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Featured Review: Inbox by Gmail

October 25, 2014 - Written By John Anon

Description: Inbox by Gmail is a new email client from the guys over at Google who brought us Gmail. Inbox is a standalone email application and is not intended to either replace Gmail or work with Gmail. The main difference between Inbox and Gmail is that Inbox takes a task-driven approach to email management with a focus on clearing unwanted/aging emails while also bringing associated and like-minded emails together into ‘bundles’. The objective is to help users both clean and manage their email content in a much more streamlined and effective way. Similar to Gmail, Inbox is available as both a desktop and app interface.

How it Works: Inbox (for the moment) is in a sort of pre-release phrase. As such you need an invite to be able to use this service. There are two ways to get an invite. The first is to be invited by someone you know while the second way is to simply email inbox@google.com asking for one.

inbox invite needed

Once you have received an invite it must be in your current Gmail account. You then need to download the Inbox app from the Play Store. Although Inbox is available on your desktop you cannot use an invite this way. You do need to go through the app for the first time authentication. Once the app is downloaded you simply sign-in with your current Gmail account. If you already have google services installed then your account details will show up and you can just click on your username and Google will auto sign-in for you. The initial authorization sign-in takes some time and don’t be surprised if it takes up to two minutes for the first sign-in. Once Inbox reads the invite email in your Gmail account you are done and are immediately presented with a small number of card based swipe screens briefly explaining how Inbox works. Welcome to Inbox.

This is where the fun begins. Once you are up and running (and especially if you are using the desktop interface) you will straight away notice how different Inbox looks to Gmail. Just for the record most of the images from now on will be of the desktop version as this is where most of the functionality can easily be seen. The app version is much stripped down compared to the desktop and as long as you understand the desktop version it will apply to the app version as well. The color scheme is new, there is no Google branding and all your emails are centralized in very narrow margins (compared to Gmail) without the typical Gmail ‘detail’ listing.

imbox opening page

Immediately you will be thrown by the new layout and be warned it does take some time to get used to. The first thing to note is today’s emails will always be grouped above all other (previous emails) and this is irrelevant of their content (junk, important etc). All ‘new emails will be grouped under ‘Today’. Below this, previously received messages will be displayed although again grouped by date starting with “This Month” and followed by their respective months September, August and so on. Within each ‘date bundle’ there will be the Inbox designed categories. This bit needs some explaining. Inbox is task-driven and as such groups your emails together into ‘clusters’ or ‘bundles’. So if you buy something and Google reads the email as a purchase it will throw the message into the “Purchases” bundle. Likewise, if you receive emails from any forums or subscriptions that you are signed-up to then these will be thrown into the “Forums” bundle. Once in these bundles they are then separated as we mentioned by their date. To give you an example, in the image below I have received emails today from “Promos” (junk), “Forums” (subscriptions), “Updates” (more junk) and “Purchases” (receipts and shipping confirmation).

inbox categories

Now this is the next really clever bit. As well as showing you emails you receive by bundle or cluster it also provides you with a much more intuitive and easy user experience. To show how it works in the image below the “Purchases” bundle has been opened and you can immediately see the emails listed there are all associated with either receipts or shipping. Very handy when it comes to doing your taxes once a year. But more impressively you will also notice that you don’t need to open any of the emails to see their attachments. You can see a Chromecast has been ordered and can directly click on the ‘Track Package’ link without opening the email. Once clicked the track package link will open in a new tab and hey presto. No need to actually open emails, scroll to content and search for the relative links. All the ‘important’ content is displayed within the main page. This works for any and all attachments. So if there are images in the message they will be displayed and can be opened without opening the email. Similarly, travel plans, online check-in and all other links which Google can understand as requiring an action are displayed in the same way.

inbox purchases close up

Once you are done with an email you have four main options. Firstly, you can just leave the email where it is and nothing else happens. By the next day it will move automatically into the “This Month” grouping but still within the relative subcategory (i.e. Purchases, Forums etc). The second option is to mark the email as “Done” and you do this by clicking a tick symbol (like Nike) above the message (or swiping right if using the app). This basically means you do not need or want the email anymore. You have used the links, read the content, received the packages etc and the email is now finished with. You might be thinking so “Done” is “Delete” right? Well, no it’s not! Done is done and once a message is marked as done it is only removed from your main stream and into a “Done” folder. Again as you can see in the image the done folder works much the same way with emails grouped firstly by date and then sub-grouped by Purchase, Forums etc.

inbox done

Up next is the option to “Snooze” messages. If you are familiar with Mailbox then you will be familiar with Snoozing. In short you can send a message away for a while and choose when it comes back to you. Let’s say you are at work and you get a message you can’t deal with right then. Hit snooze, tell it to come back later and then that evening when you are at home (and have forgotten about the email) hey presto it comes through as a new message.

inbox_app_snooze

The last main option you have (of course there are little additional options you can do it but just trying to go over the big stuff) is to bin the item. Right click the menu on the message and hit bin. This will basically send it to the trash bin.

inbox email menu2

NOTE: You can mark all of the emails within any bundle (Purchases, Forums etc) as either done or bin all at once. If you have read through all the emails in your forums or received all your incoming packages. Then you can literally hit the ‘done’ or ‘bin’ button on the category tab (not the email themselves) and they will all be moved to done or bin. Second point to note which is really strange is that there is no delete. You cannot delete messages manually. You can mark them as done or bin them but neither deletes the message…at least not straight away. Even on the ‘Done’ or ‘Bin’ pages there is no further option to delete messages manually. It is presumed once in the bin they will eventually be erased although at the moment (after only a couple of days of Inbox being released) the emails I have binned have not yet gone. Whether this will change in a future update or when Inbox rolls out properly is unclear. Either way for now do remember there is no manual delete. You have been warned.

So what else do you get? Well, with the desktop Inbox (not available on app) Google have looked to implement most of the Google social elements they can. As such as well as all your emails you have direct clickable access to the Google Launcher (the Google app Ecosystem).

inbox google launcher2
In addition, all your current Hangouts are included so you can chat (and start a new hangout) directly from within Inbox.

inbox hangouts2
…and also receive Google+ notifications. Although unfortunately at present you cannot compose a new Google+ post from within Inbox (like you can in Gmail). You can only view and respond to incoming messages/notifications.

inbox g+
Opinion: After using Inbox for a couple of days I will not be going back to Gmail. Inbox is a much more refined, intelligent and overall more modern approach to email management. Its use of in-view attachments is excellent and since using this I have rarely needed to actually open an email. The interface is certainly different to anything we have seen from Google before and is quite aesthetically pleasing (in a minimalist way). In terms of functionality though this is where the problem might be. There is no doubt that Inbox requires a period-of-adjustment. The way it is used is so different that it does take time to come to terms with the new approach. This might be fine for those of us who like to think of ourselves as tech-savvy, but that is not everyone. If you are less confident with technology in general and have just gotten used to using Gmail (I’m thinking of you mom) then the change to Inbox might be a little much. Inbox is better but much more complex.

Ratings

  • Speed (4/5) – There are no issues with speed or lagging noticed on either the desktop or app versions. Both respond as you would expect from a Google product.
  • Features (3.5/5) – As this is only an email client its features are rather limited by nature. However, Inbox does offer a good one-stop shop for communication with G+ and Hangouts integrated. Not forgetting you can also now include and sync with non-Google email addresses. Its biggest and best feature though has to be the use of attachments, images and links for quick access. However a whole extra point must be taken off for the lack of a dedicated delete feature
  • Theme (3.5/5) – Personally, I like the theme however it is extremely different to what we know from Google. Gone are the colourful Google notes and displays and instead a much more clinical, task-driven (so to speak) and minimalist theme is in place.
  • Ease-of-Use (3/5) – This is an extremely well thought out email client and really does speed up email management and clearing of emails. But coming from Gmail it is highly different and the immediate look and functionality will almost certainly put some people off. It’s easy when you know what you are doing…but then again isn’t everything?
  • Overall (4/5) – There is no denying it. Two days in and I do really like Inbox. It’s clean, it manages well and most importantly it makes sense. Before Inbox I was using Mailbox (by Dropbox) and have noticed that there seems to be a lot of the Mailbox features which have made it into Inbox. In short, it works and will be my only mail client from now on.

Pros

  • Does what it says and offers a seriously good one-stop feel to email management.
  • Good incorporation of Hangouts and Google+
  • Easy Access to Email content like attachments, links, images without the need to open the email

Cons

  • Adjustment period – This is unavoidable it will take some time to get to grips with the new system. Longer for some than others.
  • There is no true delete function
  • App version is certainly as not well developed as the desktop and lacking in comparison.

Conclusion: Inbox is a much superior email client to Gmail and does integrate other social aspects like Hangouts extremely well (at least on the desktop). The use of attachments and grouping takes time to get used to but works once you understand what’s going on. The best advice for when you start using Inbox is to simply stop using Gmail. At first you will be tempted to flick between the two so you can get something done now – the way you know how to do it, but this will only slow done the overall transition. Close your eyes, take Inbox’s hand, turn your back on Gmail and jump. In the end you won’t regret it. Mom, stick with Gmail…trust me.