Gmail Priority Inbox, 10 days later

Google's Priority Inbox is a great step forward, making managing email a lot easier and more efficient. But there are huge tradeoffs.

Gmail Priority Inbox re-orders incoming messages in your inbox so the more important messages are at the top, with the rest of your email following. Google figures out what's most important by giving added priority to email from people you send a lot of email to, and analyzing your past history of reading and ignoring similar messages.

You can also "train" Priority Inbox by clicking a toggle to mark important email as unimportant, and vice-versa. 

Gmail Priority Inbox training

It works a lot like spam filters, combining statistical analysis with a training button, but instead of separating spam from legitimate mail, Priority Inbox is separating your urgent mail from everything else.

Priority Inbox separates your inbox into sections: The top section is for important and unread mail. The next section is for starred mail. After that comes everything else.

Gmail Priority Inbox

The sections are customizable. I tried different configurations for the inbox, finally setting on important and unread mail in the first section, then all unread mail, then all starred mail, then everything else.

To give Priority Inbox a proper try, I could see that I needed to throw out all my old methods of processing email, refined over years. I had 116 mail filters in Gmail, sorting mail into 23 different labels, which automatically sorted various mailing lists, newsletters, and updates from social media networks, into their own folders. I deleted all those filters (after first backing them up).

Without those filters, all my email would be coming directly into my naked, unprotected inbox. Would it collapse under the strain?

With Priority Inbox switched on, staying on top of email was easy. I get about 100 emails a day (that's a very rough estimate; Gmail doesn't give an easy way to count). Gmail Priority inbox sorted about a dozen a day to the Priority Inbox section. It has better than 90% accuracy rate, which is great. It improved somewhat as I trained it. It still has gaps; for example, it sometimes puts a few of my mailing list messages in the wrong place.

But, overall Priority Inbox works very well. Using the new system, I'm able to speed through my email, much faster than I was able to do using my old system.

Over time, I added back in four of my old filters, but the overwhelming majority of my mail is now being handled by Priority Inbox. 

Mute it

As an added bonus, because I'm no longer using filters on mailing list mail, I can use Gmail's built-in "mute" feature to silence uninteresting conversations on high-traffic discussion lists.

Gmail mute

All in all, Priority Inbox is a valuable addition to my email toolbox.

However, Priority Inbox has a lot of limitations. Priority Inbox is only partially supported on the iPad, iPhone, and other mobile devices. On mobile devices, there's no easy way to get a separate view of your Priority Inbox. Your Priority Inbox mail is mixed into your regular inbox in a single stream.

There's a workaround: Gmail tags Priority Inbox mail with a label, "Important," letting you open your mail and navigate to that label to see only your Priority Inbox mail. Still, that's a few extra taps.

Gmail iPhone interface

Also, you can't get notifications on your mobile device of just your new Priority Inbox mail, which means if you want to be notified of new mail, you'll get notifications of all your new mail, important and unimportant. I find that to be too much noise, I just turned new mail notifications off for my iPhone and iPad.

Similarly, Priority Inbox breaks new mail notifications on desktop mail as well. Fortunately, for Mac users, there's a workaround: Mailplane is a great $24.95 Gmail client for the desktop, I've been using it for a long time. The developers are working on a new version, still in beta, which allows you to customize desktop notifications to only show new Priority Inbox messages, or new messages with any user-configurable label. I've been using a it all week, it works perfectly.

Google says it plans to update Gmail to support Priority Inbox on mobile browsers and Android, but didn't provide a timetable. The company didn't comment on whether it plans to update it's notification software on mobile devices and the desktop to only show new messages in Priority Inbox, rather than showing all new messages.

Gmail Priority Inbox has its tradeoffs, and in some ways makes Gmail more difficult to use. But the gains are much more important. Overall, I'm enjoying Priority Inbox, and finding it to be a vast productivity improvement.

Mitch Wagner

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is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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