The other day I logged into my old Gmail account and discovered a pleasant surprise – Google has updated their webmail system. The changes are subtle, but are still significant improvements. So significant, in fact, that I’m moving all my personal mail to Gmail. (Curiously, it doesn’t appear to be a global upgrade – I also have a googlemail.com address, which hasn’t been updated, so they’re obviously upgrading in stages.)
So, what is it about Gmail that sets it apart from the crowd? And, more importantly, why has it tempted me away from a ‘proper’ e-mail client on my computer?
Firstly, let me reassure my readers that all previous e-mail addresses I’ve used will continue to reach me, so you won’t have to update anything your end unnecessarily. But with so many e-mail addresses (I seem to collect them) it makes sense to keep them all centrally so that nothing gets lost or forgotten.
Gmail can be set up to get e-mails from another account via POP3. Now, mail from my minipix domain will automatically be inserted into Gmail. This approach means greater separation from my business e-mails – it means that at the weekend or holidays I can check my Gmail account and know that I won’t be bothered by work e-mail popping up as well.
Gmail hates spam
From my experience so far, Gmail has exceptional spam-filtering capabilities, far better than the combination of server anti-spam and the local spam filter in my e-mail client put together. That’s pretty impressive. I’ve had minipix.co.uk for years, so I’ve grown to expect plenty of spam to those e-mail inboxes as a result. However, since transferring everything to Gmail not a single spam message has got through, and neither have any legitimate e-mails been thrown out with the trash. So, despite having multiple e-mail addresses pointing at it, Gmail seems to be coping absolutely fine with everything and presenting me with an aesthetically-pleasing spam-free inbox. Nice one, Google.
A radical look at conversations
Actually, Google can’t really take complete credit for this one. Opera presented its e-mails in the same way long before Gmail took up the idea, but despite Opera’s history I’m betting Gmail is used by more people.
For those of you who haven’t seen the light, Gmail groups e-mails together into conversations, listing your own replies inline with the e-mails you’ve received, rather than putting stuff you’ve sent into a generic ‘Sent’ folder like traditional mail programs. The result of this is that you feel more included in the conversation, and e-mails feel part of something bigger rather than individual items. It’s easier to keep things organised too, because any tagging or tidying applies to the conversation as a whole rather than having to apply things to each individual e-mail. In many ways, it feels more like chatting to someone via MSN or AIM than sending and receiving mail.
Of course, it’s not to everyone’s liking, and there are times when it gets in the way. Gmail does get confused if people use really unhelpful e-mail subjects like “Hello” or “web site” or something really generic. I’ve seen instances (admittedly mostly in conventional mail clients like Mail.app and Thunderbird) where new conversations get added to conversations from months ago just because they’ve got the same subject. Not great. I’m not sure if Google have made any changes to that recently, I have to admit I’ve not seen it happen lately. Anyway, I personally like the concept, and find it a much more natural way of displaying correspondence.
Gmail’s upgrade has also brought in some useful hover boxes when you move your mouse over an e-mail address or a sender name, giving some extra information about who the e-mail is from, and giving you options to send a new message to them and suchlike. A useful addition, methinks.
Out with the folders
The traditional approach to e-mail organisation involves putting everything in a folder to group things together. For instance, everyone from one client will go in one folder, everything from another client goes in another, and so forth. Most of the time that works fine, but what happens if you have an e-mail that could belong in more than one folder? For instance, if I’m doing some work for a friend of mine I’ll want to associate those e-mails with the work I’m doing, but also bear in mind that it’s a friend and there may be personal stuff in there too (how often do we start off talking about business and then get sidetracked onto what we’re doing later in the week…).
This is where Gmail’s approach comes in very handy. Rather than assigning each e-mail to one folder, you can assign multiple labels to each e-mail. Actually, to be more precise, to each conversation. This is far more flexible, and I’ve found it to work remarkably well.
Another interesting feature of Gmail is that by default it shows you everything. The inbox shows you all the e-mails you’ve received, whether they’ve got labels or not, giving you a nice overview of the activity across your e-mail account. Of course, that can get a little busy and cluttered, but you can click on a label to view just e-mails with that categorisation, using them much the same as folders. In addition of course you’ve got the power of Google’s search capabilities, so you can quickly search for something if you can’t be bothered trying to remember which labels you assigned to it or who it was from.
And in the recent Gmail upgrade, labels got customisable colours too. Again, a small addition, but one which really helps to visually identify each label group.
When I’m in full flow, working like crazy, I don’t want to waste time waiting for simple programs to get their act together and do their job. Admittedly I’ve got a relatively slow computer, but I’m trying to make the most of what I’ve got. A while back Mail.app started to get unusably slow, and I never really got to the bottom of why that was. I didn’t really have any major plugins slowing things up, but I did have quite a few IMAP accounts set up to handle all my e-mails, and several smart folders to show me the today’s mail, unread mail, flagged mail, that sort of thing. So in the end I moved over to Thunderbird, which seemed to cope a little better with the job. Unfortunately it looked out of place on my Mac, despite experimenting with various themes.
This is where Gmail really comes into its own. It all works from the browser, so I can be working and checking my e-mails all from one program, which saves memory and processor time – if I’m doing anything clever with my e-mails the strain is taken by Google rather than my own computer. In fact, the Gmail interface is remarkably fast and typically uncluttered. Messages are pre-loaded in the background so that when you click on something in the inbox it takes even less time to display the message.
Other nice stuff I don’t use
A product as big as Gmail has to appeal to and provide for the needs of people with a wide range of needs, which is why there are features in Gmail that I probably won’t ever use. Thankfully they don’t get in the way though.
If you use Google Talk then your conversations will appear in Gmail like e-mail conversations, which is another useful way of keeping correspondence together (“did I e-mail those details, or did we just chat about it??”). Not only can you use a Google Talk program on your computer, but if you’re logged into Gmail then you can chat right from there too, via their web-based chat client.
Gmail can be used as an IMAP account too, so you can take advantage of the super-brilliant anti-spam stuff and still access your e-mails through a conventional e-mail program. In fact, with a little cleverness you can pipe your e-mails through a Gmail account specifically for the benefits of the spam filtering, with the option of using Gmail as a backup of your mail should you main mail server and your computer die and lose everything. I don’t think I’d go that far, but it’s a cool idea. Gmail can also be set to forward mail to another e-mail address, which again can have its uses.
And if you don’t like the idea of letting others see that you’re using a Gmail account you can set the From address to something different. So if you forward mail from another domain to your Gmail inbox you can also send out as if it’s come from that domain, which helps keep things consistent (if I e-mail email@example.com then I expect a reply from that address, not firstname.lastname@example.org).
Despite all my ravings, Gmail is not perfect. One of the biggest for me is to do with its filtering system. Sure, it’s powerful in its own way – you can include regular expressions to create some pretty complex search criteria. But when it comes to the simple task of organising you incoming mail into groups depending on where you know the people from, it gets a little messy. I’ve got contacts set up for everyone, and I’ve put people into groups. But what I can’t do is put the group name into the filter so that mail from anyone in that group gets sorted. Instead I have to manually add someone’s e-mail address to the filter, which isn’t exactly friendly. Apple’s Mail.app worked nicely with the Address Book, so that if a person was in a particular group or smart folder you could use that as part of a filter; it would be nice if Google could do this.
There are undoubtedly more features I’ve missed out, and failings I’ve omitted. But never mind. Leave your comments if you feel something really needs saying. Anyway, I’m happy with Google’s mail offering for now, and will be using it for my personal mail for the timebeing. At the very least, it’s better than any other webmail system I’ve used before – I’m surprised Hotmail is still in existence really considering how bloated it is…