Six Easy Ways to Conquer GmailThere's much more to Google's free e-mail service than an inbox. Here's how to turn Gmail into a major productivity booster.
After a long courtship, I recently pledged my everlasting love for Gmail, forsaking all other e-mail systems (well, almost) in favor of Google's free, Web-hosted service. But as in any relationship, my passion for Gmail is constrained by practical concerns. Though it possesses many excellent qualities, Gmail is far from perfect. Fortunately, I've uncovered some strategies that will give my walk down the aisle with Gmail a good chance of yielding a happily ever after.
Read, Label, Archive
Most e-mail users dream of an empty inbox--evidence that we've read and deleted (or filed) all incoming messages, and are now free to take the rest of the day off. Because Gmail offers you more than 5GB of storage, the only messages you need to delete are those you never want to see again. To banish pieces of e-mail from your inbox but keep them handy, add a check mark beside them under Select on the left side of the screen, and then click Archive. This step hides messages from plain view without expunging them (there's more on archiving below).
To make your archived messages easier to find later, use Gmail's labels to categorize them by topic, project, sender, or any other criterion that make sense to you. Most e-mail programs let you sort your mail into folders, but Gmail's labels improve on folders in one powerful way: Instead of requiring that mail go into only one folder at a time, they let you assign Gmail messages to multiple categories simultaneously. For example, a single properly labeled message that pertains to both Project A and Project B will appear in the collection of messages labeled 'Project A' as well as in the 'Project B' group.
To categorize a message, open it and choose one of the labels on the More Actions drop-down menu, or check one or more messages in one of the message list views, and then choose the label from the same menu. Alternatively, to create new labels on the fly, choose New label from the menu (see the image at left). To view or modify your labels, first choose Settings, Labels in the upper right-hand portion of Gmail's interface; this will open a page where you can rename or remove individual labels, view a list of messages tagged with each label, or create a new label. Unlike deleting a folder in a standard e-mail program, deleting a label doesn't wipe out the messages tagged with that label, so feel free to delete any labels you no longer need.
You can also remove labels from individual messages without deleting the labels themselves. First, open a single message or check multiple messages in the mail list; then choose More Actions. Scroll to and select the unwanted label beneath the 'Remove label' heading. To find messages no longer tagged with a label, click All Mail in the far left pane to see the list of every message stored in your account.
Gmail's inbox is just another tag that incoming messages receive by default. Should you mistakenly archive a message (which strips it of its 'Inbox' tag), you can return it to your inbox by clicking All Mail, selecting the message, and clicking Move to Inbox. A similar method enables you to retrieve messages that you inadvertently send to the Trash folder. Gmail's handy habit of grouping e-mail conversations into message threads also means that messages you've archived will pop back into your mailbox as soon as someone else posts a response to an earlier message in the thread. If you no longer have any interest in the conversation, prevent it from reappearing in your inbox by checking it, and then choosing Mute from the More Actions menu.
Fetch Mail From Other Accounts
Though you probably have one primary e-mail account, you may regularly receive messages at more than one address. You can configure Outlook, Thunderbird, and other e-mail programs to download messages from all of your accounts, so that you can see all of your e-mail in one convenient location. Not surprisingly, Gmail lets you do the same thing, allowing you to centralize all of your mail in Gmail's inbox. Besides reducing your likelihood of forgetting which account has the message you're looking for, this practice ensures that all of your mail will pass through Gmail's excellent spam filter. For instructions on how to proceed, see "Use Gmail as a Universal Inbox."
Label Automatically via Filters
One of the biggest obstacles to emptying your inbox quickly is the need to scan and prioritize incoming messages. Having all of your e-mail in one inbox is great, but it does complicate the task of sorting the messages that require immediate attention from those that can wait. One solution is to have Gmail automatically do the prioritizing for you by applying filters to incoming mail. The easiest way to create a filter is to open an example of the message that you want Gmail to act on, and then choose More Actions, Filter messages like these. Gmail will display the filter criteria that it has chosen in the sample message (often the From: address), along with a list of messages in your account that the filter would detect. Add or remove criteria by altering the contents of the various fields provided, and click Test Search to see how your changes affect the search results.
When you are satisfied with your filter's search criteria, click Next Step to determine what actions Gmail should take on the matching messages. Two obvious actions are Skip the Inbox (Archive it) and Apply the label. Check both of these, and select a label from the drop-down list. If you'd like to apply the filter to the messages in your test search results too, check the Also apply filter to... option and then click Create Filter to shunt incoming messages that match your filter criteria directly to a folder (see the image at left). You can create filters that forward messages to other e-mail addresses, apply Gmail's star flag, mark messages as read, or delete them--in effect hyper-prioritizing, delegating, or utterly ignoring specific projects or people before they arrive in your inbox. You have the power. Use it wisely. To view, edit, or delete your filters, choose Settings, Filters.
Gmail Digs IMAP
Gmail's Web interface has many admirers, but you may prefer to access your account via a standard e-mail program, such as Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird, or Apple Mail. Gmail has long allowed users to download its messages to such e-mail programs by using the Post Office Protocol (POP3) standard, in which the program downloads a copy of each message to your PC, and optionally deletes or leaves a copy of the message on the mail server. The service recently added support for the Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) protocol, in which the mail program leaves messages on the server, downloading a copy for local viewing only when needed. One key benefit of IMAP is that your inbox, sent mail, and sorted mail folders (or in Gmail's case, labels) look the same no matter which PC or program you use to access your mail--a boon for anyone who uses a combination of home, office, portable, and public computers. IMAP is also perfect for accessing your mail from cell phones and other devices with limited storage (for instructions, see "Three Ways to Use Gmail on Your Phone").
Before you can read Gmail in your mail program, you must make some decisions. First, choose Settings, Forwarding and POP/IMAP and specify either POP3 or IMAP. For POP3, select Enable POP for all mail or Enable POP for mail that arrives from now on. Choosing the first option will cause your e-mail program to download everything it finds in your Gmail account, which could tie up your computer and its Internet connection for some time, depending on how many messages you have in Gmail and whether they contain large file attachments. Choosing the second option leaves past communications in Gmail and starts your POP3 downloads from the present moment. Next, you need to decide what should happen to the messages in Gmail after you've used your mail program to download them from the When messages are accessed with POP menu. Given Gmail's near-unlimited free storage, I recommend avoiding the 'delete Gmail's copy' option and instead choosing 'archive Gmail's copy'. The other option, 'keep Gmail's copy in the Inbox', leaves Gmail's mail list unaltered by your POP3 downloads. Click Save Changes to enable POP3 in Gmail. To enable IMAP, select Enable IMAP and click Save Changes.
Next, configure your e-mail program to send and receive mail via your Gmail server: Choose Settings, Forwarding and POP/IMAP,and click Configuration instructions in either the POP or IMAP section of the page for details on how to configure your software. For a POP3 configuration, the server for incoming mail is pop.gmail.com on port 995 using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) security; and the server for outgoing mail (which uses the Secure Mail Transfer Protocol, or SMTP) is smtp.gmail.com on port 465 using SSL or on port 587 using the newer Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol. Don't enable options to log on using Secure Password Authentication. For an IMAP configuration, the incoming mail server is imap.gmail.com on port 993 using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) security; the outgoing mail server (which uses the Secure Mail Transfer Protocol, or SMTP) is smtp.gmail.com on port 465 using SSL or on port 587 using TLS (see the image at left).
Whether you choose IMAP or POP3, as soon as your e-mail program connects to the Gmail server, it will find and display your Gmail labels--including 'Sent Mail', 'Spam', and 'Starred'--as folders. If you choose POP3, creating or deleting folders in your mail program won't affect your Gmail labels, but deleting a folder will also delete the files contained in the folder from the Gmail server (just as you'd expect). If you choose IMAP, creating or deleting folders in your mail program will create or remove the corresponding label on Gmail, because that's where the folders/labels actually reside. Deleting a folder doesn't delete the messages it contains--just as deleting a label in Gmail doesn't delete the messages tagged with it.
Chat With Your AIM Buddies
Gmail has long included an integrated chat feature that connects you to other Gmail users via the Google Talk network. To start an instant message conversation with another user, just expand your contacts list, hover the cursor over the Gmail contact you'd like to chat with, and click Chat. (For voice chats you must download the free Google Talk application.) Google recently added support for AOL Instant Messenger to Gmail's Chat feature, so now you can banter with your AIM buddies without having to launch AOL Instant Messenger (this is especially handy if your company's firewall blocks regular AIM traffic). To log in to AIM via Gmail Chat, click the arrow next to Chat's status field (or click the Options link at the bottom of your contacts list), and choose Sign into AIM. Enter your AIM screen name and password into the dialog box that appears, and click Sign in. Your AIM buddies will now appear in your Gmail chat list.
Improving on Near-Perfection
Even if you're expert at wrangling Gmail's advanced features, some things in the Web-mail service need fixing. For example, when you click a mailto: link on a Web page, why doesn't a new message open in Gmail? When you're looking for an important spreadsheet, wouldn't it be great if you could see what kind of files were attached to messages in the list display, instead of seeing just a paper-clip icon? And why isn't Google's excellent Calendar application integrated with your Gmail page?
Bonus Tips: Three Ways to Use Gmail on Your Phone
GMail is wonderful, free, and ubiquitous. Thanks to its support for the POP3 and IMAP protocols, you can access your Gmail inbox via Outlook, Thunderbird, or other e-mail programs in addition to using the standard Web method. Alternatively you can read your Gmail messages on your cell phone through your phone's browser by navigating to Gmail's Web site. Some phones (including my Motorola Razr V3 with T-Mobile service) won't display standard Web sites, unfortunately, though they will display sites designed to support the Wireless Applications Protocol (WAP) using the Wireless Markup Language (WML). Google's WAP-compatible Gmail site is http://m.gmail.com (if you're typing this in the browser's address window, don't leave off the 'http://' part--unlike the browser on your PC, your phone's browser may not add that prefix automatically).
Gmail's mobile site is perfectly functional, but the company offers something even better for Java-compatible phones. The Gmail Java app promises faster performance than the Web interface, and it supports attachments better. To try it, visit Google Mobile and click the big blue Get started now button. After you enter your mobile phone number and click the Send Now button, Gmail will send you a text message with instructions on how to download the application. If neither the WAP page nor the Java applet work on your phone, you may be able to see your Gmail on your phone by configuring your cell phone carrier's e-mail system to download messages from Gmail via POP3 or IMAP. Consult tip #6 of "Thirteen Simple Ways to Bring Order to Your Inbox" for instructions on how to do this.