Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Gmail & Inbox: Comparing The Two Email Apps - Part One: Gmail

Over the past few weeks, in what  I assume is partnered with the release of Android Lollipop, the new OS which Google is releasing for Android Smartphones & Tablets, Google has also released a major upgrade to its Gmail app and introduced an entirely new email app called "Inbox". (I know the above was a run-on sentence!) There has been a great deal of confusion by many as to the need for Inbox and exactly which app one should use for everyday email requirements. So I have over the past week run both of them side by side (including notifications) in order to give readers a first-hand report on the experience.

There are some caveats that must be mentioned before I begin to explain and show the differences. Let me warn readers that this will be a fairly long article which I have divided into two parts. I am sorry that it is not one of those "do this in ten step things", but I want to be as comprehensive as possible here, especially because Email is one of the most important systems that anyone uses, be it on a PC, Mac, Tablet or SmartPhone. If you are only interested in reading about Inbox, then that article will follow on the heels of this one. However,I strongly urge the reading of both, as I hope you will learn a few things about Gmail that you have not yet explored as well.

Gmail itself, has the added value of having been around for quite a few years and therefore many of the visual and work-flow aspects of the product, either on a PC, Tablet, or Smartphone have been addressed seriously. Inbox, the newest Email product from Google was released on a selective basis around a month ago. It does have a way to go in maturity, and though it is also an email client, you will require an entirely different perspective, or as it is often said, a "new head-space" to truly appreciate the product. Either way, it will obviously be your choice in which product you eventually use.

When Gmail was first introduced a few years ago, for quite some time the way to get an account was to get an invite from a friend who already had an account. In this manner I assume Google was able to scale-up its servers as more and more accounts were added and before they opened up Gmail to anyone via a web page which allowed one to create an email address immediately. It seems Google likes this way of introducing such products, (especially true for the app age), and once again to get the Inbox app, one either has to send an email request to Google (Go to the Google Play Store and search for "Google Inbox" then read the description page where you will find instructions on how to send the email and you should get back an immediate reply) - or ask someone who already has Inbox to send them an invite. Anyone can download the app, but you simply will not be able to use it for anything, until Google sends you an official invite via email based upon your request or someone sends you an invite. From what I know each new user to Inbox has a maximum of 2 invites they can send out to friends, so the actual "viral" scaling of the Inbox app is being throttled on purpose. Again I assume this is to allow Google the required time to scale up.

Additionally, these are Google Gmail products. If you use Gmail almost exclusively, especially with many accounts for different purposes within Gmail (as I do), then either of these products will work for you. Each has a different perspective on the way it deals with Email though, and forces the user to approach email in a different manner. So if you are a "traditional email person", without many emails a day, and happy with the Spam filter that Google offers in normal Gmail, then in all probability Gmail is still the best product for you.

There are many email apps out there, and I am not reviewing the pros and cons of any of them against these two products. I am simply comparing these two email products from Google, which will allow a more informed and knowledgeable decision.
  • All screenshots below were taken on my Android Nexus 5 with KitKat 4.4.4 installed.As of this writing Google has yet to release an OTA update for Android Lollipop on the Nexus 5.
  • Both apps will reflect their latest updates and thus Gmail will reflect many elements of the new "Material Design Format" released by Google for Android Lollipop development. (Google is updating all its native apps slowly but surely to Material design concepts.) If you have no idea what Material Design is and do not care, then just forget this point. It is really not essential though important to point out as we are doing a comparison.
  • Please always keep in mind, that while Inbox is the name of the new Google App, there is also an inbox in all email accounts. I will try and make sure the distinction is clear in the article. When I use the word Inbox it refers to the App. When I want to discuss the actual "Inbox" I will make use brackets. So an actual [Inbox] will be typed as [Inbox]. This is only done to avoid confusion.
  • Remember: I am talking about Android phones here and not Apple.

HomeScreen, Icons & Notification Screen

Before getting into the details of each app, it would be good to start from the beginning. Once they are installed each app works off your Google email accounts. I have multiple accounts registered on my smartphone, each used for a different purpose. (If you do not know how to set up multiple Gmail accounts on your Smartphone, search for articles on step-by-step instructions. There are quite a few of them.) Each app will read the accounts registered on your Smartphone automatically. There is no need to internally set up these accounts in each app (though you can certainly define the way each account will behave and send notifications.)

In order to better explain I took two HomeScreen images. The one on the left represents the status bar from one email account. On the status bar on top, I placed a yellow box around the notification icons. The left represents the fact that I have a notification from one email account. The icon with the M in it, is the Gmail icon. The icon with the check on an envelope is the Inbox icon. Don't worry though. If you keep both apps, you can tell Inbox to stop notifying you from the normal Gmail app, or you can do that within Settings for the specific Gmail account inside the Gmail app. I left notifications on for both apps for the sake of this article and testing, (more on that later).

The image on the right is the same thing except you will notice on top that there are multiple notifications from different email accounts. Three from Inbox and two from Gmail. The difference in numbers was my fault as after going into the Gmail app and checking, I immediately took a screenshot without waiting for the notification bar to catch up.

I also boxed in red, the two different app icons on my dock bar. (The notification number on top of Gmail comes from my launcher and not from Gmail, so don't expect that to appear.)

Next comes the Notification Screen. This is the screen where in KitKat you roll down the status bar over your top screen and you can view all your notifications. If you have multiple accounts here is where the fun actually begins, but some of it will only be explained fully when we get into the entire layout for the apps. The area boxed in Yellow are the notifications received from both Gmail & Inbox. The red circles on the right represent an Inbox notification. The green circles represent a Gmail notification. (I drew those circles myself in a graphics program just to be clear about this!)

The notifications come from three different email accounts. Gmail notifications are normal. You see the name of the sender and subject. If you have more than one email in the notifications you will see the number of emails waiting and if you expand the notification name of sender and subject. However Inbox notifications already work a bit differently. Indeed they give you a hint of how Inbox changes your email.

As you will also see later, Inbox works on the old Label theme, and certainly imports labels from your Gmail account. Indeed it imports all your email and labels and categories etc.However,when new email arrives, based upon Google's algorithms, Inbox decides for you whether it belongs in one of a few major categories within Inbox or of course, if you have already created filters into your own labels. As you can see above whereas Gmail is telling me I have an email from Goodreads, Inbox is telling me that in my Social Label I have an email from Goodreads. So the Inbox notification does not simply read Goodreads as the Gmail notification does, but it reads Social:Goodreads.

If there is no label whatsoever, then you will find the notifications on the same email will read almost the same. Look at the last two notifications, one from Gmail and one from Inbox, basically telling me the same information. 

Basically what I have just shown you is a bit of how Inbox expanded labeling and has taken that labeling and given it yet another level which is called "Bundling" which we will cover later in the article.


Gmail has been around a long time.Obviously if you use it for either one or many accounts, you know how to deal with it. The latest rendition of the Gmail app contains some interesting additions along with more of Google's new Material Design.

One taps the Gmail icon, and is immediately presented with the Gmail's [Inbox]. See image on right. The new Gmail actually keeps count of Emails from the same account with the same subject. The interesting addition is the little round pencil on the bottom. This is part of Material design concepts. Tap it and you are immediately placed in email composing mode. Then all the normal Gmail compose features are there for your email. Tap the "To" and you can either type in a new email address or pick from your contacts as you type the name. Adding CC or BCC is from little arrow at the end of the "To" line. Multiple Accounts and not in the right one? Click the arrow at the end of the "From" line and choose the account you wish to send the email from.(There is another way to change accounts which we will describe in a minute.) Compose the email and hit the arrow on top. Email is sent. Simple. Quick. No Hassle.

When opening an email in Gmail all you do is tap on the email itself and the email opens with the ability to read and immediately answer. The email is there and tap on the arrow to answer.On top there are 3 icons. The first is to archive the conversation. The second which is incredibly efficient and certainly my favorite, is the trash button. You opened the email and want to trash it? One tap. (Two if you asked to always confirm delete in settings). The third icon - the closed envelope returns you straight to the Inbox. The colon as in the case with Android apps brings up ever more options all of which are incredibly useful in keeping your Gmail account in some semblance of order.Among these options are Move, and Change Labels. So if I wanted to save an email from Amazon under my label Amazon this is where I would do it. I simply Tap the "Move To" and a list of labels comes up and then I tap the label I want to banish the specific email to. Image for this is below in which I combined two screens as one. It really is a comprehensive system. Easy to use, easy to take in the options, easy to categorize emails, and certainly if you are just a bit careful about order you will be able to keep your emails in some normal state and find them easily, even without search. 

There are though two final points we should cover in the Gmail app. One is incredibly convenient the other a real nuisance. Let us take my everyday experience where at least 50 emails a day hit my inbox in one of my accounts. Half these emails I do not even want to read. I keep them because sometimes I am interested enough to peruse them. Viewing the image on the left, all you have to do is tap the circle with the initials or the icon of the sender and it turns to a grey check. The number checked is clearly set on the top as you can see the number 5 there. Now in one batch I can archive, delete, mark them as open, or label and/or move them. This is incredibly convenient and saves time especially when you have to deal with many emails in a few accounts.

There is though one final point which must be mentioned in regard to the Gmail app. I make a point of this as it has been carried over to the Inbox app, and indeed, though called something different it still needs work by the Gmail and Inbox team.

No matter how well you train your system in terms of filters (set up on the web), labels and making sure you delete what you do not want, and spam is spam, there is a folder marked as "All Mail" in the Gmail app. What I have discovered to my great chagrin that this folder must be checked a few times a day. Gmail will send any email here, which it does not consider spam, but will refuse for some reason to place directly in your [Inbox]. Therefore if you do not either filter these emails through an automatic filter, or mark them to Gmail in some way so that Gmail will know exactly what to do with them when they arrive, they are dumped in the All Mail folder and no notification of their arrival will be given you. The only way to know you have new email that has relegated to that folder is to look at the folder itself. Without checking this folder and without being careful to make sure the email that landed iin it, is in the future filtered, you can miss some important emails. I belong to an awesome forum for the Film & Screen Industry called Stage32. Gmail does not seem to like their emails and they always end up in the All Mail box, where I have to sift through them, and I am never notified on their arrival. But to be fair. When I asked for an invite to Inbox, and did not get one in a few days,I looked in the All Mail folder, and lo and behold there it was sitting. This annoying nuisance has been carried over into the Inbox App as will be explained later. It is one of those things which demands the account owner to intervene on a regular basis to filter emails for future arrival. But it is a nuisance, and the lack of notifications and a bit of forgetfulness for a week, will suddenly find you searching through a few hundred emails which somehow were lost into this All Mail folder.

Setting your specific account information and actions along with general Gmail settings is also easy.First of all by tapping the three lines in the upper left hand corner all your email accounts will appear, where a simple tap one will lead you to that email account. So you can switch between email accounts with ease, and send off or read emails fairly swiftly. It is a system dedicated to perusing email, getting to the ones you want in any account you have registered, and then accomplishing what you may in that account.

Additionally there are setting for each account and general settings. By paying attention to these settings you can get Gmail to do exactly what you want it to do in most cases. Gmail, unlike Inbox, does have default signatures for each account, though I assume default signatures will be added sooner or later into Inbox as well. Though many people accept the defaults on these settings, it is a good idea to go through the General Settings, and then each account settings. In this way you will be able to stay on top on the numerous emails you get each day, and for the most part chose when and how you will get notifications.

Gmail is an awesome app even with its quirks. If you are a Gmail nut as I am and have to run numerous accounts, I really cannot see any alternative which even comes close. There is an incredible amount squeezed into this app, and now with Material Design concepts it truly has taken on a beauty and efficiency not yet achieved in other email apps. This is all true, with the specific notation that unless you are willing to change your thought process a bit and try Inbox where the whole concept of email gets a bit of a nudge, and as awesome as Gmail may be, the new Inbox App may just become your new love.
The second part of this article can be found here:

Google's New Inbox App For Email - Part Two

*Ted Gross is an award winning Blogger and Author, and has spent over thirty years in Technology as a CTO. The Bazoodies blog is devoted to reviews and the social impact of many of the new technologies and apps emerging today. Comments are always welcome.

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