GMail – first impressions

Every email system is the same, right? Well, no, actually. Last week I decided to switch from BT Yahoo’s on-line email system to Google’s Gmail, to see what I thought of it for personal use. I know that some people have been using it for quite a while, and as such I’m not exactly an “early adopter”. However, these are my first impressions.

The first thing that I want to say is that it actually works pretty well. No real surprises there! Composing and sending messages is perfectly straightforward, and managing your contact list is no problem. Some of its features are less than intuitive, though, but once you get to know it, the system is fine. For example, it is not obvious how to have more than one message open at the same time. The answer is simple – press the “Shift” key when selecting an item – but it is unlikely that you will stumble over the answer.

There are a few gaps in Gmail’s facilities, some of which seem to get a lot of people worked up, if the various on-line forums are to be believed. I’ve found two that came as a surprise to me. The first is that there seems to be no way to sort emails into any sequence other than by the date they were sent or received. That’s not a big deal for me just now, but it might be, once my mailbox grows significantly. A second is that while items can be tagged with labels and removed from the “Inbox”, the same doesn’t apply for sent mails. Even after you give them a label, they also remain in “Sent Mail”. I dare say that I’ll find other gripes as I do more with the system, but so far only these two have made me stop and think. On the other hand, as you would expect from Google, the ability to search your messages is excellent, and that perhaps changes the goalposts. And do remember that Google refers to “conversations” rather than “emails”, so maybe, just possibly, looking at it from that perspective would bring a different understanding.

Gmail will continue to develop, and Google are developing loads of improvements to the software to add usability features and increase its sophistication. Some of these developments are already available for end users to try, and I have adopted a few that make the software meet my needs more effectively. One is “Nested Labels”, which are designed to help to manage emails (or conversations, as Google prefers to call them) more easily. For example, I can create a “Work” label, with “Client emails”, “Agencies”, and “Reference material” as sub-labels, and expand or collapse these as required. It is still under development and isn’t perfect, but it is a good start.

Converting from BT Yahoo to Gmail was a bit of a pain. Setting up Gmail to pick up new messages that are sent to my old mailbox was a simple matter, but the automatic transfer of all my contacts and archived emails didn’t work. I ended up doing a manual export / import of contacts, which was easy enough although moving emails around was a bit of a pain. You may want to think before you jump if you have a lot of old data that you may need.

So, would I recommend Gmail? The answer is a qualified “yes”. It has its own quirks, but as I get more used to it, I find that I like the way that it operates. You’ve just got to start thinking in Google’s terms, and stop trying to compare it with what you are used to.

Iain Millar, 18 January 2011

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