Feeling overloaded with too many productivity tabs on your web browser? Shift thinks it has the solution to take all of it over to one single desktop app.

The premise behind Shift isn’t all that new. Desktop apps have long served as alternatives to the browser as a means to unclog your computer and keep it from slowing down. In this case, Shift allows you to plug in the email and app suites you likely use in one place. As of this review, it supports over 1,500 apps and extensions.

What that means in practical terms is that it only works with web-based applications. That’s why, for example, it can bring in WhatsApp, but not Signal or iMessage. It’s also why familiar email providers are front and centre, whereas you will have to add others — provided you can access them via a browser.   

What Shift actually does

Think of Shift as an aggregator. Look at the web-based apps and sites you use for your productivity, be they for email, messaging, project management, administrations, social media, analytics and content creation. It’s likely that most of the ones you use will fit right in with Shift’s desktop app, which works for Windows, Mac and Linux.

There are layers to this, however. For instance, Shift embeds Gmail, Outlook, Office 365 and Yahoo Mail into its architecture in ways it doesn’t for any other provider. You can add multiple accounts from each of those four options, and from there, perform tasks not easy to do with a simple browser tab. As an example, unified search will scour all your email accounts (under those providers) simultaneously, showing you results and the account they come from.

That won’t happen if you’re using a different provider that’s not plugged in the same way. My Zoho account works perfectly fine within Shift, yet plays no role in the app’s unified search. The search also looks through calendar and cloud storage, so if you’re searching for a file, and you have it on, say, Google Drive, Shift will see it. Click on an item and a browser tab opens within the app. You can drag and drop a file onto your desktop, but not everywhere else. I got nowhere when I tried to take a file from an email and drag it into a Trello card, for example.

Roadblocks like that aside, you can filter your search to focus on only one account with certain keywords. So, finding stuff is fairly easy, just moving it around isn’t as seamless as the interface makes it seem.

Lining things up

The basic layout is this: apps you add line up along the left column. Email always anchors to the very top showing different accounts. If you have webmail with anyone that’s not Google, Microsoft or Yahoo, you will see that appear on the lower half of the sidebar column.

Since Shift includes its own built-in browser, you can have multiple tabs open for that one app. What’s different from a standard browser is that it natively groups them together in one place. No need to set up different browser windows or use extensions to try separating everything you’re working on. Clicking on links opens them within Shift, not a separate browser. You do have the option to open a link in your preferred browser, if need be.

This also applies to using productivity apps. If you’re working on documents in Word or Excel, for instance, you can do them in Shift because, again, there are browser-based versions for them. And by having their own section in the app, you don’t need to necessarily use their desktop or web apps elsewhere.

It’s that “all-in-one” approach that makes Shift interesting to try out. If you’re in a work environment where you must compartmentalize tasks to stay on track, its layout does effectively make that easier. It’s just that its overall integration isn’t as deep as it may seem. I mentioned the interface’s lack of drag-and-drop functionality as one hurdle, but there’s also the fact you can’t migrate all important browser extensions over.

For instance, if you use extensions to manage passwords, tabs, email, or whatever else, there’s a good chance you won’t see it here. You might if you use Chrome, but not necessarily for Firefox, Safari, Edge or any other browser. Of course, Shift doesn’t stop you from using your preferred browser, but once you start routinely opening links outside, the aggregating element starts to slip.  

Setting up Workspaces

I found Shift worked best for me as an email and messaging hub. As I have to use apps like Slack, Trello, Asana and Microsoft Teams for the various groups and assignments I work on, it’s nice to just have them within easy reach.

Shift applies that principle to what it calls Workspaces. Designed to be self-contained,  the idea is to add the apps you want to keep within that space, so they are isolated from whatever you do in the rest of the interface. Should you choose to share it with others you’re collaborating with, you have the flexibility to do that. They don’t have to be Shift users, either. If you’re sharing a Google Doc file, it doesn’t matter if the others use Shift, for example.

“Shift for Teams” takes the whole premise and applies to a group, so that a business can onboard everyone onto one unified platform. That would presumably make it easier to collaborate in real time. The cost to do that varies by the group’s size, but it generally starts at $119 per year, per user.

What Shift costs

Shift offers a free 7-day trial to test out all the features. It’s a short duration, and maybe not long enough to fully grasp everything it does, but you’ll get the gist. The Basic plan, which is always free, is severely limited. You can use up to two of the supported email accounts, plus one other app. You get shared Workspaces, except emails annoyingly have “Sent with Shift” in the signature, which you can’t remove without subscribing. Basic also doesn’t let you use Chrome extensions, add Google services or use unified search.

A single-user licence under Advanced is $119 per year, and lifts all those restrictions. Unlimited accounts, unlimited apps and all the extensions available to you. If you find Shift useful, and use even a handful of the supported apps, I see no other way to use it without subscribing. Basic handcuffs you in too many ways, whereas Advanced feels almost completely unfettered.

There is no mobile app, by the way. Shift is purely for desktop, and there are no plans to change that. The integrative features also foundational to the supported email platforms. Mine isn’t with any of them, though supporting ones are, so it’s not a total loss for me. If your primary email isn’t hosted by them, your experience may differ.

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