typewriter paper and bar
Email has changed about as much as typewriters have change. Photo Charlie Sorrel

Hey email is great, but you’d be nuts to pay for it — yet

Hey’s email service really does shake up stuffy old email. But it’s not ready for more than casual use, yet.

I tried the Hey email app for two weeks, and while it’s pretty great, you’d have to be nuts to pay $99 for it right now. The auto-filtering features, the in-line notes, and the snippets are all great. But the apps are pretty much just websites wrapped up in an Electron shell, and until Hey supports custom domains, you can’t actually send or reply to any emails, unless you’re a psychopath.

Wrest back control of your email

With Hey, email is no longer just a list of messages.
With Hey, email is no longer just a list of messages. Image: Basecamp.

Hey really is a fresh approach to email. It’s opinionated software, and its opinion is that you, the user, should have control over who can email you, and when they can do it. Remember how people used to just call you on the phone, and expect you to answer, no matter what you were in the middle of? Text and voice messaging put an end to that nonsense. The only people who make unsolicited calls now are scammers and spammer.

Hey does the same thing for email. It screens out newsletters, unwanted senders, first-time callers, as well as auto-filing “paper work (invoices, receipts, etc.). Thus, your “imbox” only contains mail you actually want to see. You even have to switch on notifications for individual contacts, so you never, ever get an alert you don’t want.

The result of all this is that email becomes pleasant again.

Newsletters are all kept in one place, ready for you to read them. Knocking out a bunch of quick replies to outstanding mails is all done from one screen, and is actually fun.

Welcome back to your email.
Welcome back to your email. Image: Basecamp.

Also great are: the ability to change an email subject line to something useful; inline sticky notes; grouping of arbitrary emails into a single thread; clips, which let you clip bits of info for reference, so you don’t have to keep opening emails to find them.

It’s compelling, and I really like it. I also trust Basecamp, the company behind Hey, to be around in the future. And while there are lots of missing features, and weird UI concepts, those are being fixed quickly now that Hey’s spat with Apple has been resolved. But there are some problems.

Don’t send any Hey emails!

The first problem is that Hey doesn’t yet let you use a custom domain. This means that any mail you send will come from your Hey address, and any replies to that email will come only to the Hey app. If you ditch Hey after the two-week trial, then any future emails to your Hey address will just be lost. And we all know how hard it is to make our contacts send email to a particular address once their own email app has saved the wrong one.

If you pay for a year, and then let the account lapse, then emails to your Hey address will be forwarded, forever. But that doesn’t help during the trial. Effectively, then, you cannot send or reply to anything during the trial period.

That will be fixed, and at that point I might reconsider Hey. Or I would, if it actually had a proper app.

Web apps

Hey’s website is fantastic. It’s beautifully designed, it’s clean, easy to use, and works well on any screen size. And that’s good, because the iOS and Mac apps are essentially just the website, in an app-shaped wrapper. The iPad version is a comical waste of space. With iOS 14 moving towards sidebars, and more information density, the Hey app really stands out. Take a look at the message list on the iPad, and tell me that it isn’t a waste of space:

It's 'just a big iPhone' indeed.
It’s ‘just a big iPhone’ indeed. Image: Basecamp.

The problem with this kind of web-app-as-native-app approach is that it never feels right. Slack is another example of a great service with terrible Electron apps. Text editing doesn’t work right. Keyboard shortcuts don’t work right. And contextual menus are all over the place.

Still, despite all this, I really like Hey. I like how it makes email enjoyable again. I don’t have a massive email overload, thanks to aggressively ignoring unwanted PR junk for years. But neither do I like email that much. I like the idea of it — open, available to anyone, and not locked in by a single company, like WhatsApp, or iMessage, and so on. But email has been languishing for years. Perhaps Hey’s shakeup will force services like Gmail and Fastmail to up their games. Or maybe Hey will decide that making platform-specific apps is worth the trouble when it’s expecting users to pony up $100 per year. That would be nice, and that’s when I’ll be jumping back in.

Latest from Blog