Three ways to improve Gmail

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Because it’s free, easy to use, offers tons of storage space, and has a wide range of features, Google’s Gmail is one of the most popular e-mail providers. Thanks to Google Apps, you can even use it with your own domain name. But if you’re still using the plain, uncustomized version of Gmail, you’re missing out on some fantastic capabilities. Here are my three favorite ways to improve Gmail.

1. Access it via IMAP

As Webmail goes, Gmail is pretty good—but I still prefer to access my mail using a full-featured desktop client such as Apple Mail. You can use either POP or IMAP protocols to get at your Gmail account, but of the two, I find IMAP much more flexible and convenient.

To enable IMAP, log in to your Gmail account, click on the Settings link at the top, click on the Forwarding And POP/IMAP link, select Enable IMAP, and click on Save Changes. You can then click on the Configuration Instructions link to learn how to set up your favorite e-mail client to access Gmail via IMAP. (To learn more about the ins and outs of using Gmail via IMAP with Mail, see “Achieving E-mail Bliss with IMAP, Gmail, and Apple Mail”.)

2. Enable Gmail Labs features

Even if you choose to access Gmail over the Web, you can add a lot of features using Gmail Labs, an ever-growing collection of experimental features. To enable a Labs feature, log in to your Gmail account, click on the Settings link, click on the Labs link, select Enable for one or more features, and then click on the Save Changes button. Here are a couple of my favorites. (For more ideas, see “Gmail power tools”.)

Gmail Labs
On the Labs portion of Gmail's Settings window, you can enable or disable any of dozens of optional (and possibly buggy) features.

Offline Outwit Gmail outages with this feature, which requires prior installation of Google Gears. It lets you access some of your stored Gmail messages and compose new messages, even when you don’t have an Internet connection. (For more detail, read “Keep working when you’re not online”.)

Previews in Mail If you check your Gmail messages in Mail, you might tire of clicking on links to get to the videos and photos friends and colleagues send you. Several Labs features let you preview media stored on other sites within an incoming Mail message when the sender includes only a link. Examples include YouTube Previews in Mail, Picasa Previews in Mail, and Flickr Previews in Mail.

3. Filter your messages more effectively

Gmail offers a basic but highly useful filtering system, which examines incoming messages and then takes some action based on each message’s characteristics. For example, filters can apply a label to all messages with a certain word in the subject, or from a certain sender; they can also archive messages (keeping them out of your Inbox), mark them as read, and take other actions. Although these filters aren’t as powerful as the rules features of programs such as Mail and Microsoft Entourage, they have the advantage of being able to presort your mail even when you’re checking your messages in a Web browser or on an iPhone or other mobile device that doesn’t have its own filtering capability.

To make a filter, click on the Create A Filter link near the top of the Gmail window. Enter search terms into on or more of the fields shown (From, To, Subject, Has The Words, and Doesn’t Have—the last two of which refer to the message’s content as well as its headers) and, to limit matches to messages with attachments, select the Has Attachment checkbox. Click on Next Step, and then select one or more checkboxes representing the action to take when a message matches. I usually find Skip The Inbox (Archive It) and Apply The Label (along with the label of my choice) to be the essential combination. For messages I want to file without ever opening, I also select Mark As Read. After making your selections, click on Create Filter.

What most people don’t realize is that the criteria you specify in the first step can be more elaborate than simple words, phrases, or addresses. For example, you can use Boolean operators: to match a message from any of three people, put something like the following in the From field: ( OR OR Or, to search for a whole phrase rather than any message containing all the individual words in the phrase, put it in quotation marks: "Mac mini" would match only messages with that exact phrase, not just those that contained both words somewhere in the message. For more search tips that can be used with filters, see Gmail’s Using Advanced Search page.

Senior Contributor Joe Kissell is the senior editor of TidBits and author of numerous ebooks about OS X.

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