Blackberry to Android: Email

I’m chronicling my switch from the Blackberry to Android platform, and the steps I took to adapt. For part 1 in the series, see here.

I’m an IT Manager and a Network Administrator and email is my life. Between my various gigs (and personal life) I have five email addresses, all of which I need instant push on. Most people outside IT don’t see the necessity of push email, however if you’ve ever gotten that urgent helpdesk ticket while out of the office, you can appreciate the difference a near instant response to the user can bring vs. a 15 – 20 minute delay. Email was the primary driver for my switch to a Blackberry, and so for a switch to Android to be feasible, workable email was a must.

Unlike a Blackberry, where all messaging is a core function of the OS, messaging on Android is just another app. A base Android device ships with the stock email client (POP/IMAP only) and usually a Gmail app. Handset manufacturers have bridged the gap here for the average consumer by augmenting the stock email client with Exchange ActiveSync support and a variety of other features. There is also a plethora of email applications available on the Android Market, some of which are excellent Exchange ActiveSync implementations, however this just won’t cut it for me.

Of my five email addresses, three are on Exchange Servers, one is a Gmail account, and one is forwarded to my Gmail account. The Gmail app itself supports push email with a native Gmail implementation, so we’re covered there. While I could use multiple Exchange ActiveSync accounts with my Droid 2, anyone who’s used ActiveSync knows it’s a battery hog for all but the most basic of users. For posterities sake, I did try setting up all three accounts using ActiveSync. Not only was delivery hit or miss, my battery was dead by 3pm.

Clearly ActiveSync isn’t the answer here, but I had a feeling IMAP IDLE might be, and sure enough there’s an Android app that supports it and is wildly popular – K9 Mail.

K9 Mail is a fork of the stock Android mail client with a ton of useful features added. It supports POP/IMAP accounts (with limited Exchange support), and offers a unified inbox. Best of all it’s open source, which allowed me to make a minor modification to achieve messaging I could finally be comfortable with. In short:

  • Use IDLE – IMAP IDLE is the most efficient way I’ve found to check this many email accounts on Android. Ironically, it’s what I started with in 2005 on my Treo 650. All Exchange versions from 2003 on support this, as do most *nix IMAP servers, assuming you’re using a build compiled this decade.
  • Default K9 to the Unified Inbox – This will get you seeing all of your mail as fast as possible, and is similar to the Blackberry main messaging box.
  • Tweak your notification settings – K9 allows you to set your notification options separately for each email account. This doesn’t give you full Blackberry profile support (we’ll cover that in a future post) but it’s a start.
  • Adjust the message list – I’ve removed the star (for flagging messages) and added checkboxes (for bulk actions). If your screen is bigger you might not need to do the former, but with both on I felt as though the screen was crowded. I’ve also increased the font-size for the sender to make it stand out better, as that’s how I generally scan my message list.
  • Modify your sync behavior – I used my Blackberry like an email pager, and frequently cleared my message list in-bulk once I was done reviewing. With IMAP this will delete them from the server as well, something I wasn’t after. If you’re like me, you’ll want to toggle the option (per-account) to not delete messages from the server once deleted from the handheld.

In addition to the above configuration tweaks, I went a step further. As mentioned, I’m used to scanning my messages by sender. Like most professionals, the sender of the message often matters more than the subject, and in triage mode it’s the first indication of what needs looking at first. Unlike a Blackberry, K9’s message list puts the subject on top of the sender in the main message list. This sounds minor, but it’s an incredible pain. Fortunately, since K9 is open source I was able to tweak the code of the message list and put the sender on top. A quick compilation later, and I had what I was after. I’ll cover this process in a later post.

These tweaks gave me a base email configuration that didn’t kill my battery and let me use email as efficiently as possible. IMAP IDLE is giving me real-time push on all my Exchange accounts, and because it’s IMAP I have full access to other folders plus Sent Items and Deleted Items sync. It’s got me about 75% of the way with email, and I’ll cover the remaining 25% with a few other tweaks down the road. Have no doubt, the Blackberry still rules this category, but with this set up I barely mind the difference.