Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Gadget Goodies 30 - Google and Email

image used under Public Domain license, artwork obtained from
Email is one of those things that seems to generate the whole spectrum of emotions.  And about as many opinions as you can find people to express them. That little guy to our right, pushing the email @ symbol as a demonstration of being industriously dealing with lots of email.  Or the comparative size of the @ sign could be a represention of being overwhelmed by the amount of email. And, no matter what your feelings and experience with email, you're right.  

Email is a very personal or impersonal medium depending on how you use it, work with it, and feel about it.  Periodically, some developer will come up with an idea to make email nicer to look at, easier to deal with, more secure, some of the above, all of the above, or none of the above.  Google has come up with some ideas that are the latest attempts at some of that.  We'll look at them, today.

I've done email on various platforms, sometimes with software that handles your email and attachments in an automated way to make it easy on the eyes on the screen.  Other times, I've used programs with security features beyond what the normal user is ever going to need.  Most recently, I've settled into no email software on my computer, just using the web interface of the various services.  But, for several years, I've had all my email coming into my phone.  Right now, that's an Android device with a larger screen.  And that's where we're going to look at email use, today.  It's where Google is making things more interesting.

For some time, now, I've been using an email app named K-9.  There's mostly nothing exciting about K-9.  It's pretty much the standard email list and the individual email view is nothing out of the ordinary.  But each email service has their app handling the various functions differently.  The end result has been that the end user has to remember which app uses which keystroke combination or screen maneuver to do what to which email function.  If that sentence sounds confusing, then it's given the right picture of having multiple email accounts.  And even if a person has only one account, not all the apps do things in an intuitive way.

When a friend suggested I try K-9, I figured it was worth a try.  K-9 handles a variety of email accounts, which allows me to use one email app for all my accounts.  Accessing the various functions has been intuitive.  Any initial problems I had were mostly unlearning old habits before fully learning the new ones.  That didn't take as long as one might expect.  So, using K-9 was easy. And there were two features that made K-9 stand out for me.

K-9 color codes each account.  So, if you have multiple accounts, you don't have to hunt for your email address to see which account you're viewing.  That makes K-9's ultimate feature really usable.  That "ultimate" feature is a universal inbox.  I don't know about anyone else, but I have times I want to go back to a given email days or a week later, for some particular piece of info.  I may not recall which account it came in on.  I might not remember the sender or the exact wording. And I might only recall approximately when I got it.  I can go to the universal inbox and scroll through to find what I want.  Priceless!  And yet, despite how useful all that is, I've tried some other options.

Google has Gmail, both the service and the app.  If you've tried the web UI, you're familiar with the tabs.  Those can be handy to separate different email categories, giving smaller lists to browse. Search works on all email, not just a given tab.  Mobile apps didn't have the tabs.  But Google is kind of changing that with a beta app called Inbox.

If you've paid attention to tech news on social media and particularly Google+, you're at least aware of Inbox, Google's beta email app for Android and iOS.  That's a screenshot to the left.  As you can see, it uses categories much like the tabs in the web interface for Gmail, plus being able to add your own.  The good part of that is that you can select which categories give notifications.  One of my friends commented that all his work email comes in under one category.  So, he sets that category as the only one to give him notifications. The result is less distraction from constant email notifications and the notifications in the taskbar take him right to the important ones.  Very handy.  He says it keeps him being more productive.

Inbox has a few other interesting features.  Once you've read a categorized email, it goes into an offscreen Done category.  If you know a particular email is one you want to refer to again, you can put it in a Snooze category, with a set date and time to return to the inbox.  You can also set up a reminder on your calendar from an email.  And, finally, it has a more graphic UI than older email apps -- easier on the eyes.

What are the shortcomings?  For one, you only get a view similar to the screenshot.  No list view, if you want it or need it.   Inbox is Gmail only.  And no universal inbox for all accounts.  Also, notifications are sporadic.  Inbox is definitely very beta.  The problems will disappear and features will be added.  So, we'll see what happens.  Personally, I'm not sold on it, with the present feature set.  But that could be I'm not used to how it works.


Google isn't coasting with just a beta app in email land.  Or in Android land, for that matter.  Within days or weeks, Android 5.0 will be arriving, stretched out to March or so of next year, as the various carriers and phone manufacturers tweak what gets added to the base package for their devices. But what we want to look at today is the email app.

Email in Android 5.0 is still Gmail, but with loads of changes.  First and foremost, while the app is Gmail, it's no longer limited to just Gmail.  Our screenshot on the right is from Gmail 5.0.  As you can see, unlike Inbox, we get list view.  What isn't showing are the categories, which only display that way for new incoming email.  But they are used.  

Navigating starts with tapping that three bar block at top left.  It opens a menu of all your categories and folders for that account, plus settings and "Help & Feedback" at the bottom.  Any unread counts will display at the right of that menu list.  Your email address is at the top.  Tapping your email address allows you to switch to a menu of accounts set in the app, allowing you to switch to a different account.  Each account will show new mail in categories at the top, the read mail in the list below it, very much like combining ne incoming and Done (from Inbox) into one view.  And, again, there's a more graphical UI than older email apps.

The good?  I like how it works.  Among other things, you can select whether a message displays images.  And once you've selected to show images, you get another option to allow that sender's mail to always show graphics.  

The bad -- unread counts are sometimes totally erroneous.  One account has one unread sent email.  Another shows that all unread mail in that account is fifty, but no unread counts for any folders or categories.  The counts need to be much more accurate.  

The ugly?  Only speed.  Gmail 5.0 seems to chug along at times.  Among other slow downs, deleting emails from the Spam folder doesn't change the unread count for that folder immediately.  It may be that some of this may be that there are hooks in the full 5.0 OS that Gmail 5.0 makes use of and can't while I'm still running it under Android 4.4.4.

I like the categorized unread emails like Inbox, but I'd really like to see that be a universal unread view instead of having to switch accounts to see all the unread mail.  The read list ought to have an optional universal view for browsing, as well.  And both views ought to have color coding for accounts.  Unread counts need to be fixed.  And it should be unfettered in speed, like Inbox.  I suspect that, over time, these two email apps will merge features.    And I'm looking forward to the end result.  In the meantime, I've switched from K-9 to Gmail 5.0 as my "go to" email app.  Are you as excited about the new changes and the future potential?

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