developer—Benny Kjær Nielsen, Ph.D in computer science—wants it. The same goes for the true power users1 whom his work targets.

But what about when those power users are away from their Macs and depending on iPhones or iPads?

No MailMate on iOS, ever, so . . .

Well, let’s get the bad news out of the way right now. There isn’t, and won’t be, an iOS version of MailMate.

Dr. Nielsen has told hopeful inquirers more than once over the years that it’s just not a project he’s prepared to undertake. Given the high standard he’s continually met with the original article, it’s safe to say he—and MailMate’s small but rabid fan base—wouldn’t be satisfied with any less for an iOS version. The dev effort required to make a worthy iOS holder of the MailMate name would tax a team of devs, far less a one-man operation.

That leaves to others the tall order of trying to make an iOS mail client of similar excellence, especially where most MailMate users’ heavy-duty requirements are concerned—requirements such as, just to name a few:

  • Handling massive amounts of emails, each of which must be retained as long as needed and filed exactly as needed, preferably automatically.
  • Seamless integration of multiple accounts.
  • Accessing essentially endless levels of folders, and managing them (again) as automatically as possible. Many iOS email apps can see the top levels of folders, but getting further down is another matter.
  • Extensive ability to customize both functionality and look-and-feel, for not only individual elements but also the app as a whole.
  • Complete freedom over how they build and compose emails.

Suffice it to say that such an app wouldn’t exactly be an “everything-just-works-out-of-the-box” experience, nor would its likely users want that. Well, they might initially think they would, but they’d soon change their minds after realizing what some tinkering would make possible. They’d fully expect to spend the necessary time to set everything as they wanted and, in the process, get a deep understanding of the app so they could make maximum use of its power.

After all, that’s probably what they’ve already done with MailMate.

Over and above the complexity involved, an iOS-for-MailMate-users candidate probably isn’t attractive to developers because, frankly, there’s not a huge demand for it. Particularly in the iOS dev world with its tiny-amount-per-sale compensation model, one wants to go for the big score, a “gotta-have” app. Devs may doubt there are enough true email power users to constitute an attractive target for such efforts. (Maybe, maybe not. Still, those that do exist, like attorneys2 and others who must keep and store every business-related email for legal purposes, likely are a lucrative market willing to pay a fair sum for an app that deserves it; so perhaps those devs should think about it that way.3)

Instead, when you start searching for reviews of third-party iOS email clients, the same names keep coming up: Spark, Outlook, Edison Mail, Canary, Airmail, Postbox, and so forth. But none of these comes close to—or was ever meant to be—a heavy-lifter email app like MailMate.

Still, there are two long-standing iOS email clients who do give it a run.

Based on my look through the MailMate mailing list archives, each app (albeit in its various, respective permutations over the years) appears to have its share of adherents among MailMate users as, in essence, the closest thing on iOS to their beloved Mac app. And, just like MailMate, each gets very little attention in the mass media, so you will find very few reviews of them, much less recent ones.

This post is an attempt (and perhaps nothing more) to remedy that.

Ladies and gentlemen, here’s a look at AltaMail and Preside.

AltaMail

AltaMail “Favorites” inbox view

Maker: EuroSmartz, Ltd.

First release: 2009 as a more pedestrian app some App Store reviewers call “AltaMail Classic” to distinguish it from the current incarnation, which dates from 2017.

Platforms: iOS, Android, macOS.4

Price: Thirty-day free trial, after which a subscription model kicks in at $0.99 per month or $9.99 a year. This enables use on multiple iOS devices and Macs under the same Apple ID.

Preside

Preside “All Inboxes” view

Maker: GoodHumans.

First release: 2011 as a similar but less full-featured product called eMailGanizer; Preside itself was introduced in 2016.

Platform: iOS.

Price: Free. There’s a $24.99-per-year Premium option that provides access to a small number of additional features but, mostly, is just a way of supporting the app’s continued development.

Focusing on MailMate-ish features

To keep this post to a sort-of-tolerable length, we’ll look primarily at the two apps’ features that are most likely to appeal to MailMate users. After all, any decent-quality iOS email app can deftly handle multiple accounts, accept some limited degree of look-and-feel customization, and so forth. So let’s deal, instead, with the stuff an email power user expects beyond such basic capabilities.

Organizational powers

Another thing any decent-quality iOS email app can do is show folders within an account. Where nearly all of them run afoul on this is to go beyond the top level, like this . . .

Account
  |_ FolderLevel One
     |_ FolderLevel Two
        |_ FolderLevel Three
           |_ FolderLevel Four

. . . in which case, AltaMail and Preside pretty much are the only games in town. Attorneys especially ache for this kind of functionality in an iOS email app, since they often keep at least one separate “master” folder, and practically never-ending sets and levels of subfolders, for each client’s emails. Better yet is if an app can gradually “learn” how and where you file and start helping you do it, often with just a swipe. AltaMail and Preside can. One user said, “I’m almost always pleasantly surprised by the ability of Preside to ‘guess right’ about what I want to do with a specific message.”

Another key organizational feature for heavy email users is the ability to assign tags to emails. Both apps provide this feature (contrary to what I said in the original version5 of this post); AltaMail calls them flags rather than tags. Preside’s tags use iMAP keywords, as is true for MailMate; Preside also can suggest tags for you based on past behavior.

Over-the-top, smart support

MailMate users don’t need their hands held very often but, when they do have questions, those questions tend to be detailed ones that need equally detailed answers. That’s what these users get from Dr. Nielsen through a variety of sources, and they’d expect nothing less in support for either AltaMail or Preside.

In reviews on the iOS App Store that go back several years, both apps’ users almost uniformly proclaim the support to be superb, regardless of the issues raised; and my own anecdotal information (both my own experiences and those from others with whom I’ve communicated about this topic) goes along with that.

(However, please note these apps are eerily similar to MailMate in another way, and a bad one: the online documentation. While Dr. Nielsen’s documentation for MailMate is ultra-comprehensive, it’s also spare on screen captures, much less current ones, and you may find certain items hard to locate within it. As for AltaMail and Preside, each app’s documentation comes only as numerous FAQs, although not called “FAQs” in AltaMail’s case, and has no screen captures. AltaMail comes up even more poorly by comparison, in the haphazard organization of—and, I think, lack of detail in—its documentation.)

No funny business, period

MailMate users require a no-nonsense email app, and are used to an equally firm adherence to email standards, which ensures their emails can not only “talk” to any other receiving client out there but also rest in archival safety, now and for years to come. Both of these apps deliver on that.

MailMate users also are used to a complete lack of privacy-compromising shenanigans between the app of choice and their email vendor. Same goes for AltaMail and Preside on that score, too. For your reference:

Totally customizable look-and-feel

MailMate users want function first, “pretty” last—and what degree of “pretty” they’ll allow is something they want to control. It’s what they’re used to having from MailMate itself. So they’ll be quite comfortable with how extensively you can customize each app’s appearance in many different regards: which icons appear and when, color schemes, display typefaces, and so on. You can’t make either look quite as bare-bones in appearance as many a “pretty” app; but, after all, that’s almost certainly not of interest to anyone who’d want to use MailMate, AltaMail, or Preside.6

One appearances-related drawback these apps share when compared to MailMate is that neither allows use of Markdown in composing emails.7 However, this isn’t the big deal it might otherwise be, since Markdown’s requirement to enter certain characters for formatting can be more of a hassle on iOS devices’ touchscreens than with a Mac keyboard. Indeed, some MailMate users say they’re glad not to deal with Markdown in iOS apps, email or otherwise.

Fatal flaw?

It’s human nature to look for what’s wrong with a product on which one is otherwise sold. Before you jump headlong into bed with the New Shiny Thing, you want to know whether it snores, hogs the covers, or passes gas in its sleep.

So, having used each app for a while now, what do I consider the biggest problem, the most egregious potential show-stopper, where each app is concerned?

AltaMail: Flummoxed folder-handling

Where AltaMail trips the hardest is how it executes one of the must-haves in this category: manipulation of “turtles-all-the-way-down” levels of folders. Oh, it can do it, all right. But the way it lets you get to them is unwieldy, especially on a phone.

You’d think it would be sufficient for AltaMail to follow the time-honored visual metaphor of folders with individual drop-down arrows that take you deeper and deeper. People have been doing that on computers for decades, and it’s an easily understood process.

However, as nearly as I was able to determine, AltaMail’s method of navigating through folders goes like this:

  1. Open the menu.
  2. Tap on Folders.
  3. Tap on the account you want.
  4. (If doing this on the iPhone, re-open the menu, which will have closed.)
  5. Scroll down to the bottom of the menu, where you’ll see the name of the account you selected.
  6. Tap it. This will cause the next level of folders to appear.
  7. Tap on the folder you want. Its contents will appear.
    But, to switch to a different folder in that account . . .
  8. Open the menu again and tap on that other folder. And then . . .
  9. Scroll back up to the top and tap on the account name again.

Why such a sequence? Who knows?

And you have to figure it out on your own, because this is all you get from the AltaMail documentation:

Edit, delete, and make new email folders

Tap on the “Folders” button in the left side panel. Then tap on the folder button beside an email account to show the folders. You may have to tap the left arrow beside the folder heading to go back to the correct account.

So, if you’re trying out AltaMail and want to navigate through multiple folders in one session, now you know how to do it—but only from the steps I gave above, not from the documentation. It would be one thing if AltaMail were sufficiently popular that there were a million web pages out there with “The AltaMail manual that EuroSmartz forgot to write” kind of help for you from other users, but that’s just not reality.

As for the procedure itself: it’s clunky even on an iPad in landscape view, where you have all the room in the world to play this game. On an iPhone in portrait view, though, it’s a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t mess, even if you’re sitting safely in a chair with nothing else going on around you; I’d especially hate to try it while walking or as a car passenger.

Were I to gain control over AltaMail’s development team through some bizarre cosmic accident, the very first thing I’d tell the team would be an extremely stern: “Fix folders. Now.” (I’d then go over to the documentation team and repeat that performance.)

Preside: You want it when?!?

Where Preside is concerned, the elephant in the room for me is notifications—but, if you’re a less “twitchy” email user than I, you may not even care.

In Preside’s FAQs-serving-as-documentation, its dev makes what I concede is a well-argued case against even using notifications at all, since he believes that all notifications compromise one’s productivity. As a result, you won’t be surprised to know that Preside is lacking where notifications are concerned—at least, real-time notifications.8

The two Preside notifications options that were readily available to me9, Background iOS Fetch and Assisted iOS Fetch (the latter requires a free online account), both provided considerably tardier notifications than either Apple Mail or AltaMail. The gap in my testing ranged as long as forty-eight minutes with Background iOS Fetch, the less “active” of the two choices; however, it sometimes was as short as only a few seconds—but more normally was a few minutes—with Assisted iOS Fetch.

Thus: if, like me, you really want to get a notification whenever an email hits one of your accounts, just as occurs when you’re using MailMate on the Mac (or even simply Apple Mail on either the Mac or an iOS device), Preside clearly isn’t an app for you—unless you do what I did: let the Apple Mail app handle the live notifications and then, upon each one, go to Preside and view the email there. It’s kludgy, but workable.

All that said, I did hear from MailMate users who agreed with the dev’s perspective: they’re just not that worked up over getting notifications. They check for the emails when they want to do so, and don’t really give a hoot the rest of the time. If that sounds like you, you’ll be thoroughly fine with how Preside does (or doesn’t do) notifications.

Incidentally: AltaMail’s notifications can be a little slow, too, unless you activate both of two settings called Use push notifications (quicker) and Quick Notifications—the latter of which is described in the app somewhat ominously as including “No filtering or Email Rule/SPAM checking” (meaning at the app level, not at your provider’s level, of course). While these settings do, indeed, provide pretty quick notifications, they can be somewhat hoggish on a device’s battery.

So, in truth, neither Preside nor AltaMail has a totally clean slate on notifications when compared to the old standby, Apple Mail. However, that’s true for virtually all other third-party iOS email apps unless they’re running your emails through their servers (potentially a violation of your security) which, fortunately, neither of these apps does.

The winnah

Despite my disagreement with how Preside handles (or doesn’t handle) notifications, I couldn’t help but pick it as the better of these two apps as the closest thing to a MailMate-class iOS app that we’re going to see. Compared to AltaMail, Preside makes it much easier to navigate through massive folder structures, gives you more and better options for viewing and sending emails, and makes immensely better use of the larger screen real estate on the iPad.10

Preside, as it appears in “light mode” on the iPad

Another thing that made Preside a superior choice for me is the sheer number of email views it gives you out of the box. For example, on the phone, I keep Preside set to show me all the emails I’ve received, regardless of accounts or folders (like the All Messages view in MailMate), over the last twenty-four hours. You can “hold your mouth right” and get that view from AltaMail, too, but I think Preside makes it much easier to achieve.

Finally, as a new user to each, I found Preside considerably more approachable, easier to make it conform to my wishes, and just plain less “odd” compared to AltaMail.11

It could be that, somewhere out there, somebody is secretly working on a truly MailMate-like iOS email app and, if so, there will be a small but extremely interested cadre of users ready to embrace it when it appears on the App Store. But, unless and until that occurs, Preside is the way to go.

Acknowledgment: I’m extremely grateful to the members of the MailMate mailing list who responded to my recent request for their impressions of both AltaMail and Preside. I knew my use cases couldn’t begin to match the experiences of true email power users, so I found their observations invaluable.


  1. Since my article last year wasn’t deep enough to give MailMate its due, please also check out the more recent “MailMate” and “Additional MailMate Tips” by Tyler Hall, and “MailMate Review” by Andrew Canion. ↩︎

  2. The likelihood that attorneys want and need a souped-up email app is almost certainly at least part of the reason why one of the apps reviewed herein, Preside, bears an app icon showing a gavel. ↩︎

  3. Similarly: if power equated to popularity, every Mac user would know about MailMate. The truth is quite different. MailMate isn’t that well-known outside its circle, so it’s not widely reviewed. A mention of MailMate just isn’t clickbait, so most websites give it only passing notice at best. I can find no major-site reviews of MailMate newer than about 2016. ↩︎

  4. The macOS version is a Catalyst-based copy of the iOS app. ↩︎

  5. At first, I said AltaMail had no tagging ability; but a long-time AltaMail user kindly corrected me on that, as I had asked the MailMate mailing list recipients to do if they found errors in the post. This particular gentleman noted: “Tags/Keywords are also available. If I recall these are not on by default. In fact they may be called Flags which makes it more confusing.” I did confirm this within the appropriate section of the AltaMail documentation. ↩︎

  6. I did, however, hear from one otherwise enthusiastic Preside user who described its UI as “lacking and dated” when compared to other email client apps. ↩︎

  7. Remember that MailMate doesn’t simply allow composing in Markdown—it requires it. ↩︎

  8. As I’ve explained before, I wanted real-time email notifications in iOS badly enough to switch email vendors after over a decade. My choice, FastMail, worked with Apple to enable real-time notifications capability for its servers’ emails in the Apple Mail app. ↩︎

  9. The dev also provides three other notification options, none of which helped me any. Notifications Remote (provider) requires using a GMail or Office 365 account, so that left me out. Notifications Remote (private) is nerdily interesting since it involves running a Python script on one’s own computer or server; but I couldn’t successfully get it to work despite very helpful instructions from the dev, so that was out. (One fellow MailMate user who shares my wish for up-to-date notifications reported he was using this method successfully, but was having to pay several bucks a month for an online server instance just to run this script.) Finally, I didn’t even try Extended Device Syncing because its constant background activities “might drain your device’s battery,” as the app’s description of it warns. No, thanks. ↩︎

  10. In fairness, I should note that one otherwise “extremely happy” Preside user said, “I . . . find the iPad version more confusing and less satisfying than the iPhone version. There are annoying differences between the two and no way to sync settings that I’ve found.” By contrast, AltaMail does do a good job with inter-device sync; so, if that’s highly important to you, it may be a better choice. ↩︎

  11. It’s one thing for an app’s UI to be different, but quite another for it to be so off the beaten path as to be difficult to “get.” I found AltaMail veering into this uncomfortable territory all too often, despite the many strong features it does have. ↩︎

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