Google Inbox review: Are you ready for a better way to manage communications?

December 15, 2004. That’s the date of the oldest message in my Gmail account. Based on that fact, I’m nearing ten years as a Gmail user. I’ve seen various changes to the interface and functions available over that decade but none of them are as massive as Inbox, Google’s new take on managing mail.

The company announced the new email app earlier this week as an invite-only service (for now) and I’ve been using it for the past 36 hours or so on Android, iOS and on a Chromebook. I think it’s a smart take on communications management, but because it’s very different, some people will need time to get used to it. How different is it from the traditional [company]Google[/company] Gmail interface? Take a look at this video that shows it off:

Google Now, meet Gmail

My first impression is that Google is tying Google Now intelligence — a contextual service — with Gmail in a way that “lets email work for you,” as Google puts it.

A perfect example is messaging bundling. When making travel arrangements for work, I used to label all of my reservations and confirmations under a Travel label. It works great, provided I remember to actually label those messages; I often forget and then have to frantically search for them later. Google Now  alleviates that issue for me with pop-up cards at the appropriate times, but Inbox automatically bundles these types of messages together too. There’s no need for me to manually label them in order to organize them; Google’s “smarts” does it for me.

Inbox for Gmail main screen

Inbox can bundle your Purchases too, which is super helpful to track expenses for personal or work reasons. Other bundles are Finances, Social, Updates — alerts and confirmations from online accounts — Forums, Promos and, perhaps most important, Low Priority messages. This is a twist on the feature Google added to automatically surface Important messages some time ago. Essentially, if Google thinks a message isn’t important, it goes in the Low Priority bundle. All of these can be enabled or disabled if you want. Turning them on provides a nice grouping of messages to help you find information fast, though.

Remind me again, please

Another bit of self-intelligence and context has to do with reminders. You can mark any email message to have a reminder based on time, day or location. The latter is a pure Google Now function, as that service automatically calls attention to useful information based on your location: If you’re leaving the office, for example, Google Now will automatically tell you how long it will take based on the current traffic. Inbox gets the same contextual smarts: Set a location reminder for an email specific to some place and it will pop up at the appropriate location.

Better on mobiles for a few reasons

That brings me to an important observation after using Inbox on multiple devices. This is really a mobile-centric take on email for two reasons. First, most computers don’t have a GPS radio nor are they in use on the road. So any location-based context is rendered nearly useless on a laptop as compared to a phone or a tablet.

Second, the web interface for the Inbox — found at inbox.google.com — is like a stretched out version of the mobile app. You don’t get the benefit of having a larger screen because the there’s not a lot of information density. Here’s a screenshot to illustrate:

inbox on chrome

As a result, I went back to the standard Gmail interface on my computers even though a “less is more” approach might be better in the long run.

One other point to note: If you look in the screenshot, you’ll see a check mark next to each email message. These represent a “done” action. There’s no archive or delete here; when you’re done with an email, you’re done. You can still retrieve these though; there’s a Done folder in the sidebar. It’s more of a semantics and mindset change.

Are you willing to change how you use your Inbox?

And that’s really what Inbox is all about: A change in how we view and work with email. It’s more of a task-based system to help manage communications. You can “snooze” messages for a determined time, which makes them disappear from the Inbox only to reappear later when you presumably have more time to deal with them. Even that action has some task-centric focus. And it’s one that we’ve seen before from other email clients or plug-ins such as Mailbox and Boomerang.

Inbox snooze

Overall, I like what Google is trying to do here, which is reinvent the way we use mail so that it takes less manual effort to digest communications and get things done. It’s definitely a better mobile product so far and it’s likely that people will either love it or hate it at first. I think it’s the kind of product that you have to force yourself to stick with for a few days and see if it’s going to help you manage your inbox or not.