Over the past several months, Gmail has introduced several new additions to its already impressive array of features, and these new additions have truly improved Gmail’s function and usability. In today’s article, with the help of my colleague, Lori Paul (owner, Virtual Legal Consultants, and author of Paralegal Blaw Blaw Blaw and California Family Law Paralegal), we will explore some of these new Gmail features.
Although I like Gmail, I have always had more trouble staying on top of important emails, far more than I did with either Hotmail or Yahoo! No matter how hard I tried, important communications just seemed to get lost amidst the hundreds of other emails, notifications, appointment-related mail, and electronic subscriptions. With “priority inbox,” this problem finally has a solution.
Now, in addition to Gmail’s filtering system (which, actually, is far superior to either Hotmail or Yahoo! when configured correctly and often), “priority inbox” allows you to mark certain mail as important or not important and also group the mail into four different categories. For example, my categories are “important and unread,” “important,” “all law office mail,” and “everything else.”
When I enabled “priority inbox” in my Gmail settings, I expected to get more organization to my overwhelmed inbox, and it certainly did. Much to my surprise, however, priority inbox brought about two additional – and almost immediate – changes for me that have been fantastic. First, by separating my various emails into smaller, manageable chunks, I have been able to more easily identify senders from whom I no longer wish to receive email and eliminate them.
Second – and to some of you this might sound a bit strange – but just being able to open my Gmail in the morning and see a smaller number of “priorities” helps to start my day off on a much more positive note. With a better attitude, I am able to get through more emails during the day, increasing a sense of accomplishment. I no longer feel like my inbox has control over my entire work day, nor do I feel like opening it is something to dread.
If you are a Gmail user, but have not yet tried “priority inbox,” I strongly suggest you give it a try. You can read about the new feature at the official Gmail Blog by following this link. There is also a quick video to watch that also explains the new feature well.
If you are not a Gmail user, but are looking for an email service with some better organizational features than your current provider, “priority inbox” may be just the thing you are looking for. The only other feature to which I can analogize “priority inbox” are those services that allow you to flag certain email as urgent or high priority. “Priority inbox” is far superior.
For the benefit of non-Gmail users, here’s a nutshell lesson on how Gmail’s saves emails in folders. First lesson – there are no folders! Instead, Gmail uses a system of user-generated labels which can be color-coded. The theory behind the label v. folder system, according to the Gmail Blog, is that labels are more versatile than folders. Any given email can have more than one label, while an email can only be stored in one folder. Labels increase the ability to cross-reference emails under multiple topics, while folders tend to decrease this ability.
Explain it however you want, but from the moment I started using Gmail, their label system has been a thorn in my side. Maybe labels are more versatile, but gosh darn it, I miss folders. Specifically, the one feature of folders that I missed the most is the ability to organize my saved emails hierarchically, as one does almost all other information stored on their computer.
In April 2010, however, Gmail solved this problem by introducing “nested labels.” I think this feature has really revolutionized Gmail for those of us who think of a world stored neatly away in folders. Rather than try to describe this new feature in words, the following image from the Gmail Blog shows you the idea behind “nested labels.”
Similarly to folders, you can now organize emails by sub-labels, if you will, and then these can be expanded or collapsed to suit individual needs. The expanding/collapsing feature of “nested labels” also clears up considerable clutter on the desktop caused by having to create so many individual labels. Here is how I have put “nested labels” to use:
Like “priority inbox,” “nested labels” is incredibly easy to enable and use. You enable “nested labels” in the Labs section of Gmail.
This next feature is not an official Gmail addition, but it is certainly worthy of mention. Etacts is a third-party, Gmail plugin that is designed to help you stay in better contact with your contacts. How does it work? Etacts users assign reminders to specific contacts; e.g., contact weekly, monthly, yearly, etc. Etacts then accesses the email headers of one’s account and compares them to those reminders. When it is time to contact someone in your Etacts account, you will receive a notification letting you know.
In addition, when you receive email from a contact, Etacts provides a nifty profile summary of the person to the right of the email, which may include the person’s picture as well as links to their Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts. You can set your reminders right from this sidebar. Etacts works seamlessly, and neither Lori nor I have noticed any appreciable slow down in Gmail’s load time or speed as a result of using Etacts.
For many, the fact that Etacts must access a user’s email account – whether it is only email headers or not – will be a deal-killer. However, Etacts appears to be a great service and it augments Gmail very well. If you are interested in giving Etacts a try, you can download it at this link.
Make Free Phone Calls From Gmail Chat
Without a doubt, the biggest new feature to emerge in Gmail in recent months is the ability to make telephone calls directly from your Gmail chat window. Prior to introducing this feature, Gmail offered by video and voice chat, which were excellent services themselves, but as noted in the Gmail Blog, these services required both users to be at their computer, using a Gmail account with these features enabled. Now, with calling ability in Gmail, a user can call any phone in the U.S. Or Canada for free (for now) and at very competitive rates to the rest of the world. The image below shows you how the system works:
Lori and I tried the service when it first rolled out. We learned very quickly that, in order to use the feature, you must have the voice and video plugin enabled as well, and you should double-check that you have your audio configured correctly on your computer.
In other words, don’t wait until you have to use this service to make an important, time-sensitive call. Set it up in advance and it works great. In fact, the biggest downside I can see so far to this new call service is that Google has no plans to extend it to Google Talk.
Despite this one relatively minor negative, I believe this new feature is going to help make Google Voice far more mainstream than it is currently, and should offer a much-needed, cost-effective telephone option to small businesses and individuals. For more information on this new call feature in Gmail, check out this Mashable article.
Gmail was a good email service before, but with these new features, Gmail is poised to be not only a great email service but one that can serve both personal and business needs with ease. Check it out!