Google wasn’t the first company to offer free e-mail accounts that you could access in a Web browser. But Gmail provides an unusually hefty amount of storage (at least 2.8GB per user), excellent spam filtering, and the convenience of fast, reliable Google searching through all those gigabytes of stored e-mail. Plus, you get all this in exchange for nothing more than some small, relevant, and unobtrusive text ads that appear near your messages in your browser window.
Gmail has many (though by no means all) of the same capabilities as a desktop e-mail client such as Apple Mail or Microsoft Entourage. You can sort your messages with filters, categorize mail with labels, and compose fully formatted HTML messages. And because Gmail is a Web application and your messages are stored on Google’s servers, you can access your messages from any Web browser.
Application Hopping Gmail is well integrated with the other Google applications, too. For example, if you receive an e-mail message with an attached Word or Excel file, you can click on it to open it directly in Docs or Spreadsheets. If you receive a meeting invitation, you can add it directly to your Google Calendar; you can also create a meeting request while composing a new e-mail message and add it to your calendar at the same time.
Chatting with Friends Gmail is integrated with Google Talk, which means that you can reply to an e-mail message with an instant message if the sender is online, and you can do so without even having to open a new window. Transcripts of all your chats and e-mail messages are saved (and searchable).
Gmail has lots of tricks up its sleeve, and learning about some of them can make your life easier. Here are my favorites.
Use Keyboard Shortcuts Like Docs and Spreadsheets, Gmail offers an extensive array of keyboard shortcuts—such as C for Compose Mail and R for Reply—but they’re disabled by default. To turn them on, click on the Settings link at the top of the Gmail window. Go to the General tab, select the Keyboard Shortcuts On option, and click on the Save Changes button. When you return to your inbox, you’ll see a few sample keyboard shortcuts ( complete list ).
Use the Archive Button Even though Gmail makes it easy to search through gigabytes of e-mail, there’s no reason to let every single message you’ve ever received clutter your inbox. Once you’ve read, replied to, or dealt with a message, select it and click on Archive. This moves the message out of your inbox, without putting it in a specific mailbox. (To see all your messages, even the archived ones, click on the All Mail link.)
Label Your Messages Google’s searching is good, but sometimes it isn’t as smart as you might like—for instance, when you have 985 messages that include the words Apple and Jobs, but you need to find the few that pertain to your search for employment in Cupertino.
Labels can help. These text tags let you group messages by topic, and they take the place of a hierarchy of folders or mailboxes. They make searching easier and more accurate, too. To create a new label, click on the Edit Labels link in the Labels box. Type a label name in the Create A New Label field, and click on Create. To apply a label to the current message or selected messages, select the label from the More Actions menu (see “Label It”).
Help Google Fight Spam Gmail has an excellent spam filter, which routes suspected spam into your Spam mailbox. If a spam message gets through to your inbox, be sure to select it and click on Report Spam; this helps Google improve its spam-filtering accuracy.
Forward Mail to Your Phone In most e-mail programs, filters (or rules) based on messages’ senders, subjects, or contents are used to file messages into mailboxes. In Gmail, you can use filters to label your mail, but a more interesting use is to forward selected messages to your cell phone as SMS messages. (Most cell phone carriers provide a special format for converting your cell phone number into an e-mail address.)
Click on the Create A Filter link at the top of the Gmail page. Now fill in some criteria for messages that you want forwarded to your phone. Keep in mind that you should do this with only a small number of brief messages, so choose your criteria accordingly—for example, mail from your spouse with the word urgent in the subject line. Then click on Next Step, select Forward It To, and enter your cell phone’s e-mail address. Click on Create Filter. Now, to test the filter, send yourself a message (or have someone else send one) that meets the criteria you entered.
Take Gmail with You Like any Web-based e-mail service (and like the other Google Web applications), Gmail works only when you’re connected to the Internet. Sure, you could set up POP access to your account through your favorite e-mail client, but then you might encounter problems keeping all your messages in sync. You’ll also waste a lot of space storing all those messages on your hard drive. Instead, try installing Google Desktop ( ), a free new desktop search utility. One thing it does is index your Gmail messages and cache them locally in a highly compact form, so you can search and read your Gmail messages even when your computer is offline.
Is it for you?
Gmail is reliable, versatile, and easy to access from almost anywhere. If you’re using other Google programs heavily, it can also help you by allowing you to switch applications less frequently. Still, it won’t work for everyone. Although it’s possible to access your Gmail messages when you’re offline (using Google Desktop or a POP client), you lose all integration with other Google applications. That makes Gmail less than ideal for people who need to spend a great deal of time without Internet access.
Regardless, using Gmail as a secondary e-mail address is a no-brainer. It makes for a convenient backup if you have trouble accessing your main account.Label It: Use Gmail’s labels—descriptive words or phrases—to help you locate e-mail messages related to a specific project or topic. To apply a label, select one or more messages and choose the label name from the More Actions pop-up menu.
Four excellent add-ons
Wish Google Apps could do more? A piece of add-on software might help. Here are four of my favorites.
1. Address Book to CSV Exporter (free) exports your OS X Address Book in comma-delimited format so you can import it into your Gmail account. Note that this doesn’t solve the problem of syncing your contacts—if they change, you’ll have to import them again.
2. gDisk (free) lets you put ordinary files and folders in your access-from-anywhere Gmail storage space. That means you can use your Gmail account as a convenient backup location when you're on the road.
3. Google Notifier (free) displays alerts in your menu bar when you have an upcoming event in Google Calendar or new messages in your Gmail inbox. If you’re using the Google Apps package for your domain, a third-party utility called Google Hosted Mail Notifier can alert you to waiting e-mail messages.
4. Spanning Sync (one-time purchase, $65; yearly subscription, $25) lets you perform two-way synchronization between your iCal calendars and Google Calendar.
[ Joe Kissell is the senior editor of TidBits and the author of Real World Mac Maintenance and Backups (Peachpit Press, 2007). ]