Home Office: Test Drive of Google's Gmail

You've probably heard about Gmail, Google's new Web-based e-mail service. I wrote about it last week and told you why it's going to take off like a rocket.

Google Me an E-Mail

In general, I'm not a fan of Web-based e-mail. When I do use it, it's mostly to avoid giving out my primary EarthLink address. The products I use--Yahoo and Hotmail, and occasionally Lycos--have messy, cluttered pages, with large ads, fancy doodads, and other stuff I don't want to click on, or even see in the first place. Gmail is different because its interface is clean and has few unnecessary elements. But that may change.

I say that because Gmail is in beta and the look may evolve--for better or worse. Google provides some details about Gmail at its Web site. If you're interested in a test account, you can scroll to the bottom of the page to apply. (Note: It's unlikely that mentioning my name will do any good.)

Dig This: You spend time killing pop-ups in real life. Now spend some more time playing the game at the Realistic Internet Simulator site. (Warning: Turn down the volume before clicking the link.)

Web E-Mail Reinvented

Here's my take on the most important features:

Conversations: E-mail threading is one of the big thrills in Gmail. Google calls this feature "conversations," and I like thinking of message threads that way. Messages are displayed in horizontal folders, organized in chronological order. One click on an e-mail in a conversation expands or collapses the individual message; an Expand All button does just that by expanding all the messages in a thread. Check Gmail's official sample in-box; then take a look at mine.

It's taken me a little while to get used to message threading. Not that it's overly difficult; it's just a new way to think about messages. Here's an example: Say I have a thread that has 15 e-mails in it. I've expanded five messages to read (think of them as opened messages). Once I'm done, instead of closing individual messages, I close the entire thread by clicking on Back to Inbox. Organizing, managing, and retrieving conversations is mostly straightforward and easy to use.

Labels: Gmail's goal is to have me read e-mail, mark or label it, and archive it to the All Mail folder, getting it the heck out of the in-box as soon as possible. Gmail supplies just six folders: In, Starred, Sent Mail, All Mail, Spam, and Trash. No, you can't add new folders. You don't need to, either. That's because of labels.

I'm having fun with labels. I use them as a way to organize, and later find, important conversations. I like being able to assign multiple labels to one conversation. That makes for a smart way for me to retrieve conversations that fit into more than one topic or category. I can also mark conversations with a star to highlight them so I can get back to them in a snap. I'm using it--and finding it particularly useful--for critical threads.

Tons of Storage: One gigabyte per user to be exact. That's very attractive, even though Gmail's going to accuse me of using my gigabyte of server space the wrong way. Gmail's preference--and it drives me batty--is to archive rather than delete messages. Me? I still feel the need to be neat and tidy, and I dump messages I know I won't ever need to see again.

That 1GB of storage won't go to waste, I promise. I'm creating a new account just to send those 8MB funny videos to Gmail friends as e-mail attachments. BTW, most other Web-based services limit storage to about 6MB unless you want to pony up some bucks for extra space.

Dig This: You're not going to believe what happens when you match up a smart dog named Tyson with a skateboard (and I don't think it's digitally enhanced). [800KB video]

First Looks

I have other observations, as do the 50 or so others I invited to try Gmail.

It's Speedy: I found that moving around the interface is fast. Most messages and conversations open quickly, and transferring messages to folders is quick. Searching is also fast. In one Gmail account I'm using to test the spam-filtering feature, searching for "pharmacy OR money" in about 600 messages got me 44 results almost instantaneously.

Privacy Concerns? Few people seemed overly concerned about privacy. One person commented that Gmail's privacy policy explained it may keep messages on its server for "some time," even after you've deleted the messages or closed the account. For details, read the paragraph headed "Email contents and usage" at the Gmail Privacy Policy page.

But Gmail's practice is not uncommon, and I'm not worried about it. For example, Yahoo's policy says something similar.

Keyboard Shortcuts: About 20 keyboard shortcuts, such as c to compose and x to highlight a message, make it a pleasure for people who don't like using the mouse.

Google Plus Gmail? It's pretty clear that Google will eventually integrate a Gmail alert into the Google Toolbar, letting people know they have unread messages.

Gmail's Rough Edges

As with any product that's in testing and not yet released to the public, there are things that aren't complete. But everyone likes to hear about them, so here they are:

  • One really dumb decision (which I hope is changed soon) is including the option of your mother's maiden name or driver license number for your "secret question" answer. I opted to write my own question (who's the best-looking writer at PC World?) and answer (my editor, no doubt).
  • It's not easy to send e-mail to multiple recipients via either CC or BCC. When I click on an empty spot in the CC field and type the first few letters of a name on my Contact list, I get a list of names to choose from. But if I want to send messages to multiple people, I have to repeat the process for each person.
  • The spell checker is kludgy, making me check each misspelled word individually. It also chokes on many contractions ("isn't," for instance).
  • MyIE2, the Internet Explorer shell I've fallen in love with stumbles and falls when Gmail tries opening a new window. Other beta testers report that Opera is equally confused.
  • Gmail's spam filtering isn't great. Out of 600 spams sent by buddies on a private list, only about half were caught. Sources at Gmail (I've always wanted to use that phrase) said, "They are aware of this issue and are working to develop better solutions." In fact, Gmail began catching more spam a few days after that message.
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