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The new Gmail interface review

Google Gmail

When it arrived as a beta service in 2004, Gmail revolutionized webmail by adding markedly faster operation, aggressive spam reduction, vastly increased mail storage space, and a controversial conversation view. Since its long beta period ended in 2009, Gmail has become the webmail of choice among the tech cognoscenti. But it’s less well-known that other webmail services like the recently updated Hotmail (Free, 4.5 stars) and Yahoo Mail(Free, 4.0 stars) have bounced back to equal or exceed Gmail’s innovations. Now Gmail responds with some interface enhancements of its own. Are they enough to combat the increased competition?

Signup and Setup
Signing up for a Gmail account opens you up to a world of other Google services as well as e-mail—Picasa online photo albums, Blogger blogs, Docs for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and YouTube video sharing, and now the Google+ Facebook clone. Other sites, too, often allow you to sign in with your Google account, via its OpenID support (a capability shared by Yahoo and AIM Mail but not Hotmail).

Conversation View
Themes
New Gear Menu Options
Allow Offline Mail
More

After the single-page signup, a Congratulations page shows the service’s features, and then you can take a first look at your new inbox. If you keep the default “Stay signed in” checkbox checked, once you sign up and log in, every time you go to gmail.com, your inbox will load quickly, with a progress bar showing as it loads. One option that’s also checked by default may be a privacy concern to some—”Enable Web History.” This keeps a record on Google servers of any Web browsing you’ve done for 180 days.

Interface
Gmail’s interface has long had all the charm of a spreadsheet—lots of text, lines, and links. There are no tabs like you find in Yahoo Mail to help organize replies, searches, and more. There’s also no preview panel, such as you find in the new Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, and AIM Mail. Clicking on an e-mail entry in Gmail means your inbox view disappears, and some of us like to have that list in view while skimming through e-mails. Just finding the Forward button in Gmail can be a scavenger hunt, and the thin ribbon indicating there’s another message in the conversation pales next to Hotmail’s clear implementation of conversation view.

But with a recent release (November 2011), Google has made some efforts towards clearing up this interface miasma. Conversation view in particular, is much easier on the eyes. The view now shows participants’ user pictures, which helps identity contributions. Interface fonts resize as you resize the browser window, letting you choose among “comfortable,” “cozy,” and “compact.” The last brings Gmail to a new level of eyestrain, but “comfortable” is a definite improvement over the earlier Gmail interface. If you don’t choose any of these explicitly, Gmail will resize based on your window size.

As with all webmail clients, a panel on the left gives you folder choices, as well as Contacts, Tasks, and Chat. Note Buzz is going the way of the Passenger Pigeon, in favor of Google Plus, Google’s latest of many attempts at social networking. New minimalist buttons above the inbox elucidated by hover-over tooltips let you Archive, Report spam, Delete, Move, and Label e-mails. Clicking a star in a narrow column in the inbox can make important missives easier to locate. The same can be said for Labels. These are Gmail’s newfangled take on what all other e-mail clients simply call “Folders.” When you create a new Label, it gets an entry in the left panel, just like a folder. You can choose a color square icon for a Label, but there’s no equivalent to Hotmail’s subfolders.

One feature I like in Gmail is how quickly new e-mails pop up to the top of the inbox, without the need to refresh the page. While the other webmail services do this now, too, Gmail is the snappiest. Another plus is that Gmail doesn’t have display ads—though its text ads are inescapable.

Gmail can play YouTube videos in the inbox, but lacks some of Hotmail and Yahoo Mail’s niftier inbox features, such as the ability to show photo slideshows and video from other sites like DailyMotion. Gmail also lacks Hotmail’s Active Views that show you updates from Facebook and other social networks and even let you reply without launching the site. Hotmail can also automatically filter the inbox to show only e-mails containing social updates, documents, photos, or shipping notices.

As with Hotmail and Yahoo Mail, you can pretty up the interface somewhat with themes. There are 35 themes to choose from, some of them quite lovely, like Summer Ocean, Candy, and Phantasea. Alternatively you can create your own with custom colors. Some themes change to reflect the time of day, as Hotmail’s Dynamic themes do. New “HD” themes such as Wood, Mountains, and Planets look great even on large monitors.

Offline Google Mail
Recently, Google released a version of Gmail that only runs in its own Chrome browser. Based on the tablet version of Gmail used on iPads and Android tablets, Offline Google Mail uses HTML5 storage to allow reading and composing emails while your computer isn’t connected to the Internet. Other Web email services and Gmail itself can take advantage of installed email software like Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird, or Apple Mail, or Windows Live Mail for working with email offline, but Google has a pressing need for a browser-based offline client—Chrome OS.

Computers running Google’s operating system can’t install software in the traditional sense, but only as browser-based apps. So before this Offline Google Mail Web app, there was no way for a user of a Chrome OS computer to work with email while away from Internet connectivity. Previously, Google offered its Gears runtime for offline use of its Web apps like Gmail, Docs, and Calendar, which worked in most popular browsers. But Google ditched Gears in favor of using HTML5 Web storage. Though HTML5 storage is supported by all major browser, Offline Google Mail only works in Chrome.

Offline Google Mail’s interface is nearly identical to that of the Gmail tablet and iPad app. It actually bests the standard Gmail site in at least one way—it offers email preview. Message headers appear listed in a left panel, with the contents of the selected message displayed in the main central area. Composing emails in this interface is extremely bare bones—no formatting, signatures, or importance tags are supported—but it does allow attachments. My tests with the offline client showed it to work as advertised, checking for outbox items to send as soon as Internet connectivity was reestablished.

Using Gmail
Right after you create a Gmail account, you’ll get an e-mail from Google urging you to import your old e-mail accounts. You can import not only contacts, but actually read e-mail from other accounts like Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, and AIM Mail. The import can take hours or even days. When you reply from an imported account, the recipient will by default see the same e-mail address that they originally used to contact you, but you can change this in the From box’s dropdown list.

Your contacts from the external account will also now drop down when you start entering an address in a mail you’re composing. Interestingly, when I added a Hotmail account, another Gmail account that I’d hooked up to that now appeared in the new Gmail account. All the major services offer this type of mail forwarding, but in AIM Mail, Gmail, and Hotmail it’s easier than in Yahoo Mail.

When it comes to file attachments, Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, and AIM all share the 25MB limit, but only Hotmail offers a built-in solution to go far beyond this limit—up to 10GB in a free account—using its integrated SkyDrive online storage. When I tried attaching a 25MB video file Gmail simply displayed an error message, while Hotmail offered to let me upload the video to SkyDrive and include a link for the email recipient. Yahoo Mail allows “apps” or Web add-ins that offer a similar service to SkyDrive.

One of Gmail’s comparative strengths is its ability to let you view account e-mail in other readers, including installed e-mail readers like Mozilla Thunderbird or Windows Live Mail. Gmail goes beyond Hotmail in offering the superior IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol). Yahoo Mail makes you pay $20 for a Plus account to get any outside access.

Like the rest of Gmail, the Contacts feature is fairly bare-bones. You can, however, use it to add groups, import and export lists, and filter to view just your most frequently contacted contacts. You can use a picture for a contact’s card from your Picasa Web Albums (Free, 4.5 stars) or a Web address in addition to simply uploading a picture from your computer. Like Yahoo, Gmail offers a tool for merging duplicate contacts, which worked well.

Gmail offers good integration with the well-designed Google Calendar: I found it easy to create an event from e-mail. The event could be repeated, and a “Find a time” features lets you work around contact’s schedules for a mutually available time. Reminders, guest invitations, and an agenda view further bolster the calendar’s usefulness, but Hotmail offers all this, along with an attractive color-coded multi-calendar design.

Conversation View
Themes
New Gear Menu Options
Allow Offline Mail
More

Gmail’s Archive feature offers a quick way to bury an e-mail without actually deleting it. It also makes a convenient target for filtering mail. To view archived mail, you click the All Mail label, which is usually collapsed beneath a “more” arrow on the left panel.

Spam
In my testing of Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo Mail, the Gmail inbox was the cleanest from spam, but I did find an e-mail in the Spam folder that I wanted, an account I’d signed up for with Yamaha. In a Google Apps Gmail account, I found several wanted emails from press contacts in the spam folder. Yahoo had by far the most spam in the inbox, though I’d used that account longer than the others. There’s always a trade-off between not wanting to see spam in the inbox and not losing good messages. For business users, I’d argue, it can be more harmful to miss an email you need to respond to.

Gmail doesn’t offer tools to deal with “bacon”—e-mails that aren’t totally spam, but definitely not priority, such as newsletters and marketing e-mails that tend to accumulate. Hotmail has its Sweep feature to deal with these, and Yahoo Mail has an add-in app available, Other Inbox, that handles this problem.

Gmail does offer Priority Inbox, which serves a function similar to Yahoo and Hotmail’s “from contacts” view on their welcome pages. And you could set up Filters, which is pretty easy and effective. The latest update of Gmail even lets you create filter actions directly from the advanced search box. Gmail’s Mute option is good for those unending discussions you’re not interested in, but it’s for muting conversations rather than all mail from a specific source.

Sharing
While Hotmail offers social connections with Facebook and many other services (LinkedIn, Pandora, Flickr, StumbleUpon, just to name a few) are deep and rich, my Gmail account still only offers the moribund Buzz option in the left sidebar. No doubt this will be replaced by Google Plus one day. While Buzz could accept feeds piped in from Twitter, but little else, Hotmail’s welcome page can show updates from this cornucopia of services. Fortunately, as with Gmail’s conversations, there’s an option to mute individual Buzz posts or all of a user’s posts.

Extras
Not only can you video chat with people who have installed the Google Talk plug-in or separate app, but you can even call telephones from it. This requires installing voice and video chat plug-in. You can also hook up your AIM contacts for chatting from the Gmail page—something that should appeal to users of that pervasive IM (instant message) service. Hotmail users can obviously chat with Windows Live/MSN Messenger and with Yahoo IM users, but Gmail doesn’t offer those. The chat box can be popped out into its own window, but it’s not tabbed the way Hotmail and Yahoo’s are.

Gmail is one of the better choices when it comes to reading an e-mail account in an alternative mail app. In fact, it’s the only one of the big providers that offers IMAP access at no extra cost, which is better than the POP3 access you get free from Hotmail and at a cost from Yahoo.

It’s Fast and Clean, But Is it For You?
If speed and lack of spam are your top priorities, you should definitely look into Gmail. You do lose out features like tabs, a preview panel (unless you use the bare-bones Offline Google Mail), media viewers, and connections to popular social networks. As someone who spends a good portion of the day looking at an e-mail inbox, I much prefer an interface like Hotmail’s or Yahoo Mail’s, though Gmail is getting better. But it’s still the case that our Editors’ Choice, Windows Live Hotmail, also has Gmail beat with its solution to the large attachment issue, social dashboard, and sterling tools for keeping your inbox tidy.

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