Superhuman’s email app is overhyped and overpriced

Superhuman is one of the most in-demand startups right now, with the invite-only app considered one of the most exclusive services in the tech industry. That’s impressive, for an email app. It’s even more impressive for an email app that merely accesses your existing Gmail account and costs $30 per month to use. The buzz — both from the company’s marketing and around Silicon Valley — is off the charts. Superhuman bills itself as “not another email client,” promising an inbox that’s been “rebuilt from the ground up” that will make you “feel like you have superpowers.” The website is peppered with accolades from startup CEOs praising how it has changed their relationship with email.

But does it live up to the hype? I spent a month using the service to find out.

Just getting into Superhuman, which launched way back in 2016, is a task all on its own. First, you’ll either need to submit a request for access or be invited by someone who’s already using the app. In most cases, that’ll put you on a waiting list — which, as of last June, was reportedly 180,000 members long — which may or may not result in the company contacting you to move on with your application.

Assuming that you are accepted, you’ll be asked to fill out a lengthy workflow questionnaire so Superhuman can learn more about how you use email — and whether your workflow is the right fit for its app. You’ll be asked about your company, what your job is, how you use email (desktop, mobile, or mostly even), what devices you use, what email apps on those devices you use, what email extensions you use, what your email workflow looks like (do you archive, delete, mark unread, etc.), whether you use more advanced features like calendar integration or snoozing, and what excites you about Superhuman.

That survey isn’t the end of it, though, and if you respond incorrectly — that is to say, in a manner that Superhuman judges makes you a poor fit for the app — you won’t get in. (For example, my colleague Dan Seifert was rejected for using a unified inbox in his workflow, something that Superhuman doesn’t support.)

If you are accepted, though, you’ll be asked to set up a mandatory thirty-minute call with a member of Superhuman’s onboarding team (although mine was longer), which includes a screen-sharing walkthrough of how you currently use your email and a step-by-step tutorial on how to use all of Superhuman’s various features and functions. That last step is part of the company’s “white glove service,” which it touts as one of the key draws for its hefty $30-per-month price tag.

But assuming you manage to get inside the VIP club that is Superhuman, what’s actually waiting on the other side? And is it worth the price of admission?

Superhuman’s desktop app — Mac only, for now, although there’s also Chrome support for non-Mac users — relies heavily on keyboard shortcutsMost features can be accessed by the push of a button once you learn Superhuman’s settings, and those that can’t (or ones you can’t remember) can be found in a speedy pop-up search bar that’s effectively like an in-app version of Alfred or Spotlight. The iPhone app (there’s no Android support, either) is a little more traditional, with the now-standard swiping gestures for moving things out of your inbox.

Both apps look lovely, with excellent threading of emails and a genuinely useful sidebar that shows details on your contacts — pulled from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn — and previous email conversations you’ve had. (If that sounds familiar, it’s because Superhuman founder Rahul Vohra’s previous venture was a Gmail plugin, Rapportive, which offered a similar function.) That sidebar can also show an instant view of your Google Calendar if you tab over or click on a date in an email, making it easy to schedule things.

One of Superhuman’s most controversial features is read statuses for emails, which had previously been enabled by default and pulled a startling amount of information (including location tracking for where your recipient read your email). The current implementation is more limited, just informing you if your email was read, but I personally don’t like the feeling of keeping tabs on my contacts.

There are also some neat conveniences, like “instant intro,” which shunts unnecessary introductory email participants to BCC, or follow-up reminders that will resurface emails that haven’t been responded to. Other features are common to most modern email apps, like snoozing emails out of your inbox for later, canned responses (called “snippets” here), and the option to quickly undo an email you’ve sent.

They’re all interesting and useful to varying degrees, although poorly suited for both my work (which consists of an endless flood of pitches and very little back-and-forth communication) or my personal email (which consists of a few newsletters and the occasional shipping confirmation).

The problem with Superhuman is that you have to be willing to use the app Superhuman’s way. The app is heavily reliant on its hotkeys, but you can’t change or edit them to your liking. Deleting email will always be Shift-3, and the only way to switch between accounts is by using the Control key. Some of that is fine; I’ve used email apps with settings menus so complex as to be immediately off-putting to even bother changing anything. But it also leads to some frustrating interactions when you don’t fit into the Superhuman-sized box.

You can use “splits” — a sort of high-level label — to create new tabs in the apps, but they only work for a single search term. My attempts to filter out PR blasts into a single split was foiled since I couldn’t come up with a search term to encompass everything at once. It’s useful for some things, like bringing out any emails with a .ics calendar invite into its own tab.

There are also several premade splits: a fairly standard Important/Other setting that tries to identify important emails (which will trigger notifications) and filter out less important ones. There’s a VIP inbox, which allows you to manually flag certain senders as VIPs and put them in their own priority tab. There’s a News tab designed to filter out newsletters and a Team tab that filters out emails sent from people at the same domain as you.

But the Important filter, while useful, isn’t perfect — despite Superhuman’s “A.I. Triage” — leaving me with plenty of dross in my “Important” inbox and a few key messages, including a team-wide email from our editor (which skipped the Team inbox since it was sent to the staff list, a feature you can’t disable) ended up in Other instead.

That brings me to the wallet-bursting elephant in the room: price. Superhuman costs an eye-watering $30 per month. Simply put, the design and features it offers are not worth $30 per month. I’m not sure that it’d even be possible to make an entire email service that was worth $30 per month, much less a very nice wrapper for Gmail with some (admittedly nice) features baked on top.

For comparison, Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom (bundled together) cost $10 per month. Microsoft’s Office suite (which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Access, Publisher, and a terabyte of cloud storage in OneDrive) costs $6.99 per month. Automation tool Zapier costs $24.95 a month. It’s actually difficult to find a major software subscription that charges more per month for a single user than Superhuman without turning to things like the full Adobe Creative Cloud suite ($53 per month) or professional drafting tools like AutoCAD LT ($55 per month).

Even other paid email apps and services don’t come close. A G Suite account only costs $6 per month for a single user. AirMail (which offers sleek Mac and iOS apps) costs $2.99 per month or $9.99 a year. Newton Mail (which also has Windows and Android apps) costs $49.99 per year. Spark has a premium subscription for more advanced users for $7.99 per month, although the base app is totally free. And even Hey, the newly released email service from Basecamp — which is an entirely new service that can offer more substantial fixes to the idea of email — costs $99 a year.

All that ignores the fact that the actual Gmail service, which Superhuman piggybacks on top of, is free, as are any number of excellent email applications that exist for both desktop and Mac and offer many of the same features as Superhuman. As Rohit Nadhani, the founder of premium email app Newton, explained when the company first shut down, it was almost impossible for it to find a business model that could compete with the free apps from Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

So what’s the appeal, then?

Well, first off, despite the astronomical price, it is a good email application. In another world, one where Superhuman was more reasonably priced and a little more customizable, I could see it being very popular. (Although, history has not been particularly kind to popular email applications. One only need look at the examples of Mailbox and Sparrow, neither of which managed to survive long, despite the massive funding power of Google and Dropbox.)

But as of last June, Superhuman touted just 15,000 customers compared to the nearly 180,000 who wanted in. This suggests to me that the point isn’t really to create a better email app for the masses the way other email services — or even the entire idea of Gmail itself — intended.