Here's are my initial thoughts on GMail, after having used it for a day. This isn't very long, but it at least has allowed me to explore some of the more prominent features of the service. I may post another review later on.
I currently have both Hotmail and Yahoo accounts, both of which I use actively for different purposes. In my summary, I will try to compare GMail to these services to see how it stacks up. I will emphasize here, and again later on, that GMail definitely is beta; some of the things I complain about here I expect to improve over time, and some of the things I praise here may get even cooler. With their Orkut venture, Google was clearly responsive to user feedback, so I would expect to see changes made to GMail as well.
The Really Good
The search interface is the nice, simple experience you would expect from Google. I assume it will be fast once I have more e-mails to search across, but I don't know for sure.
GMail allows you to assign as many "labels" as you want to a particular e-mail. These labels act like folders, except that an e-mail can have multiple labels, which is very useful. I found this type of organization very useful in Photoshop Album.
In general, there are three basic ways which you can organize a message, which seem nice:
1) archiving it, which removes it from the Inbox. (All e-mail is always available under the "All Mail" menu)
2) marking it with a star. I use this in Photoshop Album to mark my favorite photos quickly, and I imagine that it will be equally useful for e-mail messages. the semantic meaning of the star is entirely up to you. Starredd messages are then available under the "Starred" menu listing.
3) labelling the message. This is an important feature, and I'm surprised that I haven't seen an e-mail client that already does this. It would be very useful for work e-mail, where I deal with a lot of cross-project e-mail
You can also report a message as spam.
The User Interface
The UI is extremely fast. They use a lot of tricks previously seen on sites like Orkut and in Google's personalized search, such that you don't end up in the "Select -> Submit" cycle that dominates most Web-based e-mail clients. They also preload common pages, like the compose window, so that when you click on a link, the page often loads immediately. The result of these two optimizations is that you can actually organize and manipulate your e-mails with ease, which is something I can't say for either Yahoo or Hotmail.
There is also no clutter in GMail. Something like this doesn't show up on a feature checklist, but when you use it, it's something that you immediately appreciate. Hotmail, especially, has a clutter problem, and Yahoo has it to some extent as well. With Hotmail, I often have to pause for a few seconds to locate the button I want to press. With GMail, the non-essential parts of your screen are the nice, unobtrusive white we expect from Google.
This is how I would summarize the UIs of the three services:
- Hotmail tries to look like a client-side e-mail application, but behaves like a slow Web-based application
- Yahoo looks like a Web-based application, and is one
- GMail looks like a Web-based application, but behaves like a client-side application
You can add "+whatever" to your e-mail address when you sign up for accounts. For example, when I sign up for an Amazon account, I can specify "firstname.lastname@example.org" as my account name (NOTE: that is not my actual GMail account). This doesn't prevent spammers from stripping off the "+" part and figuring out your real address, but it does let you setup useful filtering rules so that when I do see e-mail with the kwc+spam To: address, I can file it appropriately.
There is an autocomplete engine for typing in e-mail addresses. It matches either the name of the person, or the e-mail address. This is extremely useful and brings GMail on-par with e-mail applications like Outlook and Mozilla.
The spell checker on GMail is also friggin' awesome. It is far superior to Hotmail's and Yahoo's checkers, and I would even venture to say that it's faster and easier to use than my Mozilla Thunderbird spell checker. You click on "check spelling," and it instantly underlines the words that are mispelled. You can then click on those words and pop-down menu appears with spelling alternatives. I am amazed they were able to accomplish this so well.
There are a lot of little tidbits that GMail throws in that make you wonder why other services haven't done them. They are so simple, and show that Google put a bit of thought into the e-mail problem. Here are some examples:
- Google includes the first several lines of each message next to its title in the Inbox, which is useful for identifying spam or poorly labelled messages. (Hotmail and Yahoo do not do this)
- The login page is encrypted by default (Hotmail and Yahoo are not)
- no annoying redirects on URLs, unlike Hotmail which records every URL you click on in an e-mail message. (Hotmail also opens all URLs inside of a frame with a Hotmail banner on top, which makes it harder to bookmark).
It took me awhile to figure out how to delete individual e-mail messages instead of entire conversations, because the option for deleting individual messages is hidden under "more options," whereas the menu option for deleting an entire thread is in the pull-down menu that's always visible at the top of the message. I know that there philosophy is that you won't have to delete messages, but this disjoint + hidden menu fooled me for awhile.
It would also be nice if there were some import mechanisms. I don't blame them for not having import, but it would be nice. It's really not intersting testing GMail's search capabilities when I have so few messages to search across.
Problems with threading:
GMail relies on messages being organized by conversation/thread, but it doesn't provide you the tools for correcting it when it incorrectly groups messages correctly. I don't believe that GMail can possibly determine the e-mail thread correctly all of the time, and I've already found two cases where it does not.
(1) It is common practice for people to find an old e-mail with the recipient list they want, and use that to write a new e-mail. I tried this within GMail, and GMail grouped my reply in the original conversation thread, even though I completely changed the subject line.
(2) I forwarded an e-mail from Yahoo twice to my GMail account, because the first time I didn't include the forward the way I wanted to. GMail grouped these two messages together. This case isn't as bad as (1), but it is incorrect.
I'm hoping that in the future, final release of this, there are more tools to correct GMail when it's wrong.
It doesn't appear to handle e-mail forward attachments as well as I would like. I initially forwarded some e-mail from my Yahoo account to GMail using the "forward as attachment" setting, which is the default. Instead of displaying the text of the attachment in e-mail window, you have to click on the attachment, which then opens up a Notepad window, which, of course, doesn't display the e-mail message very well.
The contacts UI is rather pathetic right now -- it doesn't appear that it got much lovin'. You can currently enter in a name, e-mail address, and notes per person. My Yahoo account has fields for phone numbers, addresses, etc..., and it also integrates this information into it's IM client. In my mind, at least, an address book and e-mail go hand-in-hand, and it's difficult for either to be great unless they are well integrated.
GMail appears to lockup Mozilla's autocomplete sometimes. When this happens, I'm not really able to type anything. This isn't necessarily GMail's bug, but at the same time they need to be aware of it as it is frustrating to have to leave a page and come back again so that your cursor starts working again.
I've also had issues with using the star labelling mechanism. I would click on the star, but when I click on the Starred folder, there would be no messages.
I've also had issues with the Contacts folder. The field for entering in the name of the contact disappeared on me, and I had to leave the page and come back in order to re-enter the contact.
The spell checker doesn't check the title of the message.
I currently have my e-mail forwarded to both GMail and my Yahoo mail. Yahoo count is currently 11/11 in combating spam, while GMail is 5/11. It was a bit of a surprise for me to start seeing so many spam e-mails again. (Note: My Yahoo account usually lets about two-five spams through a day on average).
I'm hoping the spam issue is simply an issue of training and tuning, and that as I use the account GMail's filters will improve. Yahoo has the benefit of millions of users, many of whom submit spam to them. GMail's users probably still number in the thousands.
I have yet to see a single ad on my own e-mails. The only e-mail that had any AdWords was the initial e-mail from the GMail Team. In that message, at least, the ads weren't the least bit distracting, and there was also a "relevant pages" list that I presume might come in handy, but can't say for certain.
There is also concern over GMail's privacy terms. Personally, I really don't care if they run their engine over my e-mails to show me text ads or to find spam, because the experience is still better than Hotmail and Yahoo, which displays gigantic ad banners. Also, I wonder why there isn't similar uproar over the fact that Hotmail tracks every single URL you click on in an e-mail message. A 1GB of e-mail per person is going to cost Google several dollars per person, and their answer for paying for that doesn't seem very offensive to me.
I anticipate that I will use GMail as my mail e-mail account in the near future, but for now there are some final bits of polishing that I need. There's no way of receiving notifications when you have new e-mail, for example. It would be nice if the Google Deskbar was modified to provide this sort of capability. The ability to import my Yahoo e-mail and address book will also be a stumbling block. If I forward my e-mails over from Yahoo, I will lose the sender information, as well as the temporal information of when I original received the e-mail. Perhaps if GMail improves it's parsing of forwarded messages, or allows me to extract the forwarded message as a separate message, this transition might be easier. For now, though, I see no easy way of transitioning.
Update: Please do not post requesting a GMail account. I do not work at Google, and I do not have any accounts to give.