Google mail is surprisingly good

Just two years late, the Poorhouse decided to try out the uber-raved-about email service known as Gmail (or rather, here in the UK "GoogleMail" due to some silly copyright infringement business).

Following a recent email disaster, yes ladies and gents, no email for almost a week - a near death experience - it was decided to up sticks and investigate alternative methods of email access. The new Yahoo mail beta is extremely clever - think Outlook in a browser - but in the end Google mail has been settled on. Previously a fan of Thunderbird and its Outlooky-ilk, the challenge is now for the Poorhouse to use webmail as much as possible for the month, and see if it is copable with. So far it's good.

Why Gmail? Surely with all the hype it's well overrated? Well, it probably is. It's far from perfect, but it's very, very good for now. It still being in beta - long test period no? - features are still being added, but for now its very usable. One of the main bonuses for us is the quick, clean interface. It certainly doesn't have a wow-factor, but it has the basic but pleasantly usable interface that everything Google appears to have. Slightly dubious logo though.

Due to the cut-down interface it is extremely quick, and I mean extremely. Operations such as display next message, delete message, move message are essentially instantaneous. In fact on a half decent connection it is most likely faster than the Poorhouse's previous desktop email clients such as Outlook, Thunderbird and Eudora at these tasks. It is certainly faster at searching - and better. Unsurprisingly it uses Google search so your emails are shown in relevance order as though your mail was part of the web, making stuff super easy to find unlike the "where does this keyword exist" type search many desktop clients have.

What else? Well assuming you can prove you own other email addresses, you are free to send mail from Google as though it was from that address. Moreover, you can set it so that if someone emails me at (guess what, I made that address up) and I hit reply, my reply automatically appears to come from Sounds basic, but not every service can do that so well.

Googlemail doesn't have folders. Gasps we hear you say - how on earth can anyone who gets more than 2 emails a day cope with that? Well, use labels. Aka tagging in this bright new age of Web 2.0. Instead of filing your email in a folder, you tag it with a label - for instance "work" or "joke". Click on a label, and you see the mail that has been labelled that way. The advantage? One bit of mail can have multiple tags. Funny work for instance can exist in the work label and the joke label, and you will see it whatever context you look at. The disadvantage? Labels at yet can't have a hierarchal structure; there is no way of pulling of the equivalent of having a "Last Week" folder that only exists inside a "Work" folder...if you ever wanted to.

Conversation view - doesn't always work perfectly, but imagine your emails set out kind of like 3-dimensionsal webforums, so you can scroll up and down without lots of lines of ">". Weird at first to see your own replies as either a stack of cards or all spread out in line, but very neat when you get used to it. I hear Outlook will be copying it if it hasn't already.

Best of all, it has...keyboard shortcuts. Not so many webmails do, and certainly not as fast or well chosen as these one. However it is missing a few key ones - not least the ability to delete quickly. This is probably because with 2.7ish GB Google don't really want you to delete anything, but the Poorhouse can't really bring himself to keep stuff that will really, really never be looked at again, privacy issues aside. No matter, assuming you're a Firefox user, download the Gmail Macros script (you'll need Greasemonkey - fear not it's easier than it sounds and it is well worth it) and more keyboard shortcuts are now yours. You want to go look at your emails labelled "work", read through 10 of them and then bin them all right away? Well...just g w enter j j j j j j j j j j m a t and you're done. Sounds complex at first, but within a day it can near be guaranteed that you'll be doing this faster than you could in Outlook and way, way faster than most webmail equivalents. With Gmail macros you can hit "?" at any time for a full shortcut listing if you're memory deficient.

Also unlike many webmails, it can be set to be your default mail handler, so when you click an email link on the web, rather than open up the Outlook that you don't use, it opens a new Google mail message page. Do this via the toolbar, the notifier or any number of other non-official browser extensions people wrote. The notifier and Firefox extensions like Gmail Manager also alert you as soon as new mail comes to your account, just like Outlook type clients do.

If you love Outlooky type things, then all is OK. You get free POP access meaning you can download your mail to Outlook, Thunderbird etc. whenever you want. It works very well, and is - unusually - over a secure connection. However one significant downside is that as yet you can only choose to delete or archive all or none of your downloaded messages; the selective delete available via most POP accounts does not work with Gmail. This is more than a tad annoying for when the Poorhouse wants to have a swift PDA-look-around with Versamail, but so far liveable with. If this was fixed, there would be no question of going back. There are PDA and old-skool browser interfaces to Gmail so you can use it live on pretty much any device where web access is around if you prefer.

In summary: the Poorhouse likes it plenty. For now anyway. So much so, that it didn't even bother "disabling" the adverts inside the system, although it can easily - if naughtily - be done with browser extensions. They are so unobtrusive and ignorable (for now anyway) being pure text (no Yahoo/Hotmail flash annoyance) and in context that is almost seems rude to. Yes, privacy-fiends, they do computer-scan your email to see what adverts to deliver, but no more so than any other service does for viruses, spam etc. and at least they're honest about it. For sure, do not send any Government secrets over it, but then you shouldn't send such top notch secrecy over any public non-encrypted email service anyhow. Slightly ubiquitously spooky controlling-the-whole-world that Google are getting, the Poorhouse sees no reason to trust them less than any other mainstream service. Basically if you don't actually own your own email server and are not using an uberspecial service most people would probably be surprised by how insecure any of your email is.

Googletalk is built in it too...if you are one of the few people who knows anyone who uses this alternative to the increasingly annoying MSN Messenger.


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