Google loves to compete against itself, especially when it comes to messaging. When you want to send a text, you can hit up Allo, Android Messages, Hangouts, or Google Voice to do it, with each offering something none of the others have, and presenting wildly different visions for how we should communicate with each other.
The same is true with its email apps. While there aren’t quite as many options to choose from, the two clients it offers couldn’t be more different. On one side there’s the veteran Gmail app that comes pre-installed on most phones, and on the other is Inbox, a modern, innovative concept out to redefine the way we interact with our messages.
So which one is best? Much as it is with Google’s slate of messaging apps, it’s a tricky question to answer, as there’s a high degree of preference and subjectiveness involved. Each client has clear benefits over the other, but it all depends on how you use your email. So I’ve broken them down for you.
Email clients are all basically the same, and the Gmail app follows a pretty standard blueprint. There’s a main inbox window that contains messages as they arrive, with unread messages in bold and circular avatars separating emails by sender. It’s clean and functional, with a useful swipe shortcut that lets you instantly archive or delete a message.
Swiping from the left side of the screen or tapping the hamburger menu opens the usual Google sidebar that shows where you’ll find your inbox categories and labels, as well as settings for things like signature, categories, and sounds. Long pressing on a message brings up a set of basic options, including trash, archive, and mute, but there aren’t too many surprises with the Gmail interface. It’s built for speed and practicality, and it’s a perfectly functional free email app.
Inbox, on the other hand, is anything but ordinary. It treats your inbox as more of a to-do list than a mailbox, and the result is a hyper-focused interface that forces you to rethink your whole email strategy. Your messages are still given the chronological treatment, but they’re separated by smart bundles, with pinned messages getting top billing and spammy promos separated from the pack. Inbox also grabs your reminders from Calendar and sorts them accordingly, between your messages.
The same sidebar, swipes, and gestures that you know from Gmail are all on display here, along with handy settings for snooze options and a vacation responder, along with a switch to turn off Gmail notifications. But as the name suggests, Inbox takes a decidedly different approach with its inbox. You can argue that it’s more casual than Gmail, but its colorful, icon-heavy interface somewhat belies its power. It’s no doubt more whimsical than Gmail, but that needn’t suggest that it’s any less versatile than the regular Gmail app, despite its reliance on a Google account.
While their designs may be different, the main distinction between Gmail and Inbox is their approach to organization. The Gmail app functions much like a mobile version of the web app, with Primary and Promotions tabs, as well as a main catch-all container that will show messages from all of your accounts.
And by all of your accounts, I mean all your accounts. While Inbox is strictly for Gmail—and it’s unlikely to expand beyond that—but the Gmail app works with lots of other addresses as well, including Outlook, Hotmail, Yahoo, and Exchange (Apple iCloud users are out of luck, however). Once your account is loaded, you’ll see any labels or folders you have created (depending on your service of choice), and you’ll be able to sort and manage your messages accordingly.
Inbox, on the other hand, is more of a task manager for your email. For example, if you have a bunch of travel-related emails it will logically bundle them all into within a Trips bundle for easy reference. They’ll disappear from your inbox (in Gmail you’ll need to tap the All mail tab to find them), and appear under Trips in a pretty package complete with a stock image of the place you’re traveling to. The same is true for purchases, bills, social interactions, and promotions, and it’s all so seamless, you can lose track of something if you’re not dutifully staying on top of your bundles.
But Inbox’s killer feature is the ability to create your own bundles. Tap the Add new button in the sidebar, and you can start a new grouping (though unfortunately you can’t add an icon), and set rules for how messages will be automatically fed into them. You can add a sender or a subject keyword with boolean operators, and any that you create will be synced with the Gmail app as labels. Which is good, because you still can’t create your own labels in the Gmail app. It’s the biggest detriment to the Gmail app, so even if it’s not your main email app, it’s good to keep Inbox around for this reason only.
With Inbox, you can also snooze messages for a determinate amount of time, pin them to the top of the main screen, and make them as done (which is essentially the same as Gmail’s archiving, though any messages marked as done will still appear in the All mail tab in Gmail). And both apps give you a few seconds to undo an action before it’s completed via a notification bar at the bottom of the screen.
While Gmail and Inbox have alternate methods for organization, they take similar approaches to composing. Tapping into a message gives you the usual options for replying and forwarding, though Gmail puts a handy arrow button in the task bar, while Inbox hides it behind an overflow menu.
In each app you’ll find a red circular button in the bottom right corner that will launch the new message screen. Pressing Inbox’s plus symbol doesn’t bring you straight to a new window, however, instead offering a set of fanned shortcuts for recent contacts. Sadly it’s not customizable, but it’s still a neat feature.
Once you reach the composing window, you’ll find a few extra options in Gmail, but for the most part both windows adhere to a minimal philosophy. There’s a paper clip for attachments from Google Photos or Drive, and Gmail also lets you send or request money via Google Wallet. Otherwise, the process is pretty standard, though Inbox is a little cheekier with its “Say something” directive in the main composition window. And there’s one more thing: Inbox gives you a five-second window to undo the sending your message in case you reconsider.
So, who wins?
In my opinion, Inbox is the superior client, but ultimately, it comes down to how obsessive you are about your emails. Inbox’s method does a better job of keeping your inbox clear of unimportant messages and letting you focus on what needs your immediate attention. But if you want to personally address every message as it arrives, then Gmail might be the better option. And obviously, Inbox is limited to gmail accounts, so you have to use the Gmail app for others.
Even if you don’t dive into the various settings, Inbox definitely takes some getting used to. Heavy email users might be put off by its somewhat heavy-handed approach to bundling and prioritizing, but Inbox takes such a refreshing spin on the standard email client, even staunch Gmail devotees should check it out. Its interface isn’t quite as radical as it was when it launched a couple years ago, but it still feels like more of a modern client than the standard Gmail app. And its icon looks cooler on your home screen, too.
But above all, it’s the little things that make Inbox shine. There’s an attention to not just detail but user friendliness that outshines the Gmail app. Things like the undo sending button and reminders integration make Inbox a pleasure to use, and if you get a lot of spam (like I do), it will clear the way for important messages to get through. All that and you can create labels, too.
Even years after it launched, Inbox still feels like the future of Gmail, and quite frankly, it’s surprising Google hasn’t added support for other accounts. Once it does, the Gmail app won’t be necessary at all.
This story, "Gmail vs Inbox: Which Google email client is right for you?" was originally published by Greenbot.