Friday, April 3, 2009

Why Gmail is the Best E-mail Service

I was having a debate the other day with a friend. I will not reveal her identity, but let's say she isn't very technically savvy. I tried to tell her exactly why she should switch to Gmail, but in the end she claimed she was too lazy to 1) learn another e-mail system, and 2) switch to a new e-mail address, since her preferred address was already taken.

This got me to thinking, as I've also tried to convince several other friends to make the switch to Gmail. Thing is, I can kind of relate to the people that are hesitant because I was once in their shoes. I had a hotmail account and a university account, both of which I sent to Outlook Express. When I graduated college, I figured it was about time I got a 'professional' e-mail address since my university address would be expiring, and I made my other one when I was about 12 years old (you can imagine the absurdity of the name). Alas, I gained the courage to see what this new, cool Gmail thing was all about. It's about two years later, and I'm blown away nearly everyday at how much I love it.

So without further adieu, I give you my comprehensive list of why Gmail kicks ass:

  1. Search - Gmail is built behind the principle that Google has thrived off of. How many times have you been digging for an e-mail that you just can't seem to find because it was months ago? You'd have to keep your folders (we'll get to that later) insanely organized to do this efficiently. But Gmail built it better, with search you really only need to remember one word about what that e-mail revolved around and you will find the e-mail.

  2. Archives - Gmail offered the most space when it first came out - other services made you pay for a bigger inbox. Because of this, they believe that you should never have to delete e-mail, you simply 'archive it'. That way, it's always there for you if you so choose to find it. If not, then no big deal. But now you don't have to wonder where an e-mail went or if you prematurely deleted it. I've been guilty of that a few times. I've been using Gmail for about two years and I've only used about 5% of my space. And I usually send/receive lots of attachements. It's amazing - I could never fill it if I wanted to, but it's that security blanket that I love having.

  3. Conversations - I have to say, this was probably one of my biggest pet peeves when it came to most other forms of e-mail. I would get a message from a family member or friend that was sent out to several people. Those people would in turn respond to everyone else, and before I knew it my inbox was cluttered with everyone's opinion on the funny video or vacation idea. NO MORE! Gmail groups all message with the same topic into a threaded conversation. Believe me, it may take a little bit to get used to this concept, but it is undoubtedly one of the best features of the service. I can't tell you how many threads I've had with 10+ responses - and now not only do they stay neat and organized in my inbox, but if I ever want to go back and check something out from one of the message, they are all in the same place.

  4. Filters + Labels - Google figured out a much better organizational structure to group e-mail compared to folders. Yes, in theory it is very similar, but the big difference is one e-mail can reside within multiple labels, whereas with the folder structure you had to choose one. Here's a great example - I forward all of my e-mail from my hotmail account to Google (with third party software - don't get me started with hotmail...). I have a label for 'hotmail', but obviously those messages will fall under the category of another label.

    Not only that, but if you use filters, you can automatically label e-mails as they arrive in your inbox. Even better, you can choose to mark certain e-mails as read, skip the inbox, forward them or delete them - automatically. Some of these features may not seem groundbreaking, but if you are signed up to mailing lists, get e-mails from professors, forward e-mail from several other addresses, etc, it is unbelievably useful so that you don't clutter your inbox with useless message after message.

  5. The '+' and '.' operators - this is one feature that is great in theory but doesn't necessarily work with some website mailing lists. Here it is... your email address is Your email address is Your email address is Yes, you can use any of these and they are all aliases of one underlying email address. The dot operators are essentially a means for making your e-mail address more aesthetically pleasing. You can put any phrase after the plus operator. Why is this useful? As I said, mailing lists or anything where you have to register with an email address.

    Case in point - you register for online banking with the email address You create a label called 'Banking'. You create a filter that takes anything sent to and assign the label Banking. From now on, your banking messages will be completely organized without any work. There is one problem that I've found - several sites will not let you use the '+' operator as a valid email address. Kind of sucks, but you gotta give Google credit for coming up with these great ideas.

  6. (Video) Chat - Gmail pioneered the in-browser chat (ok, maybe AIM Express did, but that sucked, let's be honest). Now when I'm doing work at my computer - which is often - I can chat with people while I'm being productive, and keep everything contained into a confined space. I'm sure this serves to distract some people, but I would bet that its intended use is for people working together that often send e-mails to each other. If they are on and available for chat, there is no need to write an e-mail and you can connect with them instantly - hence increasing productivity. And you can load your AIM buddy list if you'd like.

    They recently added a feature for video chat - so you can have someone come into your virtual office and talk to them without either person leaving their workspace. Or you can talk to a loved one instead of using the obsolete phone system! Maybe catch a glimpse of your new born son/daughter at home to see what they are up to while at work. Or just waste some time with a friend :P

  7. Drafts - I'm sure other email services offer something similar, but I'd bet the Gmail draft system is better. If you have an epic e-mail to write, or get called out when writing one, just save your draft and walk away. Maybe your computer crashes while your writing an e-mail - Gmail has you covered (to some degree) because they automatically save your e-mail every minute or so as you're typing. Another thing I use it for is file sharing between computers - Gmail provides you so much space that you can upload an important document before you leave work, and access it at home if you'd like.

  8. Better Spam Protection - Is Gmail immune to spam? No. But do they handle it better? In my experience, absolutely. I probably get a spam message in my inbox every 3 months or so. I used to get them almost daily with hotmail. You can check all spam messages if something goes in there accidentally.

  9. Keyboard Shortcuts - OK, I realize it doesn't take long to click on an icon, but you figure that if you're typing, it's easier to keep your fingers on the keep board to compose a mail or do something else. This kind of follows the Mac ideology of speeding up everything by making navigation easy with keyboard shortcuts. I don't personally use these, but I can see how they would be useful if you get used to them (which won't take long if you use Gmail daily).

  10. Add Multiple Accounts - Not only can you forward all your messages to and from other accounts, but you can also edit the settings so you can send e-mails from another e-mail address through Gmail. This is incredibly useful for me because I'm in graduate school, and I prefer to send anything related to that with my school e-mail address.

  11. Themes - Not only is Google's mail service incredibly functional, but it's also pretty! They have several themes you can choose from - maybe you wanna drift off to an exotic beach or check out the beauty of a mountain range... or if you want to get adventurous, you can create your own custom theme and choose any colors you'd like. Is it useful? Not really, but it's fun and that seems to be a theme with all of Google's products and services.

  12. Gadgets - You can add any gadget you'd like that can be placed on your iGoogle homepage. These can range from fun stuff like illusions and puzzles, or something that keeps you going throughout the day like your daily calendar schedule. Just use Google Calendar (again, the best online calendar there is, period) and you can keep your Gmail open all day - chat, check your schedule, interact with coworkers, keep tabs on your family, increase your productivity.

  13. Google Docs - This gives you functionality similar to Microsoft Word/Excel, and allows you to open these directly in your browser if you have an attachment from one of these sources. Again, convenience, productivity and elegance, that's the name of Google's game.

  14. Labs - I saved the best for last. Gmail Labs is the creative domain that drives the great ideas for email. I could probably write another 5 paragraphs on this alone, but I'll try and keep it as brief as I can. Let me address my favorite features:
    • Offline Gmail - This recently came out, and now allows you to download and sync your e-mail server with your home computer. That way if you lose your internet connection, you can still peruse your messages and write up a draft if you'd like.
    • YouTube/Picasa/Flickr/Yelp Previews - If somebody sends a link from one of these sources, you can preview it directly from your e-mail message instead of opening a new webpage.
    • Mouse Gestures - When viewing a message, I can simply right-click and drag right or left to go to the next or previous message, respectively. If I want to go back to the inbox, I drag up. Pretty cool, eh?
    • Snake - Remember that game from the cell phones about 7 years ago? Yea, you can play it in Gmail.
    • Drag 'n Drop - Choose where you place your chat box and labels... Right-side or left-side of the screen.
    • Forgotten Attachments - If you mention this word, but didn't attach anything, it will remind you. If you've never forgotten an attachment, I don't think you're a human, lol.
    • Mail Goggles - Ever send out a risque or stupid e-mail while drunk? I haven't, but I'd bank on this happening a lot, especially in college. Well, in order to make things a bit more difficult for the drunken fools, Google makes you pass a small math exam to test your sobriety before sending e-mails!
    • Multiple Inboxes - Remember how useful those filters and labels were? Well if you want to view all messages from a certain label in addition to your inbox, you can do it.
    • Text in Chat - Yup, you can do that too.
    • Signature Location - Gmail can detect where you are, and let people know in your e-mails through a small map in your signature. Preeeeettty neat.
So there you go, a crap-load of reasons why you should switch to Gmail. It's the most productive. It's the most creative. It's the most functional. It's the prettiest. It's intuitive. If it were a celebrity, it would be like Jessica Alba - a perfect 10 with almost no baggage. There are tons of fun tools and options to play with, and once you convert, you'll never want to go back. I pity the fool who does...