Gmail is the world’s most popular email service, but some of its best features are hiding in plain sight, unknown to most users. Although Gmail provides unsurpassed search capabilities, great spam filtering, and loads of free storage (10GB at latest check), it also offers much more—and there’s always room for improvement, too. With a little know-how and some key add-ons, you can make Google’s webmail service jump through hoops in ways you never thought possible.
Tired of Gmail’s threaded conversation view? Turn it off. Want to learn keyboard shortcuts? A pop-up cheat sheet is built right in. And wouldn’t it be nice if you could save attachments straight to your Dropbox account? Easy enough—with the right tool.
This guide will help Gmail novices and experts alike squeeze more from the service. Most of the tips are based on using Gmail in a Web browser, but be sure to see the “Gmail from the outside in” section to learn how to make the most of Gmail even when you’re not in your browser.
Work smarter, not harder
1. Search for big attachments
Gmail is known for its robust search capabilities, and now it supports another handy search parameter: message size. So if you want to find, say, all email messages that have attachments larger than 10MB, you’d simply search for size:10m. And you can pair that with the “older_than” modifier for searches like size:10m older_than:6m (to get all email larger than 10MB and older than six months).
2. Work offline
Working on an airplane without Wi-Fi? Live in an area where Internet access is slow or spotty? Either way, install Gmail Offline. With it you can read, respond to, compose, search, and archive messages, all of which will be automatically sent or synced the next time you’re online. Just one catch: It requires Google Chrome. If you use another browser, you’re out of luck.
3. Tame messy replies
The longer an email conversation (or “thread”) gets, the harder it becomes to wade through that messy, cluttered explosion of text. That’s because normally, when you click Reply, Gmail quotes the entire original email and all subsequent replies. Thankfully, you have an easy workaround: In the sender’s message, select the exact text you’re replying to—the meat of the message, as it were—and then click Reply. Now, when Gmail creates the reply, it will include only the highlighted text. Translation: a lot less mess.
4. Turn off conversation view
Speaking of messy, some people would argue that Gmail’s conversation view (also known as message threading) makes things extremely so, as it groups together messages with the same subject. If you’d rather have your messages spread out, and therefore easier to navigate at a glance, head to Gmail’s Settings (under the General tab) and select Conversation view off.
5. Master keyboard shortcuts
Hands off the mouse. You can dramatically accelerate your Gmail operations by learning various keyboard shortcuts: R for reply, Ctrl-K to insert a link, Ctrl-Enter to send, and so on. For a full, pop-up list of available shortcuts, press Shift-? while viewing your Gmail inbox. Google also has a webpage that lists all Gmail shortcuts. And if you’re a Chrome user, you can learn shortcuts much faster by installing the KeyRocket for Gmail add-on, which teaches you while you work.
6. Make important messages bubble to the top
Email from work, friends, relatives—important. Email from stores, Facebook, and people you don’t know—less important. Gmail’s Priority Inbox feature can prioritize your mail so that the important stuff appears at the top, where it’s less likely to get lost in the shuffle. To enable the feature, head to Settings, click the Inbox tab, and choose Priority Inbox from the Inbox Type selector. This feature can be a little tricky to wrap your head around, so read Google’s Priority Inbox overview if you need help.
7. Restore the old-school buttons
A while back, Gmail replaced most of its buttons—Archive, Delete, Spam, and so on—with icons that some users find cryptic, or at least harder to recognize at a glance. If you’d rather have buttons with text instead of icons, you can restore them: Just go to Settings > General, scroll down to Button Labels, and change the setting to Text.
Bring on the add-ons
8. Add a snooze button to your inbox
Can’t attend to a particular message just now? Even if you mark it as unread, newer email will eventually push it down and out of sight. What you need is a way to “snooze” that message, to make it return to the top of your inbox at a designated time. Two great options are Boomerang and Snooze Your Email. Both integrate with Gmail, adding buttons that make it simple to set the delay for a specific number of minutes or days. Boomerang works with Chrome and Firefox and costs $5 per month; Snooze Your Email is free, but works only with Chrome.
9. Turn email into to-dos
Gmail has a built-in task list, but it’s a little anemic—especially if you want to access that list elsewhere. If you’re looking for something more robust, check out Astrid, a free Web-based to-do manager that consistently ranks among users’ favorites. The new Remind Me add-on for Google Chrome brings the Astrid service to Gmail: You can view your current tasks and, even better, click a button to turn an email message into a new task.
10. Automatically save Gmail attachments to your favorite cloud
Ever wish you could save attachments directly to, say, your Dropbox account? Attachments.me is a free service that can upload Gmail attachments to Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, or SkyDrive. Just install its browser plug-in (available for Chrome and Firefox), and then link it with one or more of the aforementioned cloud services. With that done, it indexes all your attachments and then catalogs them for easy viewing and searching. With just a few clicks, you can view, download, share, or archive an attachment.
11. Give Gmail a social makeover
You know the drill: You get an email message from LinkedIn, Twitter, or the like, and then you have to click a link inside that message to view the connection, link, update, or whatever. PowerInbox embeds all that stuff within Gmail proper, allowing you to view the contents of various social-network messages right inside the messages. This Chrome add-on also lets you perform certain actions, such as commenting on Facebook updates and accepting contact requests.
12. Make your inbox “smartr”
Outlook expatriates may have fond memories of Xobni, a kind of address book on steroids. Smartr Inbox for Gmail brings that same goodness to your webmail, packing contact info, social-network updates, message histories, and related contacts into an attractive sidebar that you can view or hide as needed. It’s available for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari, and it’s one of those tools you’ll quickly find you can’t live without.
13. Keep branded messages out of your inbox
Admit it: Half the clutter in your inbox comes from stores, social networks, and other “branded” sources. PhilterIt for Chrome “philters” all that stuff out of your inbox, relegating it to an icon-laden Gmail sidebar where you can review it later, at your convenience. It’s a quick and easy way to excise inbox clutter, while still keeping the stuff you might want to see.
14. Add attachments from services other than Google Drive
If you’re a Gmail user, you know how easy it is to attach files from your Google Drive. But what if you want to attach something from Box, Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, or Flickr? Cloudy for Chrome lets you attach files from those services and other cloud hangouts. Just click the Attach button while composing a new message, and then choose a cloud service or social network. You can even attach multiple items from multiple services.
It came from the lab
15. Reply to mail faster with canned responses
Do you routinely find yourself typing out the same replies over and over? Labs feature Canned Responses can save you time, as long as you keep the messages short. After enabling it, just compose or reply to a message, click the More Options arrow, mouse over Canned responses, and choose the one you want. You can also create new ones as needed. It’s not the most elegant addition to Gmail, but it’s definitely a handy one.
16. View messages without clicking through
Gmail annoyingly lacks a preview-pane option, which means you have to click any email you want to read and then go back to the inbox and click another—a slow, time-wasting process. Thankfully, Labs feature Message Sneak Peek simplifies things a bit: Just right-click any message to immediately see its contents in a preview window. Even better, enable Preview Pane, which gives you a bona fide preview window alongside your inbox.
17. Mark messages as read with one fewer click
Sometimes the best timesavers are the simplest. If you’ve used, say, Message Sneak Peek to look at an email message and now want to mark it as read without clicking into the More menu, enable Labs feature Mark as Read Button. After selecting one or more messages, you’ll see that button on your toolbar. One click, and presto.
Gmail from the outside in
18. Set up smart triggers
Wouldn’t it be cool if Gmail could notify you via smartphone whenever an email marked “urgent” comes in? Or if it could automatically save starred messages to your Evernote account? Those are just some of the “recipes” available on If This Then That’s Gmail Channel, which also lets you create your own triggers to make Gmail do all kinds of cool things.
19. Add specific Gmail bookmarks to your browser
When you want to compose a new email message, you know the drill: Open Gmail and then click the Compose button. But you can save a step by adding a bookmark to your browser’s Favorites bar—and not just for Compose, but also for things like Starred, Sent Mail, and even specific labels. Simply click the desired option in your browser, and then create a new bookmark for it by dragging the URL in the browser’s address bar over to the browser’s Favorites bar. Now you have one-click access to your favorite Gmail functions.
20. Switch to Mailbox for iOS
Though still in beta, Mailbox for iOS is rapidly emerging as the preferred app for using Gmail on your iPhone. Among other features, it lets you “snooze” messages for later (much like tip #8, above). And it definitely promotes the “inbox zero” philosophy of simplifying your email. Best of all, it’s free—though you’ll probably have to wait in line to get it.
21. Add PGP encryption to your Gmail email
Concerned about email security? You should be: Webmail in particular tends to be fairly insecure, as evidenced by any number of recent high-profile hacks. Mailvelope (in beta for Chrome and Firefox) lets you exchange encrypted email by way of OpenPGP encryption. You can generate your own public and private keys, and then just click a little lock icon to make sure your mail goes through with heavy-duty protection.
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For more than 20 years, Rick Broida has written about all manner of technology, from Amigas to business servers to PalmPilots. His credits include dozens of books, blogs, and magazines. He sleeps with an iPad under his pillow.