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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.

11 Responses to “Google Inbox review: Are you ready for a better way to manage communications?”

  1. Joel G. Rodriguez

    I have been using it for a few days now and I am really impressed. The interface is great and it is very user friendly. I no longer log into gmail. I wish Google would just implement an un-subscribe feature in order to really help declutter one’s email account. I do hope support for Google Apps will arrive soon.

  2. Jake Dansk

    You should see this new email app called SmartMail. I have first seen it in TechCrunch Disrupt London (2 days before the announcement of Inbox) and it looks way better.
    They claim to offer less clicks to handle emails (even less than Inbox) and no app swapping at all.
    Check it out http://www.besmartmail.com

  3. It’s just way better than I though. I had read reviews saying it is confusing. I’ve just used it for a day and I’m sure there will be things I have to adjust to as part of the learning curve. But nothing bothering me and in fact I really like it. Even on desktop, I like the fact that I don’t have to see all the folders/labels on the left pane unless I want to (and you don’t necessarily need to as it shows the same grouping you can access to from the left pane, inline in the inbox). Attached documents are so ready for a peek on both desktop and mobile. So, intuitive…

  4. Jason Winter

    Wonderful interface. I was skeptical. But as an avid user of Gmail since Jan. 3, 2005 (beat me by over two weeks, Kevin Tofel), I had to try this next step. Certainly a paradigm shift. My 80k or so emails are now organized and I am looking at a blank inbox for the first time in a decade. Feeling the sunshine. Thanks, Google! @WebNBrewMaster

  5. Robotech_Master

    The biggest “gotcha” for me was that I had to change the way I interact with Gmail in a way. I’d never archived anything, so I had 66,000 emails in my inbox. Which is kind of a non-starter if you’re using Inbox, because its paradigm is more in tune with Google Now: if you’re done with something, you don’t see it anymore. So you could click “Done” until the cows come home and it would keep showing you older and older email!

    Fortunately, this was easily-enough solved. A simple search and a few clicks and Gmail ground away for several minutes and archived all 66,000 of those emails for me. And it has the side benefit of the default Gmail interface being less cluttered, too.