Gmail – The review

It has been quite a while since I began routing my mail to Gmail with the intention of checking that often-praised mail service out thoroughly.

The idea was to find out if it’s true what everyone keeps saying: That gmail has a great user interface, that it provides all the features one needs and that it’s a plain pleasure to work with it.

Personally, I’m blown away.

Despite the obviously longer load time to be able to access the mailbox (Mac Mail launches quicker than it takes gmail to load here – even with a 10 MBit/s connection), the gmail interface is much faster to use – especially with the nice keyboard shortcuts – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I began to use the interface for some real email work, I immediately noticed the shift of paradigm: There are no folders and – the real new thing for me – you are encouraged to move your mail out of the inbox as you take notice of them and/or complete the task associated with the message.

When you archive a message, it moves out of the inbox and is – unless you tag it with a label for quick retrieval – only accessible via the (quick) full text search engine built into the application.

The searching part of this usage philosophy is known to me. When I was using desktop clients, I usually kept arriving email in my inbox until it contained somewhere around 1500 messages or so. Then I grabbed all the messages and put them to my “Old Mail” folder where I accessed them strictly via the search functionality built into the mail client (or the server in case of a good IMAP client).

What’s new for me is the notion of moving mail out of your inbox as you stop being interested in the message – either because you plain read it or because the associated task is completed.

This allows you for a quick overview over the tasks still pending and it keeps your inbox nice and clean.

If you want quick access to certain messages, you can tag them with any label you want (multiple labels per message are possible of course) in which case you can access the messages with one click, saving you the searching.

Also, it’s possible to define filters allowing you to automatically apply labels to messages and – if you want, move them out of the inbox automatically – a perfect setup for the SVN commit messages I’m getting, allowing me to quickly access them at the end of the day and looking over the commits.

But the real killer feature of gmail is the keyboard interface.

Gmail is nearly completely accessible without requiring you to move your hands off the keyboard. Additionally, you don’t even need to press modifier keys as the interface is very much aware of state and mode, so it’s completely usable with some very intuitive shortcuts which all work by pressing just any letter button.

So usually, my workflow is like this: Open gmail, press o to open the new message, read it, press y to archive it, close the browser (or press j to move to the next message and press o again to open it).

This is as fast as using, say, mutt on the console, but with the benefit of staying usable even when you don’t know which key to press (in that case, you just take the mouse).

Gmail is perfectly integrated into google calendar, and it’s – contrary to mac mail – even able to detect outlook meeting invitations (and send back correct responses).

Additionally, there’s a MIDP applet available for your mobile phone that’s incredibly fast and does a perfect job of giving you access to all your email messages when you are on the road. As it’s a Java application, it runs on pretty much every conceivable mobile phone and because it’s a local application, it’s fast as hell and can continue to provide the nice, keyboard shortcut driven interface which we are used to from the AJAXy web application.

Overall, the experiment of switching to gmail proofed to be a real success and I will not switch back anytime soon (all my mail is still archived in our Exchange IMAP box). The only downside I’ve seen so far is that if you use different email-aliases with your gmail-account, gmail will set the Sender:-Header to your gmail-address (which is a perfectly valid – and even mandated – thing to do), and the stupid outlook on the receiving end will display the email as being sent from your gmail adress “in behalf of” your real address, exposing your gmail-address at the receiving. Meh. So for sending non-private email, I’m still forced to use Mac Mail – unfortunately.

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