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Google Inbox First Impressions – A Mobile Email Organizer, and Not a Bad One

Inbox has been called Google’s latest take on email, albeit one the company steadfastly asserts is ‘not meant to replace Gmail.’ After a week using Google Inbox, that statement proves to be true—although you can get and use Inbox on a PC or tablet, it proves to be much more useful on a smartphone, particularly one running Android 5.0 Lollipop.

When Google reps said that Inbox wasn’t meant to replace Gmail, what they were really getting at is that Inbox is the email client designed to go with Android 5.0 Lollipop. Lollipop is introducing Material Design, which aesthetically borrows heavily from the cards you see on Google Now. The same goes for Inbox, where your email previews are displayed in long, thin boxes that look like Google Now cards. When you click on one, the box will expand to show you the entire email, but it doesn’t take you to a new page or open up a new panel—you’ll still be able to scroll up or down to see other emails in your inbox.

Menus have all been tucked away as slide-out panels or drop-down menus. The search bar is still on the top of the screen and has been elongated to, again, look more like Google Now, while the compose button is now a large red dot on the bottom right (which shows recently emailed contacts when pressed, a handy addition). You can still access Google Hangouts, Google apps, Google+ notifications, or dive into your archived emails, but those options now don’t take up space on the main interface. Google uses that extra space to make attachments like videos, documents, and pictures visible from the email preview card, before you even open the email (Google calls this feature Highlights). With new emails, this feature lacks usefulness because the attachments are presented out of context, but for old emails, it’s a cool way to get right to what you want to see.

One of the main features of Inbox is Bundles, but this is probably the most useless feature regardless of what device you’re using. With Bundles, Inbox automatically tags incoming emails as Travel, Purchases, Finance, Social, Updates, Promos, or Forums. Some of these, like Travel and Purchases, make sense—you can see all emails related to your travel plans or your latest purchases in one place, again without leaving the main interface. Social houses all of your social media email notifications, which aren’t terribly useful anyway. It would be nice to have all of these grouped together for a batch delete, but there’s no way to select all emails in a Bundle (or in general), so that’s out. For everything else, the Bundles are a little too enthusiastic, and tend to bundle things together that you’d rather have separate. After a few days of using Inbox, I ended up disabling Bundles, partly because I found myself removing too many items from Bundles manually, and partly because old habits die hard, and I like to see all of my emails at a glance without have to click or tap open a new box.

Incidentally, these Bundles have been introduced to Gmail, in a way—your Gmail inbox tabs are based on the same idea, as is Gmail’s new habit of automatically labeling some emails as Updates or Promotions or the like. You’ll now find Bundles on Gmail as labels, so what you do on Inbox will still carry over to Gmail—they both are still servicing the same email account, after all. Inbox is just a cleaner way of implementing those ideas, which weren’t particularly useful or desirable on Gmail, although I’m not convinced they fare any better in Inbox—clean design isn’t inherently good.

Another Gmail analogue is the new Pinning tool. This is a bit like marking emails as important or starring them in Gmail. If you need to keep an important email front and center, you can pin it to a separate page. It’ll still stay in your inbox, but there’s a button you can press on the top bar to show only pinned emails. To Google’s credit, it’s a much better implementation of the important email idea than starring or marking, and I found myself instantly using it for emails that I needed to keep in mind long-term.

Also new to Inbox are the Sweep and Done buttons, but these have their Gmail analogues, as well. Sweep is essentially a batch archive tool for entire Bundles, while the Done button archives a single email. More useful are Reminders and the Snooze button. Reminders are just like Google Now reminders, and can push notifications to you based on time or location. I liked having this feature integrated into my email client, particularly because I’ve always been one to send emails to myself as reminders. Reminders made in Inbox show up just like a regular email, so it’s taking those old reminder emails of mine and sticking a contextual alert on it. Reminders also get a shot in the arm from Assists—extra information that Google can add to make a Reminder more useful. For example, a reminder to meet someone at a certain restaurant automatically got the location of the restaurant and business information added to it.

The Snooze button exists along the same lines, allowing you to dismiss an email until a contextual cue (time or location) activates an alert that tells you to get back to that email. Google suggests the Snooze button for things like personal emails that may require some attention, but not the kind of attention you can pay at work. These features are probably the best part about Inbox, and are especially useful when you’re on the go and can’t fully respond to something right away.

Unsurprisingly, Inbox is designed to subtly discourage you from deleting emails—Google wants that data, after all. There’s no way to delete emails with one button press. You’ll have to open a drop down menu on the right side of the email card, then move to trash. As mentioned before, there’s no way to batch select emails save selecting each one individually, so deleting a lot of emails is onerous. Archiving (sweeping and marking as done) isn’t. Depending on how you use Gmail, this could be a good thing or a bad thing for you.

There are definite benefits to using Inbox on a smartphone. It’s much easier to use the app with one hand, since you don’t really need to open up any slide-out or drop-down menus as long as you’re using Inbox the way Google intended (whether or not you want to do that is another matter). With Inbox, you can always scroll to see all of your emails, even when you’ve tapped to open an individual email. All you’ll be doing, mostly, is tapping to open and scrolling, and it is pretty intuitive.

I think Inbox is getting misconstrued as a new take on email—I believe whoever said that Inbox wasn’t intended as a Gmail replacement. After using it for a week, I think of Inbox as a mobile email organizer that can make managing my inbox easier when I get home and use Gmail on my laptop. With Inbox, I can easily get rid of emails I don’t need to address (although I’d much rather easily delete than easily archive) while setting reminders for the important emails that need more attention. It also fits in well with the Android 5.0 update, although I suspect Google cares more about that than any of their users ever will. The Bundles are a nice idea that could be saved by allowing you to make custom bundles based on sender. As presently constituted they’re mostly useless, with a couple exceptions.

Inbox is still available by invite only, and will only work on Chrome for PCs. That’s probably due to the fact that this is a limited beta release Google is using to test the new service out—once Inbox is open to everyone, I’m guessing it’ll come to other browsers, but I could be wrong. We can’t say for sure when Inbox will get that wider release, but I suspect it’ll be not too long after the Android 5.0 update has been completely rolled out to the initial batch of devices.

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  1. “The Bundles are a nice idea that could be saved by allowing you to make custom bundles based on sender. ”

    It may have been updated since y’all’s review, but this does exist, buried: way down on the bottom of the left-side menu, there’s a “Create New” option; on an email itself, the three-dots menu will let you re-sort a email to an existing bundle, which contains a “do this for all” button in the update message; also on the email three-dots, there’s another “Create New”. It uses Boolean AND when creating a new rule, but from:, to:, subject:, include:, and exclude: are all fields that can be filtered on. Bundles can even be set to collect, but skip the inbox completely.

    The one thing that drives me a little crazy is that Done/Sweep does _not_ mark the email as read, so if I switch back to the standard gmail interface, I suddenly have all these “unread” emails. That so far is the deal-breaker.

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