GMail — the catchy name for Google’s Web Mail — is designed to be easy to use, and highly functional. If you use Microsoft’s Outlook, you should take a look at GMail.
GMail has many strengths, including tight integration with Google Calendar, simple synchronization across all your devices, it’s accessible from anywhere, you get great collaboration features and tools, and lots more…
Here’s a quick run-through to give you a taste for GMail.
First, GMail is most often run from your web browser. That means you can get to your sent messages and your incoming mail from any computer connected to the internet. (You could easily hook up any desktop or smart-phone email program to GMail as well, of course, no problem. Lots of folks do. Choices, choices! But here I’m going to talk mostly about the web browser interface.)
I’ll talk more about the tools in the header and the information in the footer below. For now I’ll concentrate on the core mail interface in the center.
There are several different layouts available for your GMail in-box. I’m showing the “Priority Inbox” style which first lists unread-and-important messages, then starred messages (flag message with a star so you can come back to it later and process it when you have time) and everything else. Once you’re all done with a conversation, “archive” it to remove it from your in-box completely. It’s still searchable with Google’s powerful searching capabilities, but it won’t be cluttering up your in-box any more.
You may notice that there are other “buckets” besides “in-box” on the left. That’s where you can go to see messages you’ve sent, drafts that you’ve been working on but haven’t sent yet, or any “folder” that you create for storing and retrieving email. In GMail they aren’t really folders, they’re labels! That means you can have many labels for each message, instead of having to decide which folder to stuff it into. Labels also make for easy search-and-find later. Sweet!
Simply click to select a conversation as shown here, then choose which “folder” to put it in (tho you’re really just tagging with labels, the message doesn’t actually “move”). Easy!
Conversations, not scattered Messages
Also note that GMail shows messages clustered together into conversations. One line per conversation, please! This takes Outlook users a while to get accustomed to, but we GMail fans wouldn’t have it any other way. No more searching for the original email that someone is replying to, for context — it’s all kept together in one conversation!
Just click on your conversation, and then GMail shows you all the messages in the conversation.
Any un-read messages will start out expanded; for a long conversation like this one, any already-seen messages get folded up, as shown here, to keep the clutter down. (You could just click anywhere in the folded section to expand it.) Here you can see some of my previous outbound message, and the full reply from Dan.
If I want to review any of the past messages, I can just click on them to toggle between abbreviated view and full view for that message:
Here the full text of my previous mail to Dan is showing. If I had several questions for him, I could easily re-establish in my mind what the context of his response would be — no more hunting down old emails to try to remember what someone is responding to!
Easy to Reply or Forward
Note the quick links at the bottom — Reply, Forward, Invite-to-chat — these make it easy to handle your next round of communication. If the message you’re responding to has several recipients, you’ll also have a Reply-All link to easily include all of them in circulation of your message.
Synchronize ALL your Devices
Before going to the next step of “archiving” this conversation, let’s take a quick detour to see what the in-box looks like on an iPhone:
On the left you can see Apple’s iPhone Mail program reading my very same in-box with five conversations, and on the right is GMail running inside the Safari web browser on the iPhone. (If you decide don’t like the browser version, try the Mail version, or vice versa!)
To demonstrate how quickly everything is ‘synchronized’ in GMail, I now “archive” the conversation from my desktop machine. First I click “Inbox” to return to my in-box, I make sure the conversation is selected (the checkbox is marked) and then I click “Archive”:
Now you can see my unread-and-important section of my In-box is empty, since the one conversation that was there as been archived. Let’s check the iPhone versions to see what happened there:
As you can see the archived conversation with Dan is no longer in my in-box, neither in the iPhone’s Apple-mail nor in the iPhone’s Safari web browser. Even better, if you’re out-and-about and you reply to an email using your smart phone, your desktop GMail (or laptop GMail) will always have a copy of that outgoing message, too. No more having to CC: yourself to get the whole “thread” on your computer.
In-box is just a label
So I archived a conversation. Note that the whole conversation is still available in GMail, it’s just not labelled “Inbox” any more. Easy to find via search, without having to keep your in-box all cluttered up. If I label the conversation “Meetings” then it’ll show up in my Meetings “folder”. The “Inbox” label works the same way.
So the In-box is just another label!
Integration with other Google Tools
You might surmise from the tools listed across the top of your browser window that GMail works well with Google Calendar and Google Docs, and lots more. All true!
Example: When someone sends you a calendar-invite, GMail knows it’s calendar-related and gives you a host of options on how to deal with it. For example, here’s an invitation to an App Party that showed up in my In-box:
This makes it very easy to say “Yes, I’ll be there” or “No, I can’t make it” straight from GMail with just one click — and a host of other options besides.
Also: if you work with other folks who have their Google Calendars shared with you, you can see both your appointments and theirs in a handy little window on the left side of your GMail screen. Nice!
When someone sends you a MS Word or Excel or PowerPoint file, or a PDF, or any image or video, GMail gives you an option to view it quickly in your browser without having to wait for a full download. Very handy!
In addition, GMail lets you convert any MS Office document attachment into a Google-doc with one click. Sweet!
You can also have GMail list recently-modified Google Docs in your sidebar, right below your folders/labels. Simple, one-click access to your most-recently edited stuff.
The footer on every page in GMail looks something like this:
The left side of the footer tells you how much of your space your mail is taking up. Depending on how you’ve signed up for GMail, you might have 7GB or 25GB (or more!) available to you. When you get close to filling up, you can use some filters to find old, unwanted messages to delete, to reclaim some space. (I haven’t had to do that as of 2011 and I have a GMail account that has been gathering thousands of message every week since 2006!)
On the right side of the footer you’ll see when the latest access was to this account, and if the account is ‘active’ elsewhere. Here you can see I’ve got email open on another computer (in my case it happens to be at home). If I suspected that someone else was using my account instead, I could follow the link there and then close all other sessions. Nifty!
Make GMail Your Own
GMail works really well right “out of the chute” with its default settings, but you can override a bunch of settings and add a slew of modules and features if you like.
Click the gear button at the top-right corner of your browser window, then choose “Mail settings.”
This is just the beginning! Here you see just the top third of ONE of the tabs available for massaging your settings! I’ll cover some of my favorite GMail settings in another blog post, but for know feel free to tinker with your own settings — you can’t break your GMail experience by tweaking any settings… that I know of…
To Wrap Up
So as you can see, GMail can be a powerful alternative to Outlook:
- Conversation view helps keep your context established
- Great for collaboration
- Tight integration with calendar and docs
- Synchronized mail across all your devices, including messages you send from your phone
- Available anywhere, you’re not tied to any specific computer
Is there anything keeping you from giving GMail a try? We can help.