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Tested: SaneBox Email Prioritization

By Will Smith

Will's been testing SaneBox for the last month. This email tool helps users separate the emails they need to read and respond to from the chaff that floods all of our inboxes.

Email has a unique problem. In the beginning, when the Internet was new, email’s general usefulness increased as each new person created an account. It was inexpensive, relatively easy to use, and faster than the alternative. But email had a fatal flaw baked in, it was designed for use on a network where every node was trusted. For a while, the general guidelines that evolved from users for acceptable behaviors on the service were good enough. But as more people connected to the service and the stakes for taking advantage of email's weaknesses increased. Eventually email’s ubiquity became its downfall, and spammers and marketers destroyed the signal-to-noise ratio of the service. Behind every single real email message you receive from someone who you actually want to hear from, there are a dozen or two email newsletters and updates from services and likely several hundred unsolicited spam messages.

Over the last twenty years, the email problem has gotten progressively worse, until it’s almost beyond the ability of people to imagine. There are dozens of services designed to help people manage their email problem, tools that are built into popular email services, and third-party clients designed explicitly to help you manage email. If you have a common address, you regularly get urgent email from people you've never communicated with before, or your email is posted publicly on the web (like mine is), your email situation is probably even worse. Over the last decade, I’ve tested dozens of different tools to manage email, and I’ve found a service that has made a huge positive impact on my email use.

The service is called SaneBox. SaneBox filters messages into folders based on relative priority. Messages from users that require immediate attention stay in your inbox, while less urgent emails are moved to a separate folder for you to look at at your convenience. SaneBox monitors your inbox and learns which emails you open quickly, which emails you delete or archive, and which emails you ignore. You can also filter emails into more specialized folders—I’ve added a folder for newsletters and press releases and another folder for notification emails from social networking services, online stores, and financial institutions. SaneBox automates the daily triage that I’ve been doing on my inbox for years, and the big benefit is that I’m able to glance at the contents of these folders quickly, read and act on the email or two that I need from them, and mass archive the rest in just a few moments. Consider me a fan.

SaneBox also adds a feature that should be part of every email service, the black hole. Move an email to the Black Hole folder and you’ll never see anything from that sender again. Getting marketing spam you didn’t sign up for an can’t unsubscribe to? Black hole it. What about emails from your college’s alumni association? Yup. Once you add it to the black hole, you’ll never see it again. I even use the black hole for PR people who continually blast me with stuff that we’re unlikely to cover—enterprise switches, for example. Of course, if you accidentally add something you need to the black hole list, you can remove them manually. SaneBox also includes a variety of other options, including email-based reminders (bumping messages back into the inbox after a specified length of time) and attachment management (automatically removing attachments from your emails and saving them in a Dropbox or Box account).

After a week of training, the sorting and prioritization from SaneBox worked better than Gmail's new filtering tabs, with only an occasional mistake. After a month of regular use, I trust it implicitly. It's saving me time, it helps me answer more urgent queries from both people I know and people I don't know.

SaneBox works on the server side with any IMAP email provider, which is both a pro and a con for the service. On the positive side, it means that the service is totally client-agnostic—it works on desktop clients, web clients, mobile devices, any client that can move messages between folders on an IMAP server. You don’t need to transfer settings between different machines, since all of the settings are stored on SaneBox’s servers. Of course, running on the server side raises some problems as well. The biggest problem, at least from a security standpoint, is that you have to give SaneBox access to your email accounts in order to use the service.

SaneBox's pricing seems unnecessarily convoluted. They price based on the number of accounts you want to cover, as well as the number of special folders you want to use, and some other special features. The $100/year plan was the one I chose because it would cover my two email accounts. I also have access to the attachment stripping service and reminders, which I didn't find particularly useful. While I initially thought $100 a year was pricey for this kind of service, dealing with email is one of my least favorite tasks, and the time saved has already justified the cost. For what it's worth, with a service that's as important to me as email, I'd much rather pay for the service than use something that was trying to monetize my most private data. If you want a free two-week trial and a $5 credit, you can click my referral link to sign up. (Full disclosure, I get a $5 credit for everyone who signs up using this link.)

If you don't constantly struggle with email, SaneBox probably isn't worth paying for. For my fairly unique circumstances, it's an incredible tool.