Inbox by Gmail Review

I’ve been using Inbox by Gmail since late October and I am hoping I will never need to go back to old school Gmail… ever. In case you don’t know, Inbox is Google’s latest attempt at controlling how we receive and manage email, and it has been met with mixed responses from the internet denizens. In this post, I will share my experiences with it and explain why the approach Google has taken seems to be in the right direction for me, an organisational nightmare with constant backlogs of email up to my ears. Inbox is able to organise email and has advanced search features that can help to keep track of the swathes of information, documents and files that inevitably accumulate over time. Note: When I refer to “Inbox” I mean the application as a whole, and by “inbox” I mean the inbox within Inbox.

Shown below is a screenshot of the main view provided by Inbox in the web application. I mostly work on a PC during the day so am using the web application of Inbox more often. I use the app on my phone or tablet only when I’m out prowling the streets. Immediately noticeable, is how clean it is – a single column of content that displays emails in discrete time blocks – e.g. This month, Yesterday and Today. Attachments are immediately accessible and actions (described later) are available for each email. The top left button provides a comprehensive menu with Inbox’s additional functionality, and if desired a Hangouts panel can be opened and pinned. The advantage of this clean layout is that it is easily reproduced on mobile devices so there is no difference in interaction, whether you are on a phone, tablet or desktop computer. And the best thing? No ads!

Screenshot of the Inbox Desktop App

Screenshot of the Inbox Desktop App

Inbox tackles email in a noticeably different way, and to me, this is the crux of the innovation of the approach behind it – other reviews seem to have missed this concept and complain that it does not facilitate the way they’re used to emailing, or that adapting to Inbox is a chore. Change is almost always met with some resistance, and adjusting may require some habitual fixes, but that being said, Inbox is not really blowing the concept of email right out of the water. Instead, Inbox gently reshapes emailing by presenting it to the user as a more manageable To Do or task list, instead of purely as a messaging system. The layering of new terminology, such as replacing “archive” with “mark done” is not only superficial, but also includes the underlying framework to support task management processes. These features are summarised as follows:

Inbox Actions:

The consideration of emails as tasks is most apparent in the available actions provided for each email. Besides the usual Reply, or Forward, Inbox provides the buttons shown below:

Main actions for emails, from left to right: Pin, Snooze, Mark Done, and More

Main actions for emails, from left to right: Pin, Snooze, Mark Done, and More

Pinning an email marks it as important, and requiring further action. In doing so, a Reminder can be added to the email which shows up under the Subject heading as a cue to the reason the email has been pinned (e.g. to reply to later or for future reference). All pinned emails can be viewed instantly through the toggle located on the top menu bar. Once emails are marked as done, they are automatically unpinned and removed from the inbox. However, for some reason, pinned items cannot be removed from the inbox and retain their pinned status. This means that pinned items can only be removed from the main inbox view when marked as Done, which seems counter-intuitive since they can still add to the visual clutter – just like in regular Gmail.

Example of a Reminder on a pinned email. The icon and note are visible beneath the subject.

Snooze is a new feature that mimics the snooze feature of an alarm clock. The email being snoozed is removed from the inbox and redelivered at a specified time (any date or time). This emulates some of the features provided by third party extensions for Gmail and makes it much easier to come back to emails that require an action. Having the email delivered at a later time means that it no longer clutters your inbox and you don’t have to worry about remembering to reply.

Marking emails as Done again emphasises the task-oriented nature of the emails. Instead of marking them as ‘Read’ or archiving them, the user indicates that they are done with it and no further action is required. This complements the other activities: pinning – i.e. to do; and snoozing – to do later. Emails can be marked as done individually, as a Bundle or for the entire inbox (Sweep). When the inbox is swept everything is removed except for pinned items. Snoozed items will be delivered as if it were a new email.

Bundles:
These essentially replace the Labels system used in Gmail. There are pre-determined Bundles (categories), such as Travel, Purchases, Social, Updates, Forums and Promos, which Inbox automatically sorts emails into. You can set up your own Bundles based on criteria you specify, similar to creating email filters. The main feature of Bundles is the ability to easily group similarly topical emails and specify a fixed time for them to arrive. For example, I have my Promo bundle sent to me once a day (at the moment, the time is fixed at 7 am, but I would eventually like the option to specify the time). This means I can glance through it quickly, and for the rest of the day I won’t be bothered by the tonnes of emails I get from daily deal sites, other retailers and promotional activities. I am therefore, not inundated or distracted by unimportant emails throughout the day – I only get them once, quickly sort through them and that’s it. Bundles can also be Swept, so the whole lot can be removed from view with a single click to maintain a clutter-free inbox.

The caveat with Bundles is that it may take time to set up. Existing filters are carried through from Gmail, but this may require some tweaking to make use of the Bundles provided and to create your own. I had previously made use of Google Labs’ multiple inbox add-on, and approached bundling by deleting all my filters to set the bundles all up from scratch. For the first week, I also had new Bundle emails delivered as they arrived so that I could check the sorting was happening correctly and I wasn’t missing anything important. Now, I’m not so worried about it and haven’t missed anything too important yet.

Search:

Inbox supposedly leverages off some powerful search abilities. I have yet to test this thoroughly, but so far it seems like past emails and resources are easily found and displayed for me to search through. The jury is still out on whether this is more accurate with a complex labelling system and keywords – for example, I found “labels:chats” really useful for dredging up information from conversations over Gchat and this behaviour is not reproduced in Inbox.

Summary:

My experience with Inbox has largely been on the desktop version as that is where I do most of my emailing. Many reviews focus on the mobile platform version – which I suppose is what it was originally designed for. I have gone full early-adopter and completely transitioned to using Inbox for all of my emailing, and noticed a substantial drop in the amount of time I spend sorting and clearing unwanted and non-productive email (more time for YouTube!). The task-oriented nature of the approach has aided me in keeping track of actions I need to take, and reducing noise and clutter. Right now, I have seven pinned items and a few snoozed emails that will be coming back to me over the next couple of months. On Gmail, I would be struggling to keep items in my inbox below 50 – a self-imposed maximum that dictated how many could be shown on the screen at a time (I despise having to look at a second page of emails – it’s like who ever looks at the second page of Google results?).

I’m hoping that Inbox doesn’t fade into oblivion like Wave and Buzz, and from that I’ve seen, the general response is positive. Come full release, I hope it remains ad-free, and would like to see improvements that allow pinned emails to be hidden, desktop notifications, more flexibility in managing hangout chat popups and chat history, and greater stability (infrequent crashes were experienced). The fact that the latest Gmail mobile application (released 6 November) actually looks quite similar to Inbox is encouraging because it would suggest a smoother transition (and potentially higher adoption rate) to Inbox. However, if you are already in control of your email and have an effective labelling/filtering system in place – Inbox by Gmail might just mess it all up and not be worth the switch.

I still have several invites for Inbox, so if you’re wanting to give it a go, get in touch. Currently, you’ll need a Gmail address.

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