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Some things getter better with time, but email hasn't been one of them. Today employees send and receive an estimated 110 emails a day, according to the Radicati Group. That's expected to increase to 125 by 2015.
For years, email software has failed to keep pace with our changing tech lifestyles and messaging habits. We now have to contend with a deluge of Facebook updates, social invites and alerts. Some of us have shunned our desktops and manage an inbox via an iPad or smartphone screen. Email hasn't gotten easier to manage -- it's gotten harder.
But things are starting to change. Well-known email providers and start-ups have been busy building innovative inbox solutions to meet changing needs. The past year has seen an influx of messaging tools and services to help us put more love into our love-hate relationship with email.
More good news: Most of these solutions are free and work with existing email providers so you don't have to start using a new inbox UI. Some tools put your bloated inbox on a diet with an eye toward achieving inbox zero status. Others analyze email and categorize messages, separating business messages from social. Then there are email solutions that deliver an at-a-glance overview of your inbox so you can more easily identify and delete swaths of email quickly.
Google rolled out its own email overload cure for Gmail users in May, bringing automatic filtering to incoming messages. When email hits your Gmail account, Google analyzes it and files it into a corresponding tabs at the top of your inbox labeled Social, Promotions, Updates and Forums.
A division of AOL called Alto has a service that will analyze a Gmail, Yahoo Mail, AOL or .Mac account and group your entire inbox into neat piles of similarly categorized messages. Gaining this unique perspective you can quickly identify Stacks (as Alto calls them) of newsletters, social updates and long-forgotten correspondence and either delete them or not.
But mobile is on the rise, and email access via tablets and smartphones will soon overshadow desktop access. Thirty-eight percent of email is now opened on a mobile device, compared to 33% on a desktop and 29% via Web mail, according to Litmus, an email marketing and analytics firm.
Two new mobile solutions, Boxer and Mailbox, both deliver powerful sorting and archiving tools you'd expect only with full-blown Web-based or software email clients. Mailbox is a slick email client for iPhones and iPads. Swipe a message to the right, and Mailbox archives it. Swipe a message to the left, and Mailbox saves the email for later. Swiping a message to the right and holding deletes it.
Dig into our overview of 10 new email products to help you stay more productive and keep you from being pinned under an avalanche of email.
If you could see 20,000 forgotten emails from your inbox neatly grouped into piles, odds are you'd be able to easily spot clusters of messages to zap. That's the premise behind Mailstrom, a service that gives you a Web-based summary for your Gmail, Yahoo, AOL and Apple iCloud accounts.
Using the Mailstrom inbox console you can quickly spot where most of your inbox chaff hides. The service lets you sort messages by Sender, Subject, Social, Size, and Shopping. That makes getting rid of every old LinkedIn update a breeze -- just click, delete and they're gone. The power of Mailstrom is its sorting powers and its ability to help you spot groups of emails to delete or archive.
There's no room for indecision with the $2 iPhone email app Triage. And that's a good thing, because too often email can be a procrastinator's trap. Triage is brilliantly simple in the way it helps you pare down your inbox.
To get started, you link one or more email accounts to the app. Next, open up Triage and new messages associated with your email account appear as a stack of cards. Simply flick messages up to archive them, or flick them down to keep them your inbox (they remain marked as unread). Tapping the message lets you view it and compose a short reply.
The beauty of Triage is it forces you to make quick decisions about what email to save or chuck. You can't skip ahead to the next message without making a choice. Triage supports Gmail, Yahoo and iCloud mail accounts, and most email services that support IMAP.
Cloze is a free people-centric unified inbox management app that analyzes your social networks and messaging habits and associates a numeric value to the people you interact with most often. Cloze bases scores on factors such as the frequency of your interactions with people via social media and email. The higher their "score," the more prominent the sender's messages are when you open the Cloze app. If you don't like your friend's score you can manually change it.
Cloze brings together messaging from social networks such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook but also email accounts. The app will not replace your traditional inbox, but it goes a long way to prioritizing your time to focus on the people you care about the most. The app is available for the iPad and iPhone.
Mailbox is a slick email client for the iPhone and iPad that helps you streamline your Gmail via intuitive swipe gestures. Mailbox looks similar to the standard Apple Mail client but has much better tools for managing your inbox. Swipe a message to the right, and Mailbox archives it. Swipe a message to the left, and Mailbox saves the email for later. Swiping a message to the right and holding deletes it.
One interesting feature allows you remove an email from your inbox and have it returned at a predetermined time. That's great for users who put off or forget to respond to important emails.
The Boxer iOS app is similar to Mailbox in that it gives you swipe-friendly access to advanced inbox features. But Boxer takes it a step further.
Swipe a message to the right and Boxer lists a menu of five items. Options include Quick, which gives you a list of canned responses such as "I'm on it and I'll follow up shortly." You can also add your own canned replies. With Boxer you can also delegate an email to your to-do list or forward the message to a colleague and ask for help.
Boxer also links with Dropbox for file sharing, and syncs up with LinkedIn and Facebook to give your contacts profile cards. Boxer is currently free and works with Exchange, Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Apple's iCloud, AOL Mail and Microsoft's Hotmail.
Last month, Google released an update to the Gmail inbox to help users easily identify the messages that matter to them and ignore the rest. The new inbox feature works by auto-sorting email as it arrives in your inbox into predefined tabs including Primary (typically non-commercial email from coworkers and friends), Social, Promotions, Updates and Forums.
The filters also work with the Gmail Mobile app for Android and iOS. The mobile inbox doesn't use tabbed categories; instead, small tags act as shortcuts to the Social and Promotions category folders.
To use the new features, simply open Gmail, click on the gear icon on in the upper-right corner and select the Configure inbox. Then check the boxes of the tabs you want to see, and save. Don't like the new look? You can switch back easily by hovering over your inbox and following the menu prompts that pop up.
Apple's VIP Inbox isn't new, but it's a great solution for iOS users who don't want to switch mobile email apps. VIP Inbox, a feature in Mail for iOS 6 and OS X Mountain Lion, works similarly to Google's new Mail offering, except that you select the VIPs in your inbox. To set up VIP Inbox, open your Mail app and hit the icon of the blue circle with white right-facing arrow. Then tap "Add VIP," and you'll be taken to your Contacts list.
Once your VIP list is set up, the next time you receive a message from a VIP contact your phone will make a unique indicator alert and highlight the message in a separate VIP inbox. The feature not only filters new messages, but it will also dig through old messages and segregate past VIP correspondence.
Alto doesn't replace your inbox; rather, it gives you a unique perspective on your email. The AOL-owned Alto service first requests access to a Gmail, Yahoo Mail, AOL or .Mac account. After it analyzes your inbox, it then creates what it calls Stacks of related email that include newsletters, social network updates or messages from coworkers. You can also create your own groups for specific team members by dragging and dropping an email into a new or existing Stack.
Alto offers a valuable birds-eye view of your inbox that's unavailable via the traditional inbox view. Once email is neatly stacked, deleting email threads, alerts and spam is extremely easy. Alto isn't yet available to the general public, but you can request an invitation here. AOL says it plans to formally launch Alto later this summer.
AwayFind cuts the tether between you and your inbox, so you can stop worrying about missing that important email while you're in an all-day meeting or on vacation. AwayFind is a smartphone app (iOS and Android) and plugin for Gmail and Outlook that can automatically re-route high-priority emails to other devices.
Here's how it works: Say you're expecting a critical email from your boss in the next 24 hours, but you're traveling or tied up in meetings and can't (or don't want to) check email. Instead of having to hit "refresh" on your email account every five minutes or nervously wondering if the message arrived, AwayFind acts as a virtual email watchdog/assistant. Simply configure AwayFind to watch your inbox for a predetermined window of time for a specific sender. When your boss sends the critical email, AwayFind goes into action and either calls your phone, sends a text message, tweets, or messages a colleague that important email has just arrived.
AwayFind costs between $5 (for 100 alerts) to $50 (for unlimited alerts) monthly, and offers a 30-day free trial.
Tenxer is like a pedometer for email: It tracks your every email step and pushes you to be more productive. Tenxer links to your Gmail account and monitors how productive and efficient you are in responding, opening and deleting email. Once a week Tenxer sends you an analytics dashboard providing an at-a-glance overview of how efficient you were. The goal is encourage you to be more efficient when it comes to the email time sink.
Tenxer can also track your Google calendar and Twitter activity, turning both into graphs that let you examine time spent in meetings and replying to tweets. The mobile app also lets you manually keep track of everything from customer interactions and meetings to how many cups of coffee you consumed. You can sign up for the service online or download the company's free iPhone or iPad app.