Monday, October 08, 2007

Enjoying the power of Gmail

When Google's free, web-based e-mail service was released in April of 2004, it was heralded as a revolutionary new approach to the web inbox. Indeed, conversation threads, search, tagging, and keyboard shortcuts have changed the way many look at their e-mail. But because it offers a much different experience than a desktop client, Gmail can take some getting used to. Here's our guide to getting the most out of Gmail.

Consolidate Your Accounts

You probably have several e-mail address; work, personal, one for mailing lists and perhaps a throw-away address for various online services. Gmail makes it easy to funnel all your e-mail in a single inbox. Best of all, you can send e-mails from your Gmail account and they will look like they came from your other addresses.

To set up additional accounts:

  1. Head to the Settings tab in the top right corner of the Gmail interface and click on the Accounts tab.

  1. Click Add Another Account in the "Get mail from other accounts" section.

  1. Enter the e-mail address you'd like to integrate into Gmail and click Next.

  1. Fill in all of your e-mail account login info. You can also select a number of other options such as always using a secure connection (if your other mail host provides that feature), leaving a copy on the server and control how Gmail handles the incoming messages. Save your changes.

  1. Gmail will send a message to the new account, and you'll have to click the provided link to verify that it is in fact your account.

If you'd like to set up Gmail so that messages sent from your Gmail account look like they came from your other accounts, return the Accounts tab and repeat the above process in the "Send mail as" section. If you'd like, you can set any of your accounts as Gmail's default account to use when sending mail. Gmail's Compose interface also always gives you the option to select any verified address before you send a new message.


Gmail doesn't use folders. This is perhaps the most disorienting aspect for new users accustomed to filing mail according to time honored traditions. But Gmail does offer the same functionality you're used to with folders. Instead of filing messages in folders, Gmail lumps all your message in a single archive mailbox (which you can view by clicking the "All Mail" link). But Gmail uses labels (other sites call them "tags") to give you the same functionality as folders.

  1. To get started using labels, click the Settings tab and then click Labels.

  1. Create a new label. Let's say you want a label named "Work" for all your incoming work e-mails. Create the label and any time you get an e-mail that's work related, apply the label and archive the message.

  1. Now click the label Work in Gmail's sidebar and you'll see all your filed messages, just like you would with a folder named "Work."

What makes labels more powerful is that single messages can have multiple labels, something that isn't possible with folders. Also, you can change or add labels at any time and test your searches to see how the labels will be applied.


Moving and archiving labeled messages by hand is tedious, and that's where filters come in handy. Gmail's filters are pretty similar in feature to those you've used in desktop clients. Define the matching criteria and then define what actions you want applied to those message.

Here's a tip for power filtering: Gmail uses the AND operator by default when combining filter attributes. Thus is want to match messages that come from or have the subject line "test," we're out of luck. However, there's a way around this limitation because the "Has the words" option in the Filter dialog can accept any search criteria.

Thus in a single line in "Has The Words" we can define the follow rule: (from:( OR subject:(test)). This trick can also be used with any of the other Gmail search operators.

Unlimited e-mail accounts

The '+' symbol can be added after your user name and before the '@' symbol in a gmail address. Effectively you can have an unlimited number of gmail accounts by suffixing a word after the '+'. Example: If your e-mail address is you could use the address bob+wired@gmail .com when signing up for the wired news letter and then simply setup a filter for any mail sent to This feature is very handy for figuring out where spammers got your address from.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Gmail has some nice keyboard shortcuts you'll want to memorize. These are the essential ones:

j/k to select the next and previous messages in the mail list view

n/p to move between next and previous messages in message view

y to archive a message

c to compose

r/f to reply forward

*#* to delete

There are a host of others available. See the Gmail help pages for a more detailed list.

If you find yourself loving Gmail's simple shortcuts, but prefer a desktop client, have a look at the Thunderbird add-on GmailUI which brings many of Gmail's shortcuts to Thunderbird.

Access Gmail From Your Desktop

Though rumors of an official Google desktop client for Gmail have surfaced recently, you can still add your Gmail inbox to your favorite third-party client easily.

  1. In Gmail, click on Settings, the "Forwarding and POP"

  1. Check one of the two Enable POP boxes. Choose to either download all of your stored mail or only new messages from this point forward.

  1. Select how you want Gmail to handle copies of your messages in your webmail interface. Either leave them untouched, archive them or delete them.

  1. Click "Save Changes"

  1. Configure your desktop e-mail client by following Google's instructions for your software.

Gmail Scripts For Power Users

If you're using a browser that supports Greasemonkey scripts, there are a whole bunch of things you can do to enhance Gmail. Some notable options include Gmail macros, which greatly enhances the keyboard shortcuts in Gmail, and Force encrypted connections which ensures that you always connect to Gmail via a https connection.

To encrypt your messages in Gmail, see our earlier guide: Keep Your E-mail Private, Secret and Secure.

For more options and other ways to improve you Gmail experience with Greasemonkey, have a look at everything tagged Gmail in the scripts archive.

If you're a Firefox user, Lifehacker editor Gina Tripani has put together a very nice little extension called Better Gmail that combines a couple dozen scripts, hacks and other tools and makes it easy to install everything without hunting down the individual scripts. For more details on Better Gmail, see the Lifehacker tutorial and guide.

Use Gmail for Online Storage

Note that these online storage methods may violate Gmail's terms of service, so it's probably best to test them using a non-critical account.

Given that Gmail offers almost 3GB of storage, why not use it backup some files? For easier, FTP-like access check out these options. Windows users have Gmail Drive, while Mac users have gDisk. There's also a Firefox-based option called Gmail File Space.

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