mail

Inbox from Google – Quick Thoughts

I’ve been playing around with Google’s new email solution – Inbox – for a few days now.

As is usual with these things, it’s invitation only at the moment (and no, I don’t have any invites right now). But registering directly with Google doesn’t seem to take too long.

But what do I think of it so far?

Well I think that really depends on how you use Gmail, and this is a “Gmail” product. If you broadly speaking do nothing more to your inbox than Google does, then it’s probably pretty good. But if like me, you use a healthy number of filters to ensure emails skip your inbox and get nicely labelled, well I’m not so sure.

The design is very clean with few distractions. So no row of Google labels across the top (Social, Updates, etc), and no list of user defined labels down the side. No hint of any advertising.

The design is consistent between browser and mobile app. I’ve used it exclusively in Chrome and on an Android phone and table.

It makes adding reminders, and appointments spectacularly easy – you can begin to live your (non-work) life through it – assuming much of your life surfaces as email.

It smartly batches together similar emails. In “old” Gmail, you’d find the most useful stuff in your Primary tab, but you had to go hunting to see other email hidden within different top-tier tabs. Inbox gathers those other emails together and just politely reminds you that there is a batch of stuff there when you’re ready.

So overall I like it.

But there are some issues:

– It hides emails that you’ve filtered away from the inbox. For example, I still have lots of Twitter emails turned on. Twitter stopped them for me for a while, but I find them useful. I just hide them a little. Similarly, some discussion group emails I send direct to a folder to keep the discussions out of the way. There are various other regular emails that I similarly send away. Gmail lets you know because the folder name will turn bold and display down the left hand side – “You have new Twitter emails” it’s effectively telling me. But those rules with Inbox ensure that I don’t even know the emails are there. Clicking on the menu button on the top left will reveal your folders, but it doesn’t indicate if there’s any mail in any of them. I ended up going back to Gmail to see. You can then choose to break your filter and surface those emails in Inbox, but that means that a busy discussion group keeps your Inbox buzzing all day long, because while those emails remain labelled, they do return to your inbox. In other words, it’s worse than Gmail.

– One of Gmail’s worst features is Contacts. It does a decent job of storing your contacts, and of course they sync neatly with your Android device’s contacts. What I mean is that it is thoroughly unintuitive where to find them. I once had to ask Twitter to help me. In Gmail you have to click on the word Gmail and it’ll give you the option of going to Contacts. Very obtuse.

contacts

Still, Inbox is worse. I can’t find my contacts for the life of me. I don’t think they’re actually there.

– Marking as read. Maybe I’m just a bit OCD, but I like to mark my “done” emails as read. Inbox uses a tick or swipe process on mobile to mark an email as “done”. This effectively archives the email and hides it from your inbox. They might be done, but only if you’ve actually opened the email are they marked as read. The problem comes when you’ve used labels in Gmail. For example, I label any cycling related email as “Cycling”. That includes lots of marketing emails. If I use Inbox and swipe them away without opening them, as “Done”, they remain unread. So it still looks like I’ve ignored them. Such is the volume of marketing stuff I get, I regularly use the “Mark as read” functionality of Gmail. There’s no equivalent here. You’re going to have to either open every email or just accept that some will remain unread.

– More mobile alerts. Because of the issue with hidden/unhidden emails, you can end up with many more email notifications from Inbox than you ever had from Gmail. To be fair, you can go back and turn many notifications off. But it feels a little bit of a hassle.

– Spam is hidden by default. I hate spam. You hate spam. Who cares? Well I do actually. The problem is that while Google is pretty damn good at highlighting spam correctly it occasionally gets it wrong. The odd marketing email that I do want to see gets marked as spam (probably by other users) and I have to go and fish it out. Because Spam is hidden, I’m less likely to see or think of checking this folder.

– Screen resolution. This is an odd one, and perhaps more of an issue with my 15″ 4:3 radio work laptop than anything. But on a 1366 x 768 screen, when you actually open an email you don’t have a great deal of room to read the email. Gmail has some settings to change your “look” and make things more compact if that’s appropriate. I can find no equivalent in Inbox. Obviously this issue will lessen as screen sizes go up.

screendisplay

There’s a lot of grey space in that image above that I’d love to be able to utilise. Instead, I have to do more scrolling than I would in Gmail.

Now to be fair, Google suggests you go “all-in” with Inbox and replace Gmail completely. In an Inbox-only world some of these issues wouldn’t matter, although I still believe Gmail’s filters are very powerful, and depending on how you use email, and Gmail in particular, you might have a different Inbox experience.

Perhaps I’m being unduly negative, I know. Inbox is brand new, and there will be iterations. Inbox is cleaner, and it’s a lot smarter. It uses the power of Google Now to show you what’s important. I love being able to “Pin” emails to my inbox. For example, at the weekend I needed to use some details from an email several times on my phone. With Gmail, I’d have had to search for that email each time. Now it’s there at the top of my Inbox until I unpin and forget about it.

Although labels don’t seem to be relevant any longer (and can I emphasise that I love labels), you can still use the same search terms to find things using labels (e.g. “saddles label:cycling”).

But I’m not sure that I’m ready to fully ditch the Gmail app just yet.